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Why Canada Needs a Submarine Fleet

Richard H. Gimblett,CD,Ph.D.

Dalhousie University

22 October 2004

In ordinary times, it would have been an interesting psychological exercise to sit back and observe the range of reaction to the tragic incident involving Her Majesty’s Canadian Submarine (HMCS/M) Chicoutimi early in October.  Once getting beyond the heartfelt sympathy for the grieving family and crew, for the most part it seemed to be narrowly focused on incredulity (Canada has submarines?) and suspicion (why would peace-loving folks like us want those?).  Both of those reactions belie a deeper emotion.  To paraphrase a British admiral upon first encountering “boats” (as submarines are referred to within naval circles, to distinguish them from surface “ships”) at the beginning of the twentieth century, such lurkers of the deep seem “just damned un-Canadian”. 

But these are not ordinary times.  Competing financial demands for health care and other government social services have put enormous pressure on the defence budget, and all programs must pass rigorous fiscal scrutiny.  It is just as interesting psychologically therefore that the first cost saving targets to enter the sights of defence critics happen to be such items as tanks for the Army or fighter aircraft for the Air Force – anything with the appearance of being too warlike (the Navy had to dispense with its aircraft carrier long ago).  In the aftermath of the Chicoutimi tragedy, critics were quick to add submarines to this list, decrying them as “Cold War relics not appropriate to the twenty-first century war against terrorism.”

Dare we sell the defence of our country short on such uninformed gut feelings?  Exploring the fundamental questions from which the critics’ motivation presumably springs nonetheless lends some context to the issue:  Why does Canada have submarines?  What do we do with them? Are they un-Canadian?

First, some background.  Canada did not establish a permanent submarine service until the mid-1960s, mostly because our navy, although large, did not possess the specialized and costly infrastructure to support such a fleet.  As well, we lacked the practical experience in submarine operations, and moreover we generally could rely upon the loan of allied subs for training purposes.  That all changed with the increasing maturity of our fleet as the Cold War deepened, as large numbers of Canadians achieved professional qualification as submariners through an exchange program with the Royal Navy (RN), and as the British and American submarine fleets came to comprise mostly nuclear-powered vessels that they were reluctant to place under the control of even highly trusted allies such as the RCN.  And so we came to acquire for our own purposes the three boats of the Oberon class.

For the next two decades, the Oberons saw hard service, mostly on NATO patrols tracking Soviet submarines, as well as acting as training platforms against which our surface ships and maritime patrol aircraft could hone their own anti-submarine skills.  But the O-boats were essentially modest improvements upon Second World War U-boat technology, and the demands of modern warfare required additional capabilities.  By the mid-1980s the Canadian Navy began the search for a replacement, knowing it would take a decade to see the program to fruition as the O-boats reached their projected end of service life in 1995.

Interestingly, one of the preferred candidates from the start was the Royal Navy’s Upholder class then being designed.  The process of elimination was simple: the United States no longer built diesel-powered submarines, having gone to an all-nuclear fleet; and the majority of European nations (other than Britain) tended to build “short-legged” boats with limited range adequate to reach their patrol stations in the North, Baltic and Mediterranean Seas, but not suitable for long open ocean voyages.  With the vast expanses of our own offshore areas of responsibility, Canada needed boats with longer legs just to get to the potential battleground.  But another factor in favour of the Upholders was that, although conventionally powered with a hybrid diesel-battery plant, the hull form was modeled after the Royal Navy’s own nuclear powered vessels, which in turn had benefited from privileged access to American technology.  In essence, the Upholders could run quieter and dive deeper than any other conventionally powered submarines, and these were significant operational considerations.

That first attempt at an Upholder acquisition was cast aside when the Mulroney government directed attention instead to the acquisition of our own nuclear-powered fleet, mostly in the interest of projecting Canadian sovereignty in the arctic.  (Without an independent air producing capability, diesel submarines are inappropriate for under-ice operations, and AIP [air independent propulsion] technology was not considered feasible at that time.)  But the costs soon proved to be exorbitant (infrastructure and maintenance would have been in the scale of billions of dollars annually), and the Canadian public proved averse to the abstract concept of “nuclear” to a greater extent than anticipated.  Not only was the conventional sub replacement program set back by several years, but also the natural suspicion of Canadians had been piqued.  “Submarine replacement” did not figure in the Liberal’s Red Book campaign that brought them to power in 1993.

In the meanwhile, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and with the Cold War over, navies everywhere began to rationalize their fleets.  Already Britain had reduced its planned Upholder acquisition from twelve to only four boats, and now just as those were entering service it was determined to switch to an all-nuclear fleet like the Americans.  Knowing that our Oberons were at the end of their useful lives, the RN offered them to us in 1994 as a “hot transfer” but the issue was still too hot for Canadian sensitivities.  With no firm commitment, the Upholders were withdrawn from service and “moth-balled”; not literally taken out of the water and wrapped in plastic, but stripped-down and preserved against the elements in the hope of a quick re-sale.

Now, however, it was the turn of the RN to find its options limited.  Mostly because of the special technologies involved in their construction, Canada soon was determined to be the most suitable of a very short list of potential customers.  Space precludes going through the details of the negotiations, but it suffices to note that the initially attractive deal of 1995 was sweetened somewhat over the course of succeeding years until Cabinet finally reached an agreement in principle in 1998 to a novel lease-to-own package in exchange for free British use of Canadian training areas, equivalent to $650 million, and including the requirement that Britain cover the costs of re-activating the boats.  Canada had come into four practically new, sophisticated submarines for a total cost of less than one of the new frigates then being acquired, a significant bargain.  To confirm our ownership, the boats were renamed the Victoria class (besides the lead of that name, the others are Windsor, Corner Brook, and of course Chicoutimi).

Another couple of years passed as the final details were worked out.  The Oberons had to be withdrawn from service before training of fresh recruits could commence, while at the same time it was discovered that the process of re-activation would be more complicated than anticipated, due primarily to the length of time the boats had been inoperative (again the details are not so important as the general principle that any complex engineering system is designed to be most efficient when kept running and regularly maintained).  A Catch-22 situation quickly unfolded, where the longer the boats remained inactive, the harder it became to re-activate them, and the corporate knowledge of the submariners diminished, extending the required training period and increasing the time to reach operational status.  When the Navy found itself mobilizing effectively to a wartime stance after the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, but still having to operate within a fixed peacetime budget, funds that were scheduled for the submarine program were temporarily diverted to the surface fleet and the re-activation spread over several more budget years – which has not helped the process at all.

That is the present state of affairs.  Now to address the original three questions.

First, why does Canada have (or more properly still need) submarines?  The tendency is to look at submarines in abstract isolation.  Certainly, they possess distinct capabilities that will be discussed below, but it is critical that they be seen as just one of the many intricate elements of the fleet mix rounding out the balanced force of a medium power navy such as Canada’s.  Despite the emphasis at any one instant upon either homeland defence or expeditionary operations, our government demands a fleet capable of undertaking a wide range of tasks across the spectrum of conflict.  That requires the combination of various types of surface warships performing different functions (destroyers, frigates, tankers, and coastal defence vessels), supported by maritime surveillance aircraft and embarked helicopters to extend their reach and speed of reaction, and of course submarines which employ their stealth to keep an enemy off-guard.  Indeed, their power is derived from the fact that an enemy generally does not – can not – reliably know where they are located.

Second, what do we do with them?  With victory in the Cold War, the western alliance secured command of the “blue water” open oceans.  There are no peer competitors as a global power to the USN.  The battle, however, has only shifted to the “green water” of the littorals, the offshore areas that any sovereign nation – Canada included – would seek to deny access to other navies.  But our government’s activist foreign policy has our forces seeking to intervene in an increasingly large number of those nations for whatever reason (lately, it is under the challenge of the “Responsibility to Protect”), and as such we require access to operate our task groups safely in those waters.  Many nations throughout the developing world are acquiring submarines to patrol their waters.  Anywhere the Canadian Navy is deployed in future (and there are plenty of hotspots throughout Asia in particular), our ships can expect to encounter potentially hostile submarines.  The best platform to counter a submarine being another submarine, the Victorias will be an especially valuable addition to our expeditionary task groups.  Besides that, diesel submarines are particularly suited to covert inshore operations because they can hide easily in the complex underwater conditions and if required they can “bottom” much more safely than nuclear submarines (for simplicity, think of the consequences of all that sand being ingested in the coolant intakes for a nuclear reactor).  The obverse of this reasoning is that our home waters such as the Grand Banks, the Gulf of St Lawrence, and the Hecate and Juan de Fuca Straits are some of the most complex littorals in the world.  In the Second World War, German U-boats played havoc with our forces because of their ability to “hide” amongst the currents and salt-and-fresh water layers underwater.  Just think of our boats doing that in other nations’ waters.

Finally, then, are they un-Canadian?  So long as Canadian governments insist on sending our warships on foreign operations, submarines will be a vital element of our fleet mix.  And just as others would seek to deny us access to their waters with submarines, ours will give pause to those who might want to challenge our sovereignty underwater – and that often includes our friends.  A little-noted benefit of possessing submarines is that they establish Canada as one of the “submarine operating authorities” of allied nations.  Our maritime areas of responsibility extend well beyond our 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones out to mid Pacific and Atlantic, and any allied subs wishing to transit those areas must seek our concurrence.  Without our own subs, they would not have to ask, and we likely would have little idea they are there.

While the Victorias-Upholders seem bedeviled by an inordinate number of teething troubles, in truth these are no more than typically encountered in the introduction of any new weapon system.  Warships are perhaps the most complex things humans have ever built in any era.  Submarines are especially so because of the requirement to go underwater.  Canadians need be neither incredulous nor suspicious that we require submarines and that our Navy has the competence to operate them effectively and safely.

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