A new supply ship for the Royal Canadian Navy?

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(But what can be done with a container ship ?)

F Pierre Gingras
RMC Saint-Jean 7843

In naval architecture, a well-known quip says that once completed the final arrangement of a warship, it should be cut in half to insert an empty inexpensive twenty meters section which will be surely filled over time with new systems during successive updates, a measure that will extend the useful life of the ship.

At first, the approval of Davie Shipbuilding's proposal to transform a container ship to quickly make it a supply ship may seem a stopgap, a temporary measure to buy time, the lesser evil.

Maybe we should rather analyze these additional opportunities offered by this alternative, particularly in light of the very positive experience of the British Navy during the "Falkland Islands War”, that occurred 32 years ago already!

Falkland Islands War
(HARRIER fighter-bomber operating from the commercial container carrier, "Atlantic Conveyer")

As today the superstructures of these large ships are generally located in the back, most of these ships dispose of a bridge with a length and an area superior to that of the decks of the aircraft carriers of the 40 – 60 era. Experience has shown the possibility of operating a large container ship as a helicopter carrier and even an aircraft carrier when deploying a large squadron of vertical takeoff Harrier fighter bombers. Already, a whole catalog of drones may also be operated from container carriers.

The operation of helicopters already allows filling a variety of missions, from anti-submarine patrols to mines clearing. During the Falkland Islands War, the "Harrier" revealed itself as a fiery air fighter able to perform maneuvers that no other aircraft could do at the time, like going up suddenly as a cork and repositioning immediately in pursuit of the enemy former pursuer.

The Atlantic Conveyer, that was mobilized and armed in a few days, was finally destroyed by an "Exocet" missile from an Argentinian aircraft. The ship had not received any of the protection and defense that it should have received as a newly acquired ship by the MRC to be transformed into a supply ship.

On the other hand, the fact that a convoy can at last participate to its own protection is an advantage. The fact that such a ship could even blend at the center of a convoy of ships of the same size is also a protection. And what about the possibility of introducing some of these “armed containers” among the load of container ships ? This could avoid expansive deployment of large ships during many months in order to ensure the protection of commercial ships in regions at risk, namely in East Africa?

But another possibility promises a versatility little considered so far: the "containerization" of the weapons systems.


The dilemma of all governments is to limit the enormous investments required to build up a navy, while ensuring, in the meantime, to have a sufficient force ready from the outbreak of conflict, given the enormous delays required to build such ships.

Falkland Islands War: the Atlantic Conveyer operating as an aircraft carrier

Today, warship Design is oriented towards the capacity of receiving standardized sets of various weapons systems. One cannot imagine that a new missile or a specific new electronic radar or communications system be developed for every new warship class. The "kits" necessary for the planned missions of a warship are first selected and then, the warship is designed accordingly, that is to say, like a "box" designed to receive these kits.

However, nearly all these weapons, and other electronic systems could be assembled into one, two or three standard "containers". Even a big "Exocet" missile fits into a normal container, or a module, and is easily oriented when placed on a turntable. These containers are like any other electronic "plug and play" components.

Types of modules:

  1. Electronic systems units: various radars, sonars, communications technology;
  2. Weapons units: guns and anti-aircraft missiles, gatling guns, surface guns, anti-submarine missiles, defense station systems "Phalanx";
  3. Logistics units: infirmary, cafeteria, dormitory, command stations, meeting rooms, refrigerated warehouses, ammunition, fuels tanks, workshops;
  4. Logistics support units: for operation of helicopters, drones and even fighter-bombers;
  5. Containers placed in periphery to serve as a protection, shielding, loaded accordingly.

As container ships have an average capacity of 8 to 12 000 twenty-feet-units, such a ship could theoretically have a firepower superior to that of a full naval squadron of ships. Moreover, as mentioned above, since the superstructures of these large ships are now generally located in the back, most of the container ships have a bridge with a length and a top surface comparable to the landing deck of the aircraft carriers of the 40-60 era.

The new CMA-CGM French ship Bougainville is 400 meters long, 54 meters wide, carries 18 000 units of 20 feet and makes a speed of 21 knots with only 26 crew members. As for the latest US aircraft carrier, the Ronald Reagan, it is 333 meters long, that is, 67 meters less.

The average modern cargo has the necessary space to receive weaponry superior in power and more diverse than any existing warship, with the exception perhaps of large modern aircraft carriers. It would be easy to design a bridge that could be put over several rows of containers while still having available the ship's full cargo capacity.

But let’s now return to our initial problem: how do we limit huge investments in the construction and operation of a navy, while still having a navy of sufficient scale to ensure an immediate response at the outbreak of a conflict.

Would a possible answer be to replace a portion of the fleet by reserve weapon system units (and a reserve of qualified personnel) stacked in a hangar and boarded on commercial ships when needed, in times of crisis and conflict? In fact, could we really store in a shed the equivalent of a fleet of several warships?

We should especially ensure also that naval reservists are fully trained in the operation of these weapon systems. Reservists could complete a significant part of their training without leaving home. Remember that the drones currently operating in Afghanistan and Iraq are steered from Las Vegas.

Lessons learned from the Falkland War

Examining the Falklands War, especially being a naval war, something so rare lately, provides the opportunity make the following observations:

  1. unlike wool and cotton, polyester clothes can melt into wounds and cause enormous complications;
  2. the installation of a main fire water line on each side of the ship rather than a single center one could have saved at least one ship, possibly two;
  3. a steel ship does not burn, unlike a modern aluminum ship.
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