10/22/2014 01:44 EDT | Updated 12/22/2014 05:59 EST

Irving Shipbuilding president says company will build six patrol vessels

HALIFAX - The president of Irving Shipbuilding has torpedoed a report that the federal government is trimming its order for Arctic patrol ships.

Kevin McCoy said Wednesday that the government has not changed its mind.

"We have received absolutely no change from our customer in terms of what our near-term or long-term workload should be," McCoy said before starting a speech at a shipbuilding conference in Halifax.

"We fully expect in January, as planned, to sign a contract to build the first six ships exactly as planned and scheduled. There should be no concerns about that. It's all systems go from that perspective."

Earlier this week, industry and military sources told The Canadian Press the government has scaled back its original plan to buy between six and eight vessels, choosing instead to buy five with an option for a sixth.

But McCoy insisted the company plans to build six light icebreakers, starting next September, with the final ship to be delivered in 2022.

"We are right now at the 90 to 95 per cent point in having the design completely finished," he said. "That means that the ship's size is fixed — about 100 metres long — and all the major components are installed and we're down to running small wires and small pipes."

McCoy said he expects the computer-generated drawings to be finished by April.

The Halifax-based company has spent $424 million on design work and upgrading its shipbuilding facilities on the city's waterfront, he said.

Much of McCoy's speech focused on the money the company will spend as it prepares to build the Arctic patrol ships and 15 combat vessels with employment in Halifax peaking at 1,600 to 2,000 workers.

"We're talking about steady work out to 2040," he said. "That's something that our employees and this community can bank on. ... But it's not 21 ships at any price. It's 21 ships at a fair price."

Valerie Payn, president of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, said McCoy's assurances are welcomed by business leaders.

"He's assuring us that things are on schedule, things are on track and nothing has changed," she said.

"People are feeling a lot more comfortable with what's going on."

The government's $35-billion national shipbuilding strategy saw shipyards chosen to do the work in 2011.

The Arctic ships have had their capabilities repeatedly watered down on the drawing board to keep costs down. Defence and industry experts have said it's not unusual for the government to scale back big procurement projects to reduce costs.