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Industry insight: Ensuring the optimum performance of Canada’s submarines

By BCShippingNews 16 November 2018
Mike Whalley, President, Babcock Canada
Mike Whalley, President, Babcock Canada

Because of the nature of the Royal Canadian Navy, Mike Whalley, President, Babcock Canada, and his team of over 400 highly specialized and skilled engineers can’t talk very much about the work they do on Canada’s four Victoria Class submarines. While careful not to share classified information, Whalley was able to provide insights that showcase not only the importance and highly capable nature of Canada’s submarines, but also highlight the extensive skills and knowledge required to keep the vessels in service. With our exclusive interview with Whalley, BC Shipping News could not have made a better choice of expert to explain the extent of effort that goes into ensuring Canada’s subsurface platforms are operating at optimum performance.

BCSN: I’d like to start with an overview of your experience and your role within Babcock Canada.

MW: I’ve been with Babcock for almost 20 years. Originally, I had been working as a project manager for a company in Devonport, U.K., that had been acquired by Babcock. I’m a Professional Mechanical Engineer by training but have worked mostly in marine engineering for my entire career with a focus on naval vessels — both warships and submarines. I’ve done quite a bit of design engineering but have spent more time in production and project management.

Before taking on the role of President of Babcock Canada, I was Director, Warships, for the Babcock International Group where I was responsible for the refits of all U.K. naval ships managed by Babcock at Devonport Royal Dockyard. At any one time, we’d have upwards of five refits going on concurrently. These were large projects comprising 600,000 to 700,000 hours of work. The role also included looking after the U.K.’s naval vessels around the world with full support for wherever they might be.

My current role as President of Babcock Canada is to deliver Babcock’s broad spectrum of engineering support services to our Canadian customers in various sectors. In addition to naval in-service support, we are one of the largest civil aviation companies in the world in terms of providing aerial firefighting and aerial emergency services. We also provide services in civil nuclear work as well as land systems for organizations like the Army and Metropolitan police forces.

BCSN: Could you provide some background on Babcock in Canada as well as the larger International Group?

MW: Babcock International Group has a proud history of over 125 years delivering engineering services in the key market sectors of marine, land, aviation and nuclear. Babcock Canada was established in 2007, first as the wholly owned subsidiary, Canadian Submarine Management Group (and later rebranded as Babcock Canada) which was awarded the Victoria In-Service Support Contract (VISSC) to deliver maintenance, repair and overhaul, documentation and management for Canada’s four Victoria Class submarines. We now have three locations in Canada (Victoria, Halifax and Ottawa) with over 400 employees, but as part of the International Group, we are able to draw on the collective knowledge and capabilities of more than 35,000 skilled workers worldwide.

BCSN: Before we take an in-depth look at Babcock’s work on the VISSC, perhaps you could describe the work done on Canada’s Arctic icebreakers, CCGS Louis St-Laurent and CCGS Des Groseilliers?

MW: This project was part of the Federal Government’s Economic Action Plan in 2012 to extend the life of Canadian Coast Guard vessels. We were awarded the contract in 2014 through an open bid process and worked with Chantier Davie Canada Inc. who provided the facilities and production efforts while we took on the project management and engineering work. The upgrade and refit work for the St-Laurent included significant docking-related items such as pulling of both tail shafts, painting of the hull and tanks, overhaul of over 200 valves and the inspection of hull and seam welding. In addition to this, a number of capability improvements were completed, including new mechanical stern seals, converter chiller and crane overhaul.

For the Des Groseilliers, work that was undertaken included replacement of the vessel’s generator sets, main engine block and propulsion control system. This was all done to enable the vessel to meet program requirements for the next 10 years.

BCSN: Let’s focus now on the VISSC. Could you first describe your role and then provide an updated status on the submarines?

MW: Babcock Canada was awarded the Victoria In-Service Support Contract in 2008 and it was recently extended by three years with an option to extend even further. There are a number of elements to the contract — one is to provide technical, logistics and engineering support to keep Canada’s four submarines operating; the other element is the Extended Docking Work Periods (EDWP) work.

In terms of status, HMCS Chicoutimi was the first to go into EDWP under the contract. The work on her has since been completed and she was handed over to the Royal Canadian Navy in 2014. Earlier this year, she returned home following a successful six-month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region. HMCS Corner Brook was next. She’s currently in the refit facility in Victoria and will have work done over the next 18 months before going back into commission. HMCS Victoria will be after that. It’s a constant cycle — each submarine runs through a structured maintenance, upgrade, commissioning and operational cycle.

BCSN: I understand and respect the need for secrecy regarding the work on the vessels but could you describe in general terms the activities involved?

MW: The critical work includes the provision of platform design, integration, configuration, project management services and maintenance and waterfront support. Submarines in particular are quite specialized pieces of marine engineering — I liken them to aviation engineering in terms of standards and qualities. It goes without saying that the safety-critical nature of the submarine itself and protecting the people inside it is paramount. The tasks are very different on a submarine compared to a typical ship and require very highly trained engineering skills to understand the complexities and the nature of the work.

Currently, we have a large team of engineer designers and technical experts who design the upgrades and modifications to the submarines, and then there is a whole team of people to provide the safety back up including the data management, safety records, certification and technical support that all links together to allow the work to be done on the submarine and ultimately for it to go to sea and dive safely. We have a full supply chain for the logistics to provide the equipment, not just for the refits but for all operations. These require very high-quality certification standards and we maintain that on behalf of the RCN through our own warehouses in Victoria where the major refits are done. And then there are the production people on board the submarine, largely provided by our partners Victoria Shipyards as well as the facilities of the federally owned Esquimalt Graving Dock.

BCSN: Noting that the vessels were built in the 1990s, could you describe their current condition?

MW: That’s correct, the submarines were built in the 1990s and designed some time before that. As you know, marine vessels can suffer from things like corrosion and obsolescence and need to be continually upgraded from a military capability point of view. When dealing with corrosion — and because of the deep depths a submarine goes with resulting intense pressure — we monitor the hull condition very closely and use a full analytical model of the pressure hull to help develop the most appropriate repair strategies. A part of the repair work involved developing specialist techniques for weld over-cladding which, when used on the types of specialized steel used on submarine hulls, is truly ground breaking.

If you go back in history, there was a lot of bad press about the submarines when they were brought over from the U.K. in 2006. Because of the secretive nature of the submarines, it’s a challenge for the Navy to be able to publicize all the good things they do but I can say, given my experience with navies globally, Canada has some of the best submarines  and crews in the world in terms of their capabilities. They have diesel-electric propulsion as opposed to nuclear so they’re very quiet and very difficult to detect. In fact, the US Navy develops their anti-submarine warfare skills, in part, against the Canadian subs — not just because most of the American submarines are nuclear powered but also because many potential adversaries have quiet diesel-electric submarines.

There’s no question that they are very capable platforms. They do take some time and effort to keep going but all navies face this. It’s worth the effort though because they’re very capable.

BCSN: What are some of the other differences between nuclear and diesel-electric? Is one overall better than the other?

MW: Nuclear submarines can go to sea and sustain themselves almost indefinitely — they only come back to base for food or for crew rotations and essential maintenance. That’s useful for some navies but others don’t need that requirement and diesel-electric is more than capable to meet their needs. Another big difference is the significant cost to buy, operate and maintain nuclear compared to diesel-electric. It’s interesting to note that Australia recently reviewed their options for a new fleet of submarines and chose diesel-electric.

BCSN: Can you estimate the lifespan for the subs?

MW: The lifespan of a submarine is upwards of about 40 years. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect these, like other submarines around the world would get to that age or higher.

BCSN: Could you describe the advances and emerging trends in technology that you’ve seen during your career and how these have changed operations for naval platforms?

MW: One of the main things I’ve seen is that we’re now dealing with much more useful information. Most of the ships are designed on digital platforms, for example, 3D CAD and product data models — and this helps support the vessels throughout their lifespan. Once you have the data models, you can link them to other logistics and supply chain data to end up with an integrated data environment that can manage all the reports and visual formats. There wasn’t that ability 25 years ago.

We’re also seeing advances in remote sensing and data analytics. The data of the platform can be constantly monitored to allow us to make decisions on maintenance needs and predict potential reliability issues. We’re currently doing trials on military platforms using our proprietary system called iSupport, where we apply remote sensors; collect the data using a secure system; and then analyze the data to be able to assess and predict future needs — and from there, we can adjust the maintenance and operating strategies. This sort of thing is already being done by equipment manufacturers, especially engine manufacturers but we’re doing it on a platform-wide and fleet-wide scale. This helps improve availability and reduce cost.

There is more platform automation. As more automation allows for smaller crews, those crew members need more help and advice on what to do so we’re developing ways to give them easy access to documentation — for example, tablets for the crew so they can access the documents quickly as well as Google glasses that allow on-shore experts to see what is happening with onboard equipment and then advise the crew on actions in real time.

We’re also seeing a trend toward more autonomous vehicles being carried on the platform — for example, drones and autonomous underwater vehicles. We’re starting to investigate methods for carrying, launching and recovering those devices.

Another area of change can be seen with the propulsion technology and even more moves toward electric propulsion. You also see a number of ships, especially ferries, progressively being converted to LNG and there are a number of submarines that use fuel cells or air-independent systems for their propulsion. The technology is moving quickly at the moment and, for companies like ourselves who are involved in looking after the platforms, we have to keep abreast of all the technologies so as to take advantage of the developments and deliver improvements to our customers.

The challenge for the propulsion on a submarine is trying to anticipate what technology will be available in 40 or 50 years. Battery and electric motor technology is a prime example of this. It’s difficult to change propulsion once a submarine is built, so do you go with emerging technology or do you go with what you know will work? There’s no right or wrong decision, it’s based on the needs of the navy and it’s up to the military planners to make those decisions with advice from companies like ours.

BCSN: This leads me to ask about the skills required for these new trends and whether the industry is finding enough people to fill the roles.

MW: It’s a challenge for a number of industries at the moment. We have strategies in place that target engineers and those in the science/technology sector. We try to target them as early as possible — in high school, for example, to get them interested in engineering through STEM initiatives and then track them through college or university so we can offer them a co-op placement. We’ll typically have around 20 co-op students at any one time. Then, as they finish their degree, we’ll get them in full-time and train them even further, ideally towards professional qualifications such as a P.Eng. We’ve found that if we wait for them to graduate and then try to recruit them on the open market, there aren’t as many around, so it’s better to target them early and train them ourselves.

All countries are finding this challenge — in engineering, there’s more work than people. Competition comes not just from other professions when a student is choosing a career but also from the number of sectors that require skilled engineers. And if/when the global oil and gas market picks up, the problem will be further compounded — if you’re a marine engineer, you can just as easily work in oil and gas.

An example of one of our strategies is the Babcock Interaction Lab at Camosun College that we support and co-founded. It’s a win-win scenario for everyone. It helps the College; it gets students engaged in engineering; and it also puts the Babcock name into a key educational institution to raise awareness about the benefits of working here at Babcock. The investment was enabled through Canada’s Industrial and Technological Benefits Policy and our own need to help grow the workforce of the future. As part of our role as Canada’s In-Service Support partner for the submarine fleet, we have committed to ensure that 100 per cent of the value of the contract is spent in Canada. When required, we’ll have to source equipment from other parts of the world so to make up for that deficit, we invest in the industrial technology sector. The example of our Interaction Lab at Camosun is just one of many similar success stories for us here in Canada. We also work closely with the University of Victoria and the University of B.C. where we help them develop curriculum. That’s very important for us, particularly as we look to the medium and long term.

BCSN: How much difference is there between working on military projects compared to typical shipyard work?

MW: All of the general regulations around environmental or safety apply. Refits on submarines can get quite tricky given the amount of work done in confined spaces so we put a lot of emphasis on training and undergo regular exercises with Victoria Shipyards. It’s something we’re very conscious of from our naval support work around the world and take very seriously.

Over and above that, there are military issues we are constantly addressing — classification of the equipment that goes on board and the designs of the submarines, for example. And because much of the technology is shared with the U.S., there are U.S. trade regulations that must be followed. We’re bound to keep the submarine ‘under wraps’ so to speak and that means dealing with security and clearance protocols.

BCSN: I’d like to ask one final, more open-ended question for your insights into the marine industry overall. 

MW: It’s a very healthy industry. You can see hubs of expertise being developed here in British Columbia — for example, Victoria Shipyards has foreign frigates in right now for refits and there are a number of LNG conversions being done on U.S. vessels. Canada has a real opportunity to not just provide expertise for its own fleet but also export that technology and knowledge to support other navies.

The National Shipbuilding Strategy is providing a renaissance of shipbuilding in Canada, notably in Vancouver and Halifax but also for other companies and regions. I think it’s up to the federal government, in the case of Canada’s maritime assets, and the provincial government, in the case of provincially run ferries, to ensure work is being spread around, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. There is a disconnect when you think about policies — the federal government often requires 100 per cent of the value of their contracts to be spent in Canada but the provincial governments don’t have that same requirement.

And, of course, as already noted, there is the challenge of finding the required skills. We need to find ways to tap into the education system to make sure there’s a constant pipeline of people coming through and that there is common recognition of skills in different localities.

Looking at the issue of working with the military, you’ll find that military technology is always driven by innovation so it’s quite a good area to develop and roll out the technology to industry. 

About Mike Whalley

For almost 20 years, Mike Whalley’s career has focused on naval assets, both warships and submarines. Originally working for Devonport Management Limited (which was later acquired by Babcock Marine) as General Manager, Submarine Support Management Group, Whalley led a team of 100-plus engineering specialists tasked with providing engineering, logistics and data management services for the U.K. Royal Navy submarine flotilla. He subsequently took on the role of project manager for the Warship Support Modernization initiative, a partnership contract between Babcock and the Ministry of Defence at Devonport’s HM Naval Base.

Further roles within Babcock included Director, Warships Strategy; Director, Equipment Solutions; and finally Director, Warships for the Babcock International Group where he headed up the 150-million-pound business unit providing shipbuilding, class management, deep maintenance, fleet time and worldwide-deployed support, design services, spares, logistics, procurement and specialist weapons support services to Royal Navy warships and selected overseas navies. With a skilled and dedicated labour force of over 1,000 people and state-of-the-art waterfront facilities, in total he supported around 50 naval vessels from 20,000-tonne helicopter carriers to 15-metre landing craft.

Appointed to the position of President of Babcock Canada in March 2017, Whalley oversees a team of Canadian experts who design, build, manage, operate and maintain assets vital to the delivery of a wide assortment of mission-critical services. This includes providing the full range of in-service support services to the Victoria Class submarine fleet from the dedicated support facility in Victoria, B.C. as well as a support centre in Halifax N.S. and headquarters in Ottawa.

Mike lives in Victoria, B.C. with his wife and son.

About Babcock Canada

As a key member of the Babcock International family, Babcock Canada has the collective knowledge of more than 35,000 skilled workers worldwide in addition to the 400-plus Canadian specialists and committed experts, who design, build, manage, operate and maintain assets vital to the delivery of a wide assortment of key public services.

As an ideal partner working alongside the Government of Canada to provide engineering services under the Victoria In-Service Support Contract, Babcock Canada has the ability to leverage ISS global best practices and provide valuable insight into the future of ISS in Canada.

On an international scale, Babcock was founded in 1891 when the American Babcock & Wilcox Company formed a separately financed British company. Today, providing skilled, bespoke engineering services in the marine, land, aviation and nuclear industries, Babcock International specializes in the management of complex assets and infrastructure.