Canada’s Kingston-class Jack-of-all-Trades Vessels

Perrin Beatty

Perrin Beatty in his current role as CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce

Canadian naval historian Marc Milner says the need for the ships that became the HMCS Kingston-class vessels was identified in the 1970s — the Navy wanted to re-establish its minesweeping capabilities and provide training to reservists — but the order to build what would become the MCDVs didn’t materialize until 1987, under Brian Mulroney’s defense minister (his third), Perrin Beatty.

A Macleans article from June 1987 describes the very moment Beatty realized something needed to be done about Canada’s military hardware:

Last October, Defence Minister Perrin Beatty found himself standing on the narrow matte black hull of one of Canada’s 20-year-old Canadian submarines off the coast of Nova Scotia. He had only been in the job three months as he stood on the sub’s foredeck, looking out at the grey-green Atlantic as an outmoded Sea King antisubmarine helicopter lumbered overhead. Only weeks before, Beatty had denounced the choppers as obsolete equipment which should be replaced. Now he waited as one of the aircraft prepared to winch him into the air in a doughnut-shaped sling and transfer him to HMCS Ottawa, a destroyer that had celebrated its 30th birthday that summer. As Beatty told Maclean’s last week after presenting his defence white paper to Parliament: “That kind of experience really focuses your attention.”

(Really, all that’s missing is a hail of grapeshot or some flaming arrows.)

Beatty, whose military experience consisted of “a compulsory stint in the Upper Canada College Cadet Corps,” went home and drafted a White Paper with a title like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (“Total Force”) that signaled the government’s readiness to:

…build a fleet of nuclear submarines, develop and deploy a surveillance satellite in space, juggle NATO commitments in Western Europe and purchase new planes, ships and tanks.

The estimated cost of the new equipment was $200 billion, which Beatty, according to “one senior government official,” felt was worth it to get “the war machine back in shape.”

Delta II class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), 26 Oct 1983. US Navy photo.

Delta II class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), 26 Oct 1983. US Navy photo.

The funniest lines in this (I presume) unintentionally funny article have to be those describing the military’s response to Beatty’s proposals:

The Conservative government had promised an early defence review during the 1984 election campaign. But the project languished under two defence ministers until Beatty, 37, assumed the post last June. The new minister set to work quickly—one official said that he junked “drawers full” of early drafts of the paper. Last week, military officers declared themselves delighted with the results. Said Gen. Paul Manson, chief of defence staff: “I can’t think of a single recommendation of the department that has not been brought into the white paper.”

That’s your 12 nuclear submarines explained, then.

Beatty used the specter of Russian and American nuclear subs lurking under the Arctic ice as the excuse for much of this excess, but announcing a Cold War-inspired defense plan in 1987 was like announcing a plan to liberate France in 1955: Gorbachev had been in power in the USSR since 1985; the Soviet Union was four years away from dissolution.

And as you have probably guessed, given that Canada does not have a fleet of nuclear submarines, most of Beatty’s, in the words of retired Admiral Robert Falls, “Rambo type of strategy” was ultimately abandoned, although his call for a “flotilla of 30 minor warships, including Canada’s first batch of minesweepers since the early 1960s” (estimated cost: $600 million) would survive, albeit, in a modified form.



The White Paper argued these “minor warships” were necessary because “maritime forces have too few operational vessels, very limited capacity to operate in the Arctic and no capability to keep Canadian waterways and harbours clear of mines.”

But instead of getting a variety of vessels, some dedicated to offshore patrol, some to minesweeping and some to patrolling the Arctic, Beatty got 12 hybrid vessels, expected to serve multiple purposes.

In a 2019 briefing note on the MCDV, the Naval Association of Canada acknowledged the “versatility” of the Kingston-class vessels before launching into a litany of their shortcomings. As minesweepers they were “compromise builds”:

Their propulsion systems were designed to reduce their acoustic signatures to defend against acoustic mines, however their hulls are made of steel rather than the wood or fiberglass that modern minesweepers often use to avoid magnetic mines.

MCDV under constuction -- DND photo

MCDV under constuction — DND photo

Moreover, post-Cold War, minesweeping capacity was not really needed, the “necessary minesweeping equipment” was “no longer available,” and the capability was “now largely theoretical,” anyway.

As patrol ships, the Kingston-class vessels “are fairly slow, capable of only 15 knots (28 km/h) maximum continuous speed, and a range of 9,000 km.” Their hulls made them unsuitable for use in the Arctic and problematic even in rough waters.

The Naval Association put the blame for these shortcomings not on the ships’ designers, but on the Navy, which:

…chose to combine minesweeping and patrol functions in a single class of vessel, thus compromising the speed of a patrol ship for the function of a minesweeper. It also reduced the ships’ costs by using inexpensive low carbon steel and building to commercial rather than military standards. Lastly, to reduce costs they were built with a shorter hull, which has had an impact on both seakeeping and speed.

In a 2013 paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (called “Titanic Blunder”), Michael Byers and Stewart Webb elaborate on these problems:

Mild (i.e., soft, low-carbon) steel was used to reduce costs and displacement, but the MCDVs then proved to be top-heavy, which meant that ballast had to be added, and that non-structural steel had to be removed from the bridge.

The light displacement of the vessels and their consequent instability makes them unsuitable for open-ocean and overseas deployments. The Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence (SSCNSD) reported in 2007 that “Crews become seasick when these vessels are stationed off the Grand Banks for more than a few hours.” According to documents obtained by the Journal de Montréal via an access-to-information request in 2006, the ship’s movements are excessive even in “moderate seas,” causing crew fatigue and increasing tensions on the machinery and superstructure.

But critics also pointed to an attitude problem on the part of the Navy itself, which was accused of considering “constabulary duties” (policing polluters and illegal fishers and the like) beneath it — or better suited to naval reservists and the Coast Guard. As a 2007 opinion piece in the Canadian Naval Review put it:

[T]he navy must recognize that constabulary duties are a core capability/responsibility. A larger patrol vessel has long been an urgent national requirement, but the navy resisted this for fear of the association with the dreaded ‘Tin Pot Navy’ of the past that comes with any assumption of constabulary duties. Since its inception, the navy has been focused on high-end combat capability that can only find application in fleet engagement and expeditionary operations in foreign theatres of operation. What its leadership fails to understand is that these capabilities constitute only a small part of the full spectrum of naval requirements and that such combat occurs only rarely. The Canadian government and the public, meanwhile, remain unconvinced of the navy’s dogmatic retention of Cold War attitudes and force structure goals.

And I thought retaining Cold War attitudes in 1987 was bad.


Thank Bob Mustard

In the course of my research, I ran across a 2007 interview with one Bob Mustard, a retired Canadian naval commander who went on to work for Thomson CSF (a French defense electronics firm with a really complicated history that is now known as Thales) and ended up as project manager on the MCDV project for SNC-Lavalin. He provides a fascinating glimpse into the procurement process from the contractor’s perspective, chronicling his own involvement, which began in 1988:

I was working for Thomson [CSF] and we wanted to be involved in the MCDV program. At that point we thought we had a deal with Davie [Industries ‐Shipyard] and MIL Systems to work with them but senior management changed [in MIL Systems] and they said “not invented here” and didn’t want us anymore. We were left out in the cold looking for somebody to join up with. Our lords and masters in France ‐- I am talking about Thomson now ‐- decided that they would like us to go with a French company and of course this meant trying to get onboard with Lavalin. To make a long story short, we did go with Lavalin and went to Toronto and spent many weeks there helping them put their answer together for the RFP (Request for Proposal) for the MCDV’s.

Maritime Coastal Defence Vessel (MCDV)

MCDV moving closer to launch – DND photo.

The story Mustard tells has everything: political interference (the “big boys” wanted to spread the work over multiple shipyards), bankruptcy (Lavalin went belly up as they were awaiting a decision on the bids and was taken over in 1992 by another Quebec-based engineering firm, Surveyer, Nenniger and Chênevert or SNC), even health scares (Mustard had a heart attack “just to have more fun” during the same period).

SNC Lavalin (which Mustard said had not previously competed for defense contracts, other than for “ammunition”) won the MCDV contract in 1992, after completing $12 million worth of Preliminary Definition (PD) work, and opted to have Halifax Dartmouth Industries Ltd (HDIL) build the vessels but between the time the contract was awarded and the work started, Irving/St. John Shipbuilding bought HDIL and renamed it Halifax Shipyard Limited. (I read that in 1993, when it began work on the first of the vessels, the HMCS Kingston, the Halifax shipyard hadn’t built a ship in 32 years.)

It’s worth reading the entire Mustard interview (although I would love to read a countervailing one with someone on the government side of the process), but I will include a few excerpts to give you the flavor. Mustard explains that part of the PD work involved providing government with an estimate:

…as to what it would cost to meet all the things they would like in the RFP. We delivered that and although the program was a seven hundred and fifty million dollar program, to meet everything they wanted was a two billion dollar program.

Mustard said the government told them they had $750 million and it was up to them how to make it work, which meant some things had to be sacrificed — although there was at least one sacrifice he was not prepared to make:

One of [the] things that supposedly you were allowed to not put on the ship was a gun, but after having spent 32 years in the Navy I was not going to produce a warship that didn’t have at least a gun on the front, albeit a 40mm gun, so you can thank Bob Mustard that there was a gun on that ship.

In 2019, the Naval Association of Canada would describe the Kingston-class armaments (or “modular payloads” in defense-contractor speak) this way:

As warships, the Kingston-class was initially equipped with light armament. This included a Bofors 40 mm Model 60 Mk 5C rapid fire gun mounted on the forecastle deck and two 12.7 mm (.50 calibre) machine guns. The Bofors gun was a Second World War design which needed to be manually loaded and lacked any modern targeting capability. In 2014 it was judged obsolete and removed from the ships, and the vessels currently rely on their machine guns for defence.

Single Bofors 40 mm Boffin mounting, displayed at CFB Borden.

Single Bofors 40 mm Boffin mounting, displayed at CFB Borden. In 1996 museum pieces like this cannon were pressed back into service to serve as the main armament of the Kingston-class minesweepers. (Photo by Balcer~commonswiki / CC BY-SA via Wikipedia.)

Mustard also dishes on the lengths to which defense contractors will go to get around Canadian content rules:

Another thing that we had to do in the contract was to provide eighty five percent Canadian content which we achieved. Although a funny story about the Canadian content is the propulsion system, which came from France. The reason it came from France was there was some pressure brought to bear from Government agencies. Anyway these propulsion system diesels and generators had couplings that had rubbers in the couplings and in the guise of Canadian content these rubbers were contracted to a company in Toronto and one of my lighter moments in this program is driving down the 401 [highway] seeing a truck with this company’s logo on the side underneath saying they are the proud makers of condoms. Which I found rather amusing and I will let you make your own jokes about that.

And that ballast issue mentioned by Byers and Webb? Mustard offers the inside scoop on it:

The contract stated you should just use ballast [rather than some other method to adjust ship’s trim] so the shipyard came up with a scheme that said “well we can use cement” and they were about ready to pour cement when the Crown thought, well this isn’t too good. So we agreed we would put in water ballast, and we did put in water ballast and that was okay. We were about to deliver the second ship, we’d already delivered the first ship, unfortunately somebody turned the wrong valve in the first ship which was now in the government possession, pumped all the water out and the ship was running around with no ballast and was quite unstable so the powers that be in the Crown said “my god we can’t have water ballast because this is unsafe,” so we went ahead and found some lead pigs with handles on it and everything else that we could put in. And we thought we would get away with lead. Unfortunately somebody in a senior position in the Crown said “well it was his experience that earlier on in life sailors got into those compartments stole the lead for fishing sinkers and so he wasn’t going to have lead on his ships. So we ended up putting steel ballast in which was a regular pain and I’ll leave it at that.

Despite all of this, Mustard said he felt the MCDV was “one of the more successful projects” he’d ever seen. It came in “on-schedule, or ahead of, on-costs and we gave the government what it wanted.” The only annoying thing, he said, is that:

…ten years after the fact people who don’t know any better write in newspaper articles that the ship can’t do this or can’t do that, not understanding that it was never a requirement. Although we might have tried to get the requirement, the Government at the time said “not enough money” and so we gave them what they asked for.

Now the government is asking that the working lives of the MCDVs be extended another five years — I wonder what Mustard would make of that?