A re-elected Conservative government could end up approving the construction of as few as 11 warships to replace the navy's frigates, despite committing to 15 combat vessels under their marquee defence strategy.
Conservative candidate Jason Kenney, the defence minister, offered that update on Friday at a Nova Scotia shipyard, which is now cutting steel on the government's long-promised Arctic offshore patrol ships.
Once those light icebreakers are completed, Irving Shipbuilding — the federal government's go-to contractor for combat vessels — is expected to begin construction of the more technically complex Canadian surface combatant ships, which are intended to replace not only the existing frigates but also the navy's command-and-control destroyers.
The government intends to build between 11 and 15 frigate replacements and the final number will depend on technology and cost, Kenney said.
"We are going to have make choices that trade-off the number of vessels and the expense of the technology we load on to them," he said during a question-and answer-session with reporters.
"Those latter vessels are going to be built well into the 2020s. Should the government at that point need to adjust the budget to accommodate for inflation and technology costs, I'm sure the government will do so. Right now, this is the prudent strategy."
How many warships the federal government is willing to build has been a source of uncertainty and some anxiety in Halifax, which sees the shipyard program as an economic boon.
The Conservative's Canada First defence strategy, introduced in 2008, calls for 15 warships, but over the last few years the phrase "up to 15" has crept into government statements and speeches.
"There is an absolute degree of uncertainty about the numbers," said Dave Perry, a defence analyst with the Global Affairs Institute.
That was evident last month when National Defence went to great lengths to discount a CTV News report that suggested the frigate replacements were at "very high risk" of running over budget, falling behind schedule and delivering inadequate capabilities.
The Liberals have promised to drop the F-35 fighter-jet program and pour the savings from a less expensive aircraft into new navy vessels.
In Halifax, Kenney defended the overall planned shipbuilding investment, saying people counting on the contract shouldn't look at the glass as half full. "Our budget continues to be $36.6 billion. That's hardly cheaping out."
He dismissed any sense of urgency, saying decisions on the frigate replacements would "15 to 20 years down the road," and preferred to hold up the Arctic patrol ships as a sign of the government's success.
In fact, a lot of preparation has gone into synchronizing the transition between the end of the patrol ship program in 2022 and the beginning of the frigate replacements — meaning decisions on contracts and the potential number of ships will need to happen within the next five to seven years.
Perry said buying fewer than 15 combat ships would force tough choices on the navy in terms of how, where and when it can deploy.
"If we are talking about a future fleet that's smaller, we'll need vessels that have significantly high availability — or we're not going to have a navy that can deploy as much as it did in the last 20 years," he said.
A series of briefing notes, slide presentations and reports, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation, show it was a tortured path for the Conservatives to get the Arctic ships under contract with Irving.
There was considerable uncertainty about the number that would be built in the run-up to the contract signing.
Irving Shipbuilding "has yet to commit to (the) number of ships if no budget increase is approved," said an Aug. 26 briefing to the deputy defence minister.
Federal officials knew as far back as the fall of 2013 that they couldn't afford to build six Arctic ships, as promised, because delays and inflation had robbed them as much as $300 million in purchasing power and that the overall program was short up to $455.3 million.
"Without a top-up, (the) project will be unable to enter into (a) contract that is currently being negotiated," said an Aug. 21, 2014 slide presentation from the project office.
At one point, the project organizers looked at cutting the number of ships to four. In the end, they settled on five ships, but set out financial incentives for Irving to build the promised sixth ship if budget permitted.