Many Canadians know Asterix as a pint-size comic book warrior with a fondness for wild boar and thumping Roman soldiers. The MV Asterix, on the other hand, is a hulking German-built container ship.
Now Asterix, the ship, is about to get an important new mission: keeping the Royal Canadian Navy afloat. The Liberal government confirmed last week that it would proceed with a sole-source contract with Quebec City's Davie shipyard to convert the MV Asterix into a navy supply vessel by 2017 – a controversial deal signed by the Conservatives days before this summer's election call.
The ship conversion, dubbed Project Resolve, is an acknowledged stop-gap measure – a temporary half solution to the government's failure to provide timely replacements for its two 1960s-vintage supply ships that were removed from service last year. One of those, the HMCS Protecteur, caught fire during exercises in the Pacific Ocean in early 2014 and was rescued off Hawaii by the U.S. Navy.
Since then, the Canadian navy has endured the indignity of relying on foreign supply vessels to keep its fleet of frigates at sea, limiting what the ships can do both at home and on international missions.
Leasing the converted MV Asterix, at a cost of up to $587-million, is "the most viable course of action" to fuel and support Canada's fleet of 12 frigates and other vessels, the government said in a statement. The Liberals had initially put the deal on hold, concerned the contract was granted without competitive bids. But cancelling the deal would have cost nearly $90-million.
It is the latest chapter in the sad saga of delays, cost overruns, pork-barrel politics and bailouts that have marked too many big military purchases in Canada.
It's not as if no one saw this coming. Former prime minister Paul Martin ordered that the vital ships be replaced more than a decade ago. The Conservatives announced a plan to replace the ships in 2006, only to halt the project when bids came in significantly above budget.
The Conservative government had chosen Seaspan ULC in Vancouver to eventually build two permanent support ships, at a cost of roughly $2.6-billion. Construction still hasn't begun, and as the months go by, the cost of the ships could grow.
Delivery of the vessels is now not slated until 2020 and late 2021, respectively, or at least 15 years after the government first said it needed new ones.
That's like waiting years after the last shingle on your leaky house has shrivelled up and blown away before ordering a new roof.
It wouldn't be such a tragedy if the pattern was restricted to the supply ship replacement project. But it's become the M.O. for too many major military procurement programs in Canada, under successive Liberal and Conservative governments.
The new supply ships are part of a massive $34-billion rebuild of the navy and coast guard, announced by the Conservatives in 2011. It too is moving ahead at the speed of a dingy. Already, the navy is warning that the cost of the various purchases could swell to more than $40-billion.
Big-ticket purchases of search-and-rescue aircraft, next-generation fighter jets, Arctic patrol ships, a major icebreaker and maritime helicopters have also been hit by delays and soaring costs.
Military experts blame the current ship problems on Ottawa trying to do too much, all at once, after years of neglect. The result is that the government had little experience across various ministries in the complex business of planning, designing and acquiring modern military hardware.
At the same time, the capacity of domestic shipyards and other military suppliers to deliver also dwindled during the lean years. They have had to ramp up capacity and expertise.
There is also the trade-off between buying off-the-shelf, battle-tested equipment and custom building something in Canada to the exact specs the military wants. The first option is often cheaper and involves a lot less risk, but it offers none of the tantalizing jobs and economic spinoffs governments can sprinkle about the land, often just prior to elections.
The lessons of the past, it seems, have not been learned.
The saga of the navy supply ships could have been plagiarized from accounts of the navy's troubled purchase of frigates in the 1980s. It too faced delays, unexpected costs, technical problems and fights between shipyards in different provinces for the spoils.