Delivering the new Protecteur-Class to the Royal Canadian Navy

May 23, 2024

This article originally appeared in the Naval Association of Canada – Ottawa’s Soundings Magazine, Spring Edition

Eighty years ago, if you were to look down the shoreline from where Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards currently sit, you would have seen a flurry of non-stop activity by shipbuilders on the North Shore who were kept busy throughout the war effort to replenish the Allied fleet of merchant ships — critical for carrying supplies and equipment to the theatres of war in Europe and Asia. Fast forward to today, and supply ships for the Armed Forces are once again being built in North Vancouver at Vancouver Shipyards.

Shipbuilding in North Vancouver

Shipyards on the North Shore produced close to half of Canada’s total output of vessels during wartime and helped elevate the industrial waterfront into one known for its shipbuilding prowess. Today, the maritime influence on the region remains. Where Victory Ships were once being built during WWII, now stands a bustling community of restaurants, retail shops and condos: an area known as “The Shipyards”, where remnants and memorabilia of the wartime shipbuilding boom have been preserved for today’s generations to see and appreciate. Nestled in alongside this new community, is Seaspan’s Vancouver Drydock, where over 200 people perform ship repair and maintenance on a variety of Canadian Coast Guard and commercial vessels.

For a period of time, shipbuilding in British Columbia, and elsewhere across the country, had been forgotten. A country with an abundance of natural resources and industrial capabilities is no stranger to boom & bust cycles – and shipbuilding was no different. Since the 1990s, construction of large vessels in Canada was essentially non-existent. And, just as importantly, gone with it was all of the accompanying knowledge, expertise, and hands-on skills.

Being the country with the longest coastline in the world, not having a strong domestic shipbuilding industry was a recognized concern. It is imperative to Canada’s security and sovereignty that we have a robust domestic shipbuilding and ship repair industry.

While successive governments had occasionally procured vessels for the RCN and CCG in previous decades, they were not successful in re-establishing a Canadian shipbuilding industrial base until – in 2012 – the government implemented the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS), now known as the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS). Although not without hiccups and challenges, Canada and the maritime industry have invested heavily over the last decade in re-building a tremendous sovereign shipbuilding capability. Both Seaspan and our East Coast NSS partner, Irving Shipbuilding, have now delivered and are building large ships for the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Coast Guard within Canada, by Canadians, and with Canadian suppliers. 

Joint Support Ships

Group in front of JSSToday, there are over 1,000 Seaspan employees involved in the construction and development of Joint Support Ship 1 (JSS1), the future HMCS Protecteur; and JSS2, the future HMCS Preserver. Namesakes of the original HMCS Protecteur AOR 509, and HMCS Preserver AOR 510, these new vessels will continue to honour the dedication and sacrifices of the generations of sailors who served aboard the original vessels. Both the original Protecteur and Preserver served in active engagements, including Operation Friction during the 1991 Gulf War, Operation Apollo during the War on Terror, and regional conflicts in Africa and the Arabian Sea; not to mention their many humanitarian deployments, and participation in NATO and allied naval exercises. Like their predecessors, the new JSS1 and JSS2 will continue this role and provide vital fuel, medical support and supplies to RCN and allied vessels.

At 173.7 metres, the new Protecteur and Preserver will be the longest naval vessels ever to be constructed in Canada – about 30% longer than the current Halifax-class frigates.

And no space on these ships is going to waste.  

Along with a maximum complement of 239 personnel, these ships will be able to hold up to 6,875 tonnes of marine diesel and 1,037 tonnes of aviation fuel, enabling a Naval Task Force to stay on missions for extended periods. They will also be equipped with a hangar capable of supporting two CH-148 Cyclones, two dual-purpose (liquid or solids) Replenishment at Sea Stations, an enhanced maritime hospital, two Close-In Weapon Systems, four Naval Remote Weapon Stations, and storage capacity large enough to carry a wide array of supplies for a variety of missions, including armoured and support vehicles, food, water, and other supplies for humanitarian assistance or disaster relief.

As many reading this will know, the design of the Protecteur-Class is based on the German Navy’s Type 702 Berlin-class replenishment ship, first entering into service in 2001, with the final vessel entering service, the updated Bonn-class, in 2013. While the vessel design was mature at the time of its selection for the Royal Canadian Navy, a number of changes are being made to ‘Canadianize’ the JSS variant and to enhance its capabilities. Some of these changes include:

Constructing JSS1 has included many unique and interesting sets of challenges, but I could not be prouder of Seaspan’s team of engineers, designers, and skilled tradespeople who are working hard to deliver these ships to the RCN. We are truly looking forward to the day when they are fully operational with Canada’s Navy. On JSS1, work is continuing to prepare the vessel for launch in late 2024. The vessel reached full length in early 2023, and installation of the ship’s two kingposts, key to the ship’s Replenishment at Sea (RAS) capability, was completed in the fall of 2023 – this marked the ship’s last major structural block installation. Our focus now has shifted internally, where we are rapidly installing cables and piping: over 300km of electrical cable has been installed on the ship, about 50 per cent of the total needed, and more than 70 per cent of the piping has installed so far, with more being added every day.

On JSS2, construction is proceeding at an accelerated pace. We cut steel on this vessel in 2022, and were pleased to hold the ship’s keel laying ceremony in October 2023. To celebrate the occasion, we welcomed members of the Royal Canadian Navy, including Rear-Admiral Steve Waddell, Deputy Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy; Sea Cadets from 354 RCSCC Invincible; the Naden Band; local and federal stakeholders; members of the Squamish Nation; and thousands of our employees based here in North Vancouver.JSS2 block construction and grand-blocking continues at a steady rate as we maintain the positive momentum that we developed through construction of the first JSS, along with other NSS vessels. Currently, over 50% of the JSS2’s blocks are under construction, with the latest significant milestone being the delivery of the ship’s bulbous bow, which was just delivered to the shipyard in January from local BC firm Ideal Welders. In Spring 2024, we will achieve main engine loadout, shortly followed by the start of the main cable pull, for electrical installation, and the erection of the ship’s first ‘superstructure’ block. 

CoinDriving Improvement

Through lessons learned on delivering three vessels to the Coast Guard already – Offshore Fisheries Science Vessels CCGS Sir John Franklin, CCGS Capt Jacques Cartier, and CCGS John Cabot – in addition to efficiencies we have found during the construction of the first Joint Support Ship, we are seeing a marked increase in shipyard productivity on the second JSS. Approximately 40 per cent fewer labour hours were needed to construct the first fifteen blocks of JSS 2 versus the same fifteen blocks on JSS1. When compared to JSS1, progress on the second vessel is moving much more quickly and efficiently, the quality of the installation has improved, and levels of outfitting have increased at similar stages of construction. All this will add up to a smoother construction, launch, and delivery, allowing us to get this ship in the water as soon as we can.

We are achieving significant performance improvements that benefit all of our NSS programs, stemming from three key areas: design and engineering, production, and supply chain. With regards to design and engineering, Seaspan has now built Canada’s largest marine engineering and design team (300+ employees, 700+ total) and have completely transformed how we do ship design and engineering in this country. One example of this is our dedicated innovation team here at Vancouver Shipyards who are constantly exploring new and more efficient ways in which we can build ships for Canada. This includes our new HoloShip platform, which we launched in 2022. The HoloShip platform is an immersive visualization system that allows users to virtually experience a fully detailed, three-dimensional, and accurate digital model of a vessel, using an integrated 5.6-metre-wide display wall and virtual reality headset. Digital twinning of vessels in shipbuilding offers immense potential for efficiency in both construction and maintenance through all phases of a ship’s lifecycle.Automatic welder

In production, we have invested heavily in advanced manufacturing with robotic welding, and cutting-edge fabrication equipment driven directly from a three-dimensional computer-aided design (3D CAD) model. But in the supply chain is possibly where we have made the most strides. We have now established a robust, high-functioning, pan-Canadian supply chain. Across the country, Seaspan has awarded more than $2.4 billion in contracts under our NSS shipbuilding activities alone. More than 700 Canadian companies have been involved in building ships for Canada, with nearly 500 being small and medium-sized businesses. This cross-country supply chain enables more than 70 per cent direct Canadian content on our NSS vessels and allows us to have 98 per cent on-time material availability, which supports efficient production schedules. An abundant and wide ranging Canadian shipbuilding and ship repair industry will also help with regular In-Service Support of the NSS vessels once delivered. 

Designing and constructing first-in-class vessels will always come with considerable challenges. And Seaspan’s book of work under the NSS includes five of them to date: the Joint Support Ship, and four classes of vessels for the Canadian Coast Guard. The non-combat package of work under the NSS has been an incredible opportunity for Canada and for Seaspan, but re-building a moribund industry is no easy feat. Having said that, we are incredibly proud of the improvements that we have made as a shipyard since we cut steel on our first vessel in 2015.

NSS Updates

The Joint Support Ship is the most noticeable ship for anyone who happens to look northward at Vancouver Shipyards from the mainland, but Seaspan is also full steam ahead on the construction of the Canadian Coast Guard’s newest science research vessel, the Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel. This ship will serve with the CCG and will also be the primary oceanographic science platform for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Like JSS1, the OOSV also reached full consolidation in late 2023, and Seaspan is preparing this vessel for launch in mid-2024.

Group in front of ship blockOur production and engineering teams also continue to push forward with preparations for the construction of the Coast Guard’s new Polar Icebreaker, as well as sixteen Multi-Purpose Vessels. We recently completed construction of a prototype block for the Polar Icebreaker program, ensuring that Seaspan has the proper processes, procedures, equipment, and skills necessary to build the first vessel of this kind in Canada in more than 60 years. Steel needed to construct the Polar Icebreaker is twice as thick in some areas as the steel Seaspan has used for the other ships built under the National Shipbuilding Strategy, like the JSS. The thicker steel is not as malleable, therefore constructing this extra Prototype Block prior to starting full-rate construction was crucial for our preparedness. The first six-ship flight of Multi-Purpose Vessels has just passed the Basic Design Review milestone with the Coast Guard, so Seaspan is now moving ahead to the next phase: construction engineering and procuring long-lead items.

But, of course, the National Shipbuilding Strategy is not just about building ships for Canada. The economic spinoffs from a domestic shipbuilding and ship repair industry are immense, as we have seen even in the – relatively – brief period of time since the NSS was first enacted. A new economic study conducted by Deloitte quantifies the benefits delivered to date by Seaspan Shipyards, the largest shipbuilding operation on Canada’s west coast. Seaspan has contributed $5.7 billion to Canada’s GDP, 7,330 annual jobs, $3.8 billion in labour income, and $1.4 billion in government revenues. The study forecasts an additional $20.7 billion to GDP and $5.9 billion in government revenues while sustaining or creating about 11,000 jobs annually and generating more than $13 billion in labour income over the next twelve years.

Even so, it will take a concerted effort by the federal government, and industry, to re-think naval procurement in Canada, because, as we are all aware, the current method of procuring large military expenditures is not fully working. The biggest impediment to innovation in the defence sector is the uncertainty of future programs due to the slow speed and complexity of the procurement processes. And the brave members of the Canadian Armed Forces are the ones who will ultimately suffer because of any uncertainty and indecisiveness. Many suggestions, solutions, and silver bullets have been suggested by those within the Canadian Armed Forces, as well as government and industry, but there needs to be a political will for there to be further positive change. We, as well as my colleagues across the defence sector, are ready and willing to build and deliver the capabilities needed by the Armed Forces, now and in the future. For organizations who are delivering on these programs, where the cost and stakes are tremendous, opportunities for exploring, developing, and implementing new capabilities or technologies are currently hard to come by.  To ensure that the NSS isn’t all for naught, and that we can continue the legacy of shipbuilding that has been rebuilt, we need to continue down the more predictable path that NSS has started.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to construct the future HMC Ships Protecteur and Preserver for those who serve Canada in the Royal Canadian Navy. I am tremendously excited about the huge amount of potential in our workforce at Seaspan. We have relatively quickly developed some of the best and brightest leaders in shipbuilding and they are well prepared to handle the challenge of efficiently and effectively managing the four “first-of-class” programs currently being built by Seaspan under the NSS; as well as any new classes of vessels that we design and construct for Canada in the future. We are looking forward to seeing these vessels sailing on the water and performing missions at home and abroad.