Tuesday, July 28, 2009

HMCS Fraser

Various news sources report that Her Majesty's Canadian Ship Fraser was returned to the Royal Canadian Navy earlier this month.

Fraser -- DDH 233 -- is the last surviving ship of the St. Laurent class of destroyers. These were the first warships designed and built in Canada, and they formed the backbone of the Royal Canadian Navy during the Cold War. From the National Historic Site historical plaque aboard Fraser
Designed in 1948-1949, they influenced naval construction internationally with their smooth above-water surfaces and distinctive convex deck. They could also be sealed to protect crews against biological and radioactive threats. All seven St. Laurent-class ships were modified during the 1960s to carry helicopters and enhance their anti-submarine capability. Launched in 1953, the HMCS Fraser is the last surviving example of this innovative class of warship.

When these ships were originally designed and built, they were intended to be newer, faster, more capable versions of the River-class destroyers that the RCN used in the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War. Their DDE designation marked them as Destroyer Escorts - ships intended to guard a convoy or to form part of a surface battle group. In the early 1960s, they were upgraded to add the capability of launching and recovering a Sea King helicopter, which is reflected by the change from the DDE to the DDH designator. When HMCS Bonaventure, the last RCN aircraft carrier, was retired, these ships became by default the largest units in the Canadian Navy.

Photo Credit - by Stewpendous on Flickr -- HMCS Fraser moored at Bridgewater, NS

All the ships of the St. Laurent class excluding St. Laurent herself went through the DELEX (Destroyer Lifetime Extension) program in the early 1980s. This upgrade included an electronic warfare suite that allowed these older ships constructed in the decade after World War Two to function and participate in a modern battlefield, giving them tactical datalinks to allow them to mesh with allied combatant ships and aircraft.

Throughout the 1980s, Fraser was used as a testbed to evaluate technology that would be used on the Halifax-class frigates that were then being designed. But by 1994, Fraser was retired and all the other ships of the St. Laurent class-- St. Laurent DDH 205, Saguenay DDH 206, Skeena DDH 207, Ottawa DDH 229, Margaree DDH 230, and Assiniboine DDH 234 -- were scrapped or sunk.

Originally, Fraser was intended to be either a museum, or an artificial reef -- indeed, the ship was owned by the Artificial Reef Society of Nova Scotia since the mid 1990s, until funding issues caused the ship to be returned to DND and the Navy earlier this month.

The Navy now has three options -- they could could restore Fraser (as a museum, not an operational warship), break her up and sell the remains for scrap, or turn the ship into an artificial reef.

The statement from Peter MacKay, the Defense Minister, is a typical example of political vagueness: "We remain committed to developing a longer-term solution for Fraser's future." What does this actually mean?

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