The well publicized engine room fire of HMCS Protecteur provides a graphic illustration of the predicament facing Canada’s Navy with only 2 AOR’s available to the fleet. The engine room fire that disabled HMCS Protecteur reduced the AOR strength to a single vessel. Obviously a concern given the RCN’s far-flung responsibilities, it was made catastrophically worse when the decision was made to also divest HMCS Preserver, the sole remaining AOR. The ships were both old, designed to an obsolete standard, and facing severe limitations in where they might travel in a world increasingly concerned by the risks of an oil spill from a single-hulled tanker.
The Royal Canadian Navy now faces 3 oceans of responsibility and no AOR’s to service those oceans. Add in Canada’s global responsibilities and it is quite obvious that something has to give. We can easily imagine a situation whereby one of the new Queenston-class vessels is in dock for refit or repairs while our only other AOR is deployed. Flexibility is lost, so too might be the needed assets to provide aid such as has been the norm past disaster relief operations. Operation Hestia in Haiti showed the limitations of having no AOR to form the backbone of an RCN aid package. The surface combatant crews have done, and will do, their very best to make us proud in such roles… but the ships lack the cargo capacity needed to truly meet the needs of a disaster area. The Typhoon ravaged island nation Vanuatu, and Canada’s lack of a vessel that can offer significant aid offers a poignant reminder that we can never know when Canada’s Fleet may be called to action, or in what role.
One solution to permanently cure the two-AOR dilemma would be for the Government to authorize, and fund, a third class member in the new AOR family. This would provide for the predictable temporary losses of one AOR due to refits or operational needs. Given the funding woes of acquiring only two new AOR’s we can easily believe that funding will not be forthcoming for a third example.
Berlin-class AOR, the basis for the new Queenston-class for the RCN
Given that we can safely assume that no third AOR is forthcoming, how do we resolve the dilemma?
The only perfect solution is a third AOR, but there is a “Good Enough” solution to be found. Strangely, that “Good Enough” solution fulfills not only the AOR role (in a limited fashion), but can also fulfill the Navy’s wish for a “Big Honkin’ Ship” (in a limited fashion).
The solution comes in the form the US Navy’s Afloat Forward Staging Base or AFSB. The AFSB concept calls for a mercantile hull to be converted into a floating storage and operating base which can be positioned world-wide upon demand. The US Navy has chosen the route of custom building the “converted” hull in the desired form, but Canada needs to take a cheaper option. That cheaper option is the acquisition of a suitable mercantile hull and then converting it. Canada’s need to take this route is predicated on two factors, money and building slip space.
Money is obviously a factor, and custom construction is always more expensive. Add in that as a “new build” that vessel would be competing with the existing AORs and the new CCGS icebreaker. Canada can ill afford to have delays or expensive acquisitions, so how do we proceed?
Canada should purchase a suitable mercantile hull from an overseas yard that is experienced and setup to rapidly build the base hull. Once delivered, that hull could then go to any Canadian shipyard for its refit and conversion. This effectively takes it out of the NSPS slipstream that governs building space and scheduling. Canadian yards may argue that they are fully capable of building the base hull, but there are foreign yards that are building suitable hulls in job lots and with accelerated delivery. There is every reason to believe that some of those foreign yards could deliver a base hull before a Canadian yard could even get a keel laid.
For want of a Seahorse
For the hypothetical Canadian AFSB the Grontmij Seahorse 41 double hull bulk carrier has been chosen. The Seahorse 41 is a modern fuel-efficient double hull vessel that is proving quite popular in mercantile shipping lines. Built to PANAMAX dimensions, the vessels is able to dock at most major ports with ease and to transit the Panama Canal when required. The type is also capable of optionally being ice-hardened to a Polar Class 1C rating for utility in Canada’s North.
As a bulk carrier, we can safely assume the type’s ability to fulfill the cargo role of the AOR. For underway replenishment the AFSB would be fitted with an Astern Refueling Rig, and utilize the alongside Crane Rig. This limits the type to a single standard underway replenishment at any given time, but it is underway replenishment.
Hypothetical Seahorse 41-based AFSB
The image above shows a possible configuration for the hypothetical Canadian AFSB. Depicted with an astern refuelling rig, Crane Rig alongside stations and fitted with a large helicopter deck/facilities. This offers great flexibility.
For the AFSB conversion a raised multi-spot helicopter deck is added forward. Hangarage is provided below this deck with a port side elevator for access. Shop spaces for helicopter maintenance are also accommodated. Stores of spares/POL are contained in the two cargo holds capped by the hangar/flight deck conversion.
The centre hull is pure cargo carrying, featuring high-capacity cranes and two full cargo holds to be utilized below decks. The on deck spaces are suitable for containers, 3 layers deep. At least 24 40’ containers, and a similar number of 20’ containers can be accommodated.
Right aft the type has been fitted with an extended accommodation block to provide space for hospital and C4I spaces. Below the accommodation block (aft) are the engine spaces and fuel tankage for own-ship consumption. Under the forward edge of the accommodation block the hold in that location has been converted to a combination of habitability/storage for dry stores. At the bottom of this cargo hold are tanks for grey and black water storage, sized for the greater passenger carrying capacity.
Fuel tankage for the AOR role would be fitted by raising the bottom of the cargo holds aft, and by converting some ballast water tanks for tankage. Additional tankage could be added as ‘modules’, fitted to the two centre cargo holds as required. This is the reason that a Bulk Carrier was chosen rather than starting with a Tanker. It is infinitely easier to add tankage to a Bulk Carrier than it is to add cargo to a Tanker. In the AOR role the control station would be fitted to the same area normally used by containers. Conversion from an optimized AFSB role to optimized AOR and back is a shipyard task. Using modular fittings it should not be overwhelmingly difficult or time consuming.
So how would a Canadian AFSB fit into the Canada First Defence Policy?
- Conduct daily domestic and continental operations, including in the Arctic and through NORAD: The AFSB would provide deployed support to Northern Sovereignty and Northern Training Missions by provision of mobile temporary basing facilities that are ice-hardened (Class 1C). Significant impact the welfare of Northern communities can be realized by bringing “Southern” infrastructure right to the Arctic shoreline.
- Support a major international event in Canada, such as the 2010 Winter Olympics
- Respond to a major terrorist attack
- Support civilian authorities during a crisis in Canada such as a natural disaster: Provide deployable Basing infrastructure in support of assigned military forces. Lowers kinetic impact on the deployment area by being essentially self-contained, even with large military forces attached. Significant Hospital capacity and a large organic air capability (in final fit configuration). Large transport capability allows bringing significant amounts of supplies. In the event of a major shipping or air disaster in Canada’s Arctic, the ice-hardened hull and multi-role capability may be essential in recovery efforts and in mitigating environmental damage.
- Lead and/or conduct a major international operation for an extended period: Provision of significant support to Canadian, or Allied, forces in a secure basing facility. Can be easily configured to support SOF forces, including SOF helicopter contingents. Can provided “mothership” capabilities to smaller vessels. Modular nature means it can be configured as a “Joint Force” headquarters, eschewing all transport functions. This may be particularly useful in situations where the political situation requires that the US be one of the Coalition, but not the assumed leader.
- Deploy forces in response to crises elsewhere in the world for shorter periods: Significant Hospital spaces and a large organic air capability (in final fit configuration) are extremely beneficial in crisis response. The large cargo complement which can include vehicles or landing craft as deck cargo ensures flexibility. The LCVP mk5 has a maximum weight of about 25 tons, and should be possible to carry as deck cargo. Even extended over the side that crane should have the capacity to load/offload an unladen LCVP. In final fit form, with two organic LCVP, it should be able to carry and deploy another four. Six LCVP is a significant force capable of landing a substantial amount of cargo/personnel rapidly. The modular nature means that a “DART” module can be built/configured to allow the deployed DART team to have even greater resources in disaster relief operations. Again, this significant force applies little, or no, kinetic load on the areas of deployment. It should also be possible to build a rather simple barge that can be carried as deck cargo and offloaded by the crane. That barge would be towed by the organic LCVP and be capable of landing cargo weights far in excess of what an LCVP can handle. Essentially, anything the crane can load on the barge can be shipped to shore. The barge can also form a floating temporary jetty.
It is in Northern Sovereignty Missions that the AFSB would excel. One can easily imagine the AFSB “parked” at Nanisivik during the construction phase, assisting in the conversion of that facility (and acting in its stead in the mean time). Once the facility is ready, the AFSB becomes the perfect resupply transport to support Nanisivik. Environmental concerns in the Arctic forbid the dumping of “grey” or “black” water tanks by shipping. The AFSB can support the AOPS operations by providing a storage facility for such waste water, and then by being the vessel that “ducks” out of the Arctic Ocean to refuel, dump grey/black water tanks etc… This allows AOPS to continue patrols without being taken off station.
The potential impact that an AFSB could make during a shipping/aviation accident is almost impossible to overstate. AFSB would carry a hospital larger than many in the North, can deploy a helicopter/UAV force in close proximity to search/recovery efforts and carry the personnel and supplies essential to recovery efforts. The support given by AFSB might be the difference between a successful cleanup and an environmental disaster.
Nay-sayers will point out that the design and conversion process would likely require extended periods of time. Full conversion however need not be the immediate goal. The Seahorse can carry out its essential missions with minimal conversion. We need only fit the extra tankage, a modular hospital and a bare-bones flying deck to provide interim capability. Once the second new AOR is in the water and joined the fleet, we send our ALSB back to the yards for its full conversion. Indeed, it is entirely possible that using modular construction techniques that the conversion process can effectively start even while the interim configuration is still at sea. Work can begin on the larger accommodation block in order to have it waiting for installation was the ship is available.
Perhaps the greatest handicap of the vessel chosen for this example is speed. The Seahorse 41 is rather slow, topping out at a paltry 15 knots. The point here though wasn’t to say “convert a Seahorse”. The point was to highlight the possibilities afforded by adding a vessel such as an AFSB to the RCN.
Once the full conversion has taken place Canada would have at its disposal a vessel which is ideally suited to the annual Northern resupply mission, disaster relief, support of Canadian missions abroad… or standing in for a missing AOR in time of need.