11/18/2014 06:37 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

Options to cover off navy supply ship gap going to government, says admiral

OTTAWA - Defence Minister Rob Nicholson will be presented with a series of options as early as this week about how the navy can cover off the gap in military supply ships, which could last up to seven years.

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman told a House of Commons committee Tuesday that it has become clear the original plan to rely on allies for a short time is untenable given that the current replenishment ships are retiring early.

He wouldn't reveal to the all-party defence committee what he'd recommend to the minister, only that there are a variety of options including short-term leases from allied nations and perhaps a commercial solution which might involve civilian vessels.

"I'm not going to predict how the options may resonate," the admiral said.

The idea is to get the navy through to delivery of the already planned Queenston-class joint support ships, which are expected to be built in Vancouver by Seaspan, Norman added.

It could be 2021 before those two vessels are fully operational.

The navy was forced to retire its existing over four-decade-old supply ships after a devastating fire aboard HMCS Protecteur last winter.

They were originally slated to be scrapped around 2016 and it was anticipated the navy could get by for perhaps of a couple of years relying on allies to refuel and rearm Canadian warships at sea.

But Norman says other allied nations are willing to help and could conceivably cover Canada's shortfall for 16 months, but they are going through their own shortages.

"The challenge that we have now is that the gap is here now, today, and in addition to that it's no longer 20-24 months; it's several years," Norman said. "The optionality of having the flexible, gracious support of your allies; it's a different conversation now. They're still prepared to provide the degree of support we were planning on, just in slightly different timeframes."

New joint support ships were initially proposed to the Chretien government in 1994, but it wasn't until Paul Martin became prime minister that the vessels were finally ordered.

The Conservatives, however, cancelled and then restarted the program in 2008 when the initial cost estimates exceeded the government's budget envelope. The program has struggled to get back on track ever since.

The parliamentary budget office put out a report last year that said, had the government stuck with the original plan, the navy would already have their ships and they would be cheaper and more capable than what is being proposed now.

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris said the leasing solution is not "desirable" and it represents a failure on the part of the government to take the issue of replacing the supply ships seriously.

"They clearly needed to be replaced a long time ago and the failure is what we're dealing with now," he said.

The government has yet to sign a construction deal for the new joint ships with the Vancouver shipyard.

Earlier this year, the Davie Shipyard in Levis, Que., dropped an unsolicited proposal on the government, essentially offering to convert two civilian ships to military grade and then lease them to the navy for a set number of years.

It presents a solution, but also a political problem for the government in that it Davie is not one of the companies under the umbrella of the national shipbuilding program.

Norman gave the program a thumbs-up before the committee on Tuesday, saying that while construction is not yet underway it has put a framework in place that will serve the navy and the country for decades to come.