OTTAWA - The redesign of the navy's new generation of supply ships is completed, but it will still be next year before the Conservative government is ready to talk to industry about building them.
Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, the head of the navy, said he is waiting on design and cost-estimate approval from the defence minister, which he was hoping to get by month's end.
The process to replace the navy's two existing 1960s-vintage replenishment ships with three brand-new, multi-purpose vessels was scuttled last summer when industry bids came in way above the Conservative government's $2.9-billion budget.
Critics within the defence industry have complained that the navy was trying to pack too much into the ships for the amount of money Ottawa was willing to spend.
The navy wanted the vessels to be able to resupply warships at sea, carry army equipment, as well as act as a floating headquarters and hospital ship during amphibious operations.
The failure of the process sent the navy back to the drawing board.
"This is a big problem for us to come to grips with. We need to be very innovative in how we do that," McFadden said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
He said he's happy with the redesign and is confident the navy is "in a position to deliver an extremely capable" supply ship.
McFadden, who took over the navy's top job last summer, wouldn't say what elements might have been sacrificed to keep the project within budget.
"We needed to find a way to satisfy essential requirements; be as draconian as we possibly can to bring this into reality," he said. "There is a limited amount of funds available for this process at this time."
Testifying before the Senate defence committee last spring, the assistant deputy minister of materiel said that a request for proposals for three new joint support ships likely won't be issued until next year, and it will take another five to six years before the first one is delivered to the fleet.
The two existing supply ships - HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver - are both nearly at the end of their life expectancy and have required major overhauls to stay in service.
There has been speculation within defence circles that the navy would be forced to buy different ships to fulfil the various roles - rather than build one hugely expensive vessel that does it all.
But McFadden virtually ruled it out.
"I think it would be a mistake for this country to go to specialized, niche-market ships," he said.
"Bigger navies have the luxury of having specialized ships."
The cost of maintaining and crewing different ships is prohibitive in the Canadian navy, he said.