Royal Canadian Navy testing reduced crew sizes on frigates

HMCS Toronto heads to the Arabian Sea as part of Operation Artemis, in Halifax on Monday, Jan.14, 2013.
HMCS Toronto heads to the Arabian Sea as part of Operation Artemis, in Halifax on Monday, Jan.14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

OTTAWA – Defence planners hope “X” marks the spot for the sailor-strained Royal Canadian Navy as the military has embarked on a set of experiments aboard existing frigates aimed at reducing crew sizes on its future warships.

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman has designated the Halifax-based frigate HMCS Montreal as a so-called “X-ship,” which for the next few years will experiment in what’s being described as innovative concepts and procedures for ships’ companies.

The idea is to prepare the navy for both the new Arctic offshore patrol ships and eventually the replacements for country’s patrol frigates, both of which will have smaller crews than the navy traditionally deploys.

READ MORE: Ottawa facing decisions on frigate replacements for navy

The level of automation on the new ships will allow defence planners to make the reduction, but Norman says it means assuming a level of risk and potentially reduces the flexibility of what the warship can do on operations.

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But it is also an important cost consideration as the navy plans for the nominally designated Canadian Surface Combatants, which are to begin replacing the 1990s vintage patrol frigates in the early 2020s.

“We like to get cranked up about how much the ships cost,” Norman told a defence conference hosted by the MacKenzie Institute this week., (But) arguably over the 50 year life of the platform – if that’s what you’re planning for, but (ideally) let’s plan for 35 or 40 – the most expensive component of that ship is the crew.”

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The average crew size of one of the existing patrol frigates is roughly 225.

The jaw-dropping price tag of the frigate replacements gives the exercise added weight.

Some internal estimates at National Defence put the total investment in 15 warships – over 30 years – to be in the range of $104 billion, including the purchase price and the full operating cost, including crew.

READ MORE: Ottawa may soon approve, make a down payment on $104B navy frigate replacement program

The Trudeau government will soon be asked to approve the strategic plan for acquiring the ships and to put some seed money into the preparations. It has also taken some preliminary steps to bringing down the cost by mandating builders go with an existing warship design and combining two procurement plans into one.

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The experiment also comes at a time when the navy has already gotten smaller.

In 2009, the fleet was short 954 sailors out of a total complement of 8,541 regular force personnel.

Officials at defence headquarters pointed to 2012-13 federal budget reports which show the navy’s total strength at 7,888, but wouldn’t say on Thursday how many of those postings were unfilled.

During his speech, Norman also didn’t say how many vacancies there might be.

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“The organizational structure of the navy has shrunk significantly over the last decade and it is very, very fragile,” he said.

But it’s a give-in the new ships will have fewer bodies, Norman added.

“The crew of the surface combatant will be smaller than the crew of the (existing) Iroquois class (destroyers) and Halifax class (frigates) that it’s replacing,” he said. “The ship itself will be bigger. The systems will be more complex.”

Discussions are still ongoing about how much smaller the crew of the frigate replacements will be, he added.

Data on the feasibility will be gathered through the long-term experiments run by the Montreal, and its sister ship HMCS Fredericton, which is running its own, smaller short-term trials while deployed with NATO’s standing task force as part of Operation Reassurance.

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The concept, according to Norman, involves using a core crew and mission crew. The core crew is needed to operate the ship; a separate mission crew is embarked depending on the tasks the warship is assigned.

“We’re – in essence – splitting the crew,” he said.

“The core crew is smaller and in essence you can customize the mission crew depending on what you want to do. That introduces a great deal of flexibility in terms of how we operate the ship.”

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