10/26/2012 03:01 EDT | Updated 12/26/2012 05:12 EST

Govt kicks off program to replace the navy's aging frigate, destroyer fleet

OTTAWA - The federal government is taking a first step towards replacing some of the navy's aging ships by calling private companies to a meeting in Gatineau, Que., next month to talk about new vessels.

An invitation posted on a government contract site is aimed at firms offering everything from ship design to systems integration and logistical support.

The Public Works posting says it's the kick-off for the Canadian surface combatant project, a program to replace the navy's 1970s-era destroyers and frigates from the 1990s.

The government says the destroyers, which were refitted in the 1990s as air-defence and command ships, will be the first ships replaced.

The notice reiterates that Irving Shipbuilding Inc., of Halifax, will build the ships and anyone who wants part of the project will have to work with Irving.

A year ago, the government announced that Irving and Seaspan Marine of North Vancouver would get most of a planned $35 billion in multi-decade shipbuilding contracts.

Irving was allotted $25 billion for naval warships, Seaspan was to get $8 billion for government civilian vessels and another $2 billion for smaller vessels wasn't immediately allocated.

The federal government has tried for years to flatten out the boom-and-bust cycles of the shipbuilding industry, which has struggled since the frigate program was completed in the 1990s. The problem was the navy tended to order ships in batches and then use them for four decades or more while the shipyards sat empty.

But the Defence Department has been unable to organize another major build, most notably replacements for the navy's 40-year-old supply vessels. The $2.6 billion Joint Support Ship program has been an on-again, off-again proposition for nearly a decade.

The November meeting will help industry sort out what it can contribute to the surface combatant plan.

"Our intent is that the ships which comprise the CSC will consist of two variants — the first of these being the area air defence and task group command and control variant and the second being the general purpose variant," the government notice said.

The navy has three big, 5,100-tonne Iroquois-class destroyers which were originally built as submarine hunters. They were then rebuilt with improved communications systems and banks of surface-to-air missiles for their present roles as air defence and command ships.

There are 12 Halifax-class frigates — 4,700-tonne jack-of-all-trades vessels armed with anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and anti-submarine torpedoes.

The November meeting won't cost the government much. Those attending will have to foot their own bills for the travel and expenses. And Public Works says there's no guarantees of contracts.

In fact, the government's letter of intent (LOI) is clear that no one should expect anything immediately:

"This LOI is neither a call for tenders nor a request for proposal," the notice said. "No agreement or contract will be entered into, with any person or entity, based on this LOI. The issuance of this LOI is not to be considered in any way a commitment by the government of Canada or as authority to potential participants to undertake any work, which could be charged to Canada.

"This LOI is not to be considered as a commitment to issue an RFP or award contract(s) for this project."