Against a backdrop of political intrigue, the Royal Canadian Navy officially welcomed its newest vessel to the fleet during a ceremony Tuesday at Her Majesty’s Canadian Dockyard in Halifax.
The Motor Vessel (MV) Asterix, a former civilian container ship, was extensively reconfigured by Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding to serve as an interim resupply vessel while the navy awaits construction of two military replacements.
The ship gained notoriety in early 2017 after court documents showed the RCMP suspected Vice-Admiral Mark Norman of leaking secret documents to Davie over fears the Liberal government would cancel the project.
Norman remains suspended, but he has not been charged with any crime and has denied wrongdoing.
Resupply vessels are considered critical for conducting naval operations around the world. Not only do they carry fuel and food supplies for naval task groups, but they also have medical and maintenance facilities on board.
The previous Conservative government awarded Davie a $700-million contract for the Asterix conversion in 2015.
The converted ship will be commanded by a civilian and managed by Federal Fleet Services Inc., a Davie sister company, as part of a five-year contract, which can be extended.
However, members of the Royal Canadian Navy and other military personnel will also serve aboard the vessel. They will perform specific military functions, including refuelling and resupplying navy vessels at sea.
Last month, a senior officer confirmed Asterix has some limitations – notably that it can’t sail into harm’s way.
Commodore Craig Skjerpen, commander of Canada’s Atlantic Fleet, said Asterix isn’t a true military vessel, which is why it won’t be allowed to operate in dangerous environments.
But Spencer Fraser of Federal Fleet Services has said the ship has “a robust force protection capability.”
“So to say the ship is defenceless is a complete exaggeration and misnomer,” he said.
Skjerpen said the ship is badly needed because the navy lost both of its replenishment ships – HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver – in 2014, well ahead of their anticipated retirement dates.
Two Protecteur-class navy resupply vessels are to be built by Vancouver-based Seaspan Shipyards at a cost of $4.1-billion. But Ottawa has said the first ship won’t be delivered until 2022.
The Asterix, officially known as an Interim Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment vessel, was to have about 45 navy sailors in charge of resupply and helicopter operations, while the captain and 30 crew members are all civilians, Skjerpen said.
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The ship steamed from the Davie shipyards near Quebec City and berthed at a Halifax pier in late December.
The company has said it would be willing to sell the vessel to the federal government, and is pushing for a contract for a second supply vessel, the MV Obelix, which would also be built at the Davie shipyards.
In December, the company said the failure to land such a contract would put more than 1,300 jobs at risk.
The Liberal government’s defence policy, released in June 2017, promised a navy capable of deploying and sustaining two naval task groups, each composed of up to four warships and a resupply vessel.
Such a fleet, the policy said, would let Canada contribute to any international mission “while assuring the ability to monitor our own ocean estate and contribute to the security of North America.”
The navy had initially asked for three replenishment ships.