Full of Holes: Byers and Webb on Canada’s Submarine Programme


Policy Update

by Paul T. Mitchell
Professor, Department of Defence Studies, Canadian Forces College
July, 2013


Table of Contents


The publication by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives of Michael Byers and Stewart Webb’s That Sinking Feeling: Canada’s Submarine Program Springs a Leak1 is the latest shot from the long-time critics of Canadian defence policy.2 The Victoria class has been affected by a long history of problems and delays that have attracted a great deal of media attention in the decade since Canada took possession of the vessels; a critical overview is obviously warranted. Sadly, Byers and Webb’s paper aims for easy rhetorical points rather than to establish an accurate record. In areas where the authors confidently assert facts, they are frequently mistaken. In areas where they should be certain, particularly when discussing policy development, their paper is full of equivocation.

The paper will have little effect on the current directions of this government. In spite of media speculation, there is no indication that the submarine project is in any real danger from the Harper Conservatives.3 In this regard, it can be safely ignored by the RCN. This review of the paper is motivated by the evident errors of fact and judgment in what purports to be a rigorous academic analysis of a key weapon system in the RCN. In the defence of our country, a variety of viewpoints is necessary. However, it behooves critics to at least get their facts straight.

This review proceeds in two parts. First, it examines the claims made by Byers and Webb in their report and argues that it is filled with factual errors. Second, it revisits the question of whether submarines are necessary for the defence of Canada, and counters the arguments laid out by Byers and Webb.


Poor Construction?

A perfect case in point is the allegation that the Victoria class were poorly constructed vessels.4 Byers and Webb cite a British parliamentary review of the programme5 during its development, focusing in particular on torpedo tube problems in then HMS Unseen (now HMCS Victoria), which had to be “welded” shut lest it flood the vessel.6 They quote UK MP Mike Hancock, the Liberal Democrat representative for Portsmouth South who states in a CBC interview from March 2012: “Why were the Canadians daft enough to buy them?”, “My God, it's a sad tale, isn't it? 'Buyer beware' should have been painted on the sides of these submarines.” “I'm appalled we've done a dumb deal with an ally like this.”7 Clearly Mr. Hancock is entitled to his opinions, but if Byers and Webb wish to assert that the subs are second-rate lemons, then some facts are in order. They cite a number of technical details taken from the website on the Upholder vessels, including the torpedo tube malfunctions. Yet they fail to include the following, taken from the same web page:

Acceptance of the (Upholder) class into service was delayed for three years while such problems were corrected. The result of those corrections, however, was an extremely capable design. When operating on battery power, Upholders were almost undetectable on passive sonar, and when snorting, their acoustic signature was comparable to their SSN contemporaries in normal operation. They were physically small, and thus difficult to detect by magnetic anomaly or other non-acoustic means.8

Such an oversight seems incredible, but it is not the only one in the report. Indeed, the section heading in their paper “Victoria Class Fiasco” seems lifted with minor alteration from the web site of the Barrow in Furness branch of the “Submariners’ Association”, which discusses “The Upholder Fiasco”.9 Even a quick skim of this resource indicates that the source of the fiasco was not the so-called shoddy construction of the vessels discussed in Byers and Webb’s paper, but rather the haste with which they were withdrawn, for cost cutting reasons, from RN service:

To many serving in the fleet, it now appeared that anything which was not cost effective or productive was a potential candidate to be retired or sold-off. The exception everyone presumed was, of course, new vessels including the Upholders - but even they fell victim. …

But nobody, including Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, could understand why the brand new Upholder submarine squadron was withdrawn from service and listed for sale in what must surely be the most 'questionable' Government decision in respect of equipment procurement for the Royal Navy in the past 50 years.10 

So, quite the contrary to the assertions of Byers and Webb, the submarines are described as capable and advanced systems by the very sources they use to argue the contrary.

As for those “welded” doors, this is also an example of inaccurate research. The authors cite John Pike in their text – see footnote #33, however, the article makes no mention of the torpedo tube doors being “welded” shut, only “sealed”.11 The only reference to “welded” doors seems to come from a CBC report, cited later in That Sinking Feeling.12 However, in a 1987 Jane’s Defence Weekly report on the problem, the British Ministry of Defence is quoted “as a precautionary measure, the torpedo tube outer boundaries have been locked shut until the design, production and testing of system modifications has been completed.”13 David Peer, in a source also used by Byers and Webb (see footnote 41 in their paper), notes that the design problem with the torpedo tube doors was solved by the time that HMS Unicorn (HMCS Windsor) was built.14 Finally, the fault only admitted water unexpectedly into the torpedo tubes, not into the actual submarine itself. This would cause the trim of the submarine to become unbalanced requiring a corrective surfacing to sort out the problem, but not any sort of catastrophic damage.15


Wasted Money on Torpedoes?

Byers is no stranger to anti-Americanism, once before making the odd claim that CF interoperability with the US posed a threat to Canadian sovereignty because it would facilitate the Americans taking command of our forces even against our wishes.16 Here the authors suggest that the US “tail” wagged the Canadian “dog” in the requirement to convert the submarines to be able to fire the Mark 48 torpedoes used by the RCN. Outside of the costs to reconfigure the submarine torpedo tubes, an additional $120 million dollars was spent to upgrade the US manufactured torpedoes. They note:

One consequence of the changes is that the four Victoria-class submarines can no longer fire Harpoon missiles, a long-range U.S.-made anti-ship weapon that is extremely popular in other navies and is, in fact, carried by Canada’s Halifax-class frigates. The decision to reduce the versatility of the submarines is perplexing, to say the least. It cannot even be explained on cost-savings grounds, since it must have cost more to make the changes to the submarines than it would have cost to purchase the appropriate British made torpedoes.17

In this, the paper achieves a rhetorical effect at the expense of accuracy. First, the Harpoon missiles that had been used by the Upholders were Sub-Harpoons, a different variant of the missile used on our frigates and not interchangeable as the paper seems to suggest.18 As we did not get weapons with the subs, these would have to have been purchased separately from the subs themselves. Further, an additional training and maintenance bill would also have accompanied this weapon system, also raising the cost. Secondly, the Spearfish torpedo, for which the original torpedo tubes were designed, was at the time of the submarine’s acquisition undergoing considerable turmoil in its development and was widely regarded as unreliable. A 1995 report in the Independent, a British broadsheet newspaper, notes:

(T)he Royal Navy's latest hi-tech torpedo, Spearfish, did a U-turn in the water during its trials and came back on the people who had fired it. Even the "firing point" is not known for certain, but it was probably a British submarine and Dr Malcolm McIntosh, chief of defence procurement at the Ministry of Defence, told the MPs, with masterly understatement, that it was “placed in some jeopardy”.19

McIntosh is quoted later in the article that the torpedo was "performing appallingly". Jane’s Naval Weapons notes:

A National Audit Office report on naval equipment programmes of 31 March 1993 noted 'problems encountered in satisfying reliability requirements' noting that there had been a 69-month slip to the in-service date, from December 1987 to September 1993, and programme costs had risen GBP 23 million to GBP 1,005 million. By 1989 the slip had increased to 75 months with programme costs rising to GBP 1,795 million.20

Further, even if the navy wanted to risk acquiring this system, none would have been available; HMS Tireless was the first British submarine to receive delivery of the torpedoes from BAE Systems in 1999.21 It is safe to say that a complement for the Canadian navy would have had to wait until the RN had filled out its requirements first.

But it begs the question, why should the navy have considered taking on an entirely new weapon system. The Mark 48s were already in stock, and like the Sub-Harpoons, the Spearfish would have to have been paid for separately. Further, Canadian submarine crews would have had to be trained on the new systems (another cost) and new maintenance arrangements would have had to be made. The Mark 48s are conveniently maintained in facilities in Washington state, contiguous to the Canadian border.22 Spearfish would have had to be shipped back to the UK or an expensive maintenance facility built in Canada. Even if Spearfish were dramatically less expensive than the Mark 48, our torpedoes were already paid for. Last, Spearfish would not have been interoperable with the fire control system used by the navy. “To take on a new torpedo would be like starting from scratch, and our ability to effectively employ them would have taken years to develop,” notes retired RCN Commodore Larry Hickey.23  


The Problematic Victorias

Clearly, the navy’s submarines have experienced their share of problems since we acquired them and this report lists several including flooding in the Corner Brook as well as its grounding, the fire on Chicoutimi, various technical issues on the Victoria, and a problematic refit on the Windsor.24 Most problems identified by Byers and Webb are a product of processes external to the vessels themselves, rather than attributable to their inherent design. Lengthy refit and few days at sea are partly explained by the “orphan” status of the subs. Only four were built and when the RN divested itself of them, the companies providing spare parts ceased making them.25 Moreover, the spares the RN held were not fully acquired by the RCN due to strict limits placed on the cost of the programme. Re-establishing these supplier networks has proven both expensive and challenging for the RCN. Availability of parts has limited the ability of the vessels to deploy regularly. Haydon also notes that Canada’s initial commitment to Operation Apollo had to be funded from within the existing navy budget, which had the effect of postponing the refit work on the submarines, as well as delaying the training of submarine crews.26 As the Chief of Naval Staff admitted in 2011, “[w]e honestly thought that we could do it faster, and I will be the first to say that I think we over-promised, and under-delivered.”27


Intellectual Property

The report confuses the failure of the RCN to obtain critical technical data from the British with some sort of effort to hide the cost of recovering it from Canadians. Rather than an absence of so-called “User Manuals”, some technical information on the submarines various systems was not provided in the handover. This is made all the more ominous by a reference to redacted data in a RCN report on the subject (“The Canadian ‘Project office’ produced an estimate of how much it would cost to secure the intellectual property rights, but the amount was censured (sic) in the CRS report and has never been made public. It would certainly not have been included in the original procurement budget.”).28 This is a considerable overstatement on their part. The RN could not provide information that it did not control, namely specific technical information controlled by the British company, VSEL and later BAE Systems, supplying the onboard systems.29 In any case, while this caused initial problems, the issue is long past. The RCN has now been operating the submarines for well over a decade and probably knows more about them than the UK did at the time they were sold. The classified figures involved in the discussion of the submarine’s intellectual property contribute nothing but the opportunity to create a spectacle by the authors.

Arctic missions
The authors spend a significant amount of time examining the relationship between submarines and the Arctic. The standard Canadian fear is that the superpowers were taking advantage of our limited capabilities and fearsome geography in the games they played throughout the Cold War. It is not surprising to see some of these arguments recycled here for one more round. They note “what is not clear is whether the United States had sought Canada’s permission for such voyages, and whether permission had been granted.” That it is not clear to them is surprising given their use of the scholarship of the University of Calgary’s Adam Lajeunesse in other parts of their study. Writing in the Journal of Cold War History last year, Lajeunesse notes in an article entitled “A very practical requirement: under-ice operations in the Canadian Arctic, 1960–1986”

[F]rom the 1960s to at least 1986 (the point at which all publicly available documentation ends) the American submarine program in Canada's northern waters appears to have been undertaken not as a secret assault on Canadian sovereignty but as a fully cooperative venture. During this period the US Navy did not use these waters as a regular patrol area and, when it did, transits were normally conducted as some form of joint operation. The documents now available list only eight such voyages between 1960 and 1986 and it seems likely that Canada knew about each of these and concurred with their taking place. …

While Canadian politicians may have offered bluster and nationalistic rhetoric when speaking publicly on the question of Arctic sovereignty, the facts suggest that behind the scenes the defence of the region was being carried out in the same cooperative spirit which has always characterised the defence of the continent. The fears of secretive American submarine passages were unfounded and concerns over the diminution of Canadian sovereignty exaggerated.30

Byers and Webb argue that “It must also be questioned whether it is only the maintenance of a submarine capability that ‘admits Canada to that exclusive group of states participating in regulated and highly classified submarine water space management and intelligence-sharing schemes.’”31 Waterspace management is all about the safe operation of submarines amongst friendly partners to ensure that their submarines do not collide with each other or are detected as unknown and potentially hostile targets. It is akin to air traffic control in a highly classified operational context.32 States operating SSBNs or running covert submarine missions do not share the routes used therein, but deconflict the movement of their secret submarine operations with the information shared amongst allied partners. While Byers and Webb assert, with no evidence to support their contention, that it would be in the interest of submarine nations to share information with Canada of covert Arctic submarine operations, this is simply not the case: Canada has been excluded on a number of occasions from information shared amongst its allies. The prime example is the wholesale embargo on classified information that occurred following the decision not to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom.33 Similarly, the US embargoed New Zealand in 1987 following that state’s decision to ban all visiting naval ships using nuclear propulsion or deploying nuclear weapons. Canada would have no reason to know the movements of our allies’ submarines if we did not possess our own.34



For an article that purports to be dedicated to finding policy alternatives, there is a tremendous amount of speculation and uncertainty in the paper. The authors argue against naval opinion that the lifespan of the vessels will be less than 30 years. Byers and Webb describe factors including “poor construction, a long period of storage in salt water, and a series of accidents both before and after Canada acquired them,” will limit the life span of the submarines. No less an authority on naval architecture than CBC reporter Greg Weston is used to justify this conclusion: “(B)y the time the whole fleet is in active service in 2016, the submarines will be almost 30 years old with only perhaps ten years of life left in them.”35 However, the real measure of a submarine’s useful life is determined both by how well it has been maintained and how it is operated. The Victoria’s lack of use, documented in the paper, in this case stands them well in terms of their remaining service longevity. In 2001, the RCN instituted its own SUBSAFE programme, described as an “overarching risk-based safety management system to cover aspects of submarine operations, escape and rescue, materiel, crew effectiveness and occupational health and safety.”36 SUBSAFE programmes were inaugurated by the USN following the loss of the USS Thresher due to mechanical problems on board the submarine.37 The RCN’s safety programme documents all work done to the submarine in order to certify its safety to dive.

They speculate that the UK’s decision to get rid of the submarines was related to the submarine’s initial technical problems,38 justified by a source39 that says nothing of the sort. In 1993, the UK Defence White Paper, Defending Our Future, concluded that SSNs possessed considerable operational advantages over SSKs and, further, that the number of SSNs in the RN's inventory was sufficient to meet the future defence needs of the country: “We have therefore decided to withdraw the Upholder class of conventional submarine from service by 1995 and are currently examining options of their future bearing in mind the investment they represent.”40

As discussed briefly above, nothing in their withdrawal suggested any RN dissatisfaction with the boats. Indeed, one former naval officer wrote in Proceedings that the Upholder cancellation would terminate British SSK design abilities as well as their internationally recognised submarine training programmes.41 The withdrawal of the Upholders seems to have had more to do with budgetary shortfalls and the urge to protect future programmes, not the least of which, future SSN procurement.42

They speculate that the navy’s strategic document Horizon 2050 may have not been released publically due to the “emphasis on Canadian-Chinese cooperation,” a bizarre conclusion given that Horizon 2050 says nothing about conflict with China – it is only Carleton University professor Elinor Sloan, quoted at length by Byers and Webb, who speculates that the document was written with China in mind.43

But the most egregious speculation is whether the Harper government has a secret plan to replace the submarines. Why are submarines not part of the National Shipbuilding Programme? Any number of reasons could explain their absence. Perhaps because they remain a controversial weapon system for many Canadians that was replaced only due to the sheer luck of the four Upholders coming onto the market in the manner they did. The Canadian Naval Review argues: 

The simple reason that submarines are not included in the shipbuilding strategy is that a small fleet of approximately four or even as many as eight submarines would detract from the goal of the strategy. There is no synergy gained by adding submarines to a coordinated approach for surface ship construction. Submarines are not included in the NSPS because it makes no military, economic or industrial sense to do so. The number of submarines cannot reasonably support continuous work, so adding them to the NSPS would promote the very “boom and bust” cycle that the strategy was intended to solve.44

Whatever the reason, it is ludicrous to think a new batch of submarines could be kept off the books in some secret account given the costs involved and the necessary involvement of actors outside the government.


Are Submarines Necessary for the Defence of Canada?

The paper is clearly devoted to the question of whether submarines are necessary to the defence of Canada. The question is politically charged. Under the Chretien government, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy went so far as to claim that submarines were an “un-Canadian” weapons systems because of their supposedly offensive orientation. Indeed, the former Vice Chief of Defence Staff, VAdm. Gary Garnett once declared to me in an interview that the Upholder acquisition was “the most improbable project” because of the ideological opposition within some groups in Canada to replacing the navy’s O-boats.45

Byers and Webb signal their own position early on, arguing that as the RCN has virtually gone without submarines since it divested itself of its O-boats in 2000 they are clearly not important to Canada’s day to day security.46 They might have made an even stronger case had they pointed out that for most of its history, the RCN has not possessed submarines. Two submarines were acquired following the declaration of war in 1914, but both were withdrawn from service at the close of that conflict. Two used American submarines were acquired in the early 1960s (HMCS Grilse and Rainbow) and the new British Oberons were purchased in 1965. Even when it did finally acquire them, for much of their operational life, they were not functional naval weapons. The O-boats became operational weapon systems only with the Submarine Operational Up-date Project (SOUP) of the 1980s, when the Mark 48 torpedoes were acquired for them. Prior to that, the submarines had been used only as “clockwork mice” in ASW exercises conducted by the navy.

However, the navy has long advocated for a sub-surface capability. Historian Julie Ferguson has referred to “the long cycle of submarine programmatics” in the RCN to this effect. The RCN argued consistently for submarines throughout the 1950s, and several studies examined the feasibility of acquiring American Skipjack class SSNs. The three O-boats were acquired in the 1960s but only as clockwork mice as noted above. Again, Ferguson notes that "It was the idea of operational submarines that offended many, not nuclear power," pointing to the long suspicions about the moral taint associated with submarines in Canada.47 Conventional submarines were necessary to train surface ships in ASW techniques in which Canada was specializing for its NATO role at sea. As such, they could be justified as necessary in the furtherance of this goal. The exorbitant cost of SSNs meant that they had to perform some operational role in order to justify the huge expense of acquiring them. However, despite the arguments of the RCN, Canadian submarines were to be restricted largely to training purposes.

Nevertheless, it is inaccurate to suggest that Canada has gone without the services of its submarines given the problems many of them have experienced since 2003. A former submarine commander argues that what is important is not the number of days spent at sea, but the quality of those days spent and here our submarines and their crews have quietly delivered the goods:

In the decade that Canada has operated these submarines, they’ve carried out tests and trials with special operations forces, enforced Canadian sovereignty through fisheries and anti-smuggling patrols, and participated in training with land, sea and air forces in the north. They have contributed to counter narcotics interdiction in our hemisphere, deployed to European waters and participated in advanced training with US carrier battle groups on both coasts.

Our allies have sufficient trust in our submariners’ professionalism that Canadians will control the movements of US submarines in the next Pacific Rim exercise. The gesture is hugely significant; our southern neighbours are notoriously skittish about assigning control of their boats to non-US commanders. As well during this past decade, at least four Canadian officers gained sufficient submerged experience to succeed at internationally recognized submarine command courses.48

 Cynics might point out that bureaucratic agents will always argue for more resources and additional operational capabilities. In suggesting such a state of affairs, they effectively argue that those doing so are poor stewards for the institutions they represent, that they are acting unprofessionally. While it may be an “iron law” that bureaucracies pursue such policies, it is also true that such resources and capabilities must be justified rationally to those who control the purse strings. Such capabilities must be both affordable and they must be necessary. The navy clearly thinks that submarines are critical to its operations given the number of resources it has poured into them in the past decade. This commitment cannot be explained by the surreptitious influence of some sort of submarine union or cabal within the RCN: there are relatively few qualified submariners as a trade within the navy compared to the number of regular sailors.49 The senior ranks of the service is not dominated by submarine qualified officers either.50 Rather, we must conclude that the navy has found in its best professional judgment that submarines are a critical piece of hardware in modern naval force structure.

Byers and Webb argue that the Danes had submarines and got rid of them following the end of the Cold War. Surely, if the Danes can safely rid themselves of submarines, it should be safe for Canada to do likewise? This is a specious argument. The deliberation of national military policy is subject to a wide variety of influences, political, social, geographic as well as economic. Comparisons between different national policies, especially at lower levels is difficult. For example, New Zealand does not operate fighters in its air force, should Canada follow in their example and not replace the CF-18s? Iceland, one of our NATO partners no less, doesn’t even have a military at all. Should we follow their example and simply transfer any residual capacity to the RCMP for internal defence?

Questions of force structure turn on strategic determinations of threat and capability. As Byers and Webb’s criticism of the Navy’s Horizon 2050 demonstrates, there is room for disagreement over what the future holds in terms of the strategic environment. In the present environment, Canada clearly faces few direct military threats, and broader questions of international peace and security are ones to which, as a middle power, we can only hope to make a modest contribution. But, as we have seen in the past two decades, the Canadian Forces have been risked in a variety of locations that no one expected: the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Libya. It is impossible to know with any certainty where the government of the day might send them next, just as it is impossible to know what crises will erupt and in what political context they will take place (and thus how the Canadian people and their government will view the necessity to commit force).

As an apolitical instrument of the government, it is not for the military to prejudge these purely political considerations, but simply to be as ready as possible for whatever missions that its government ultimately assigns. The military, thus, must hedge against not only fundamental uncertainty in the international environment, but also the domestic one that determines their commitments. As Jim Fergusson recently argued in respect to the F-35 acquisition, politics not (the absence of) capabilities should determine our ability to make international contributions.51

Both decisions and “non-decisions” on force capability will resonate long into the future. While Canada desired to play a lead role in the response to the crisis in Central Africa in the mid-1990s, Canada had neither the diplomatic capital nor the military capability by then to pull it off, resulting in the so called “Bungle in the Jungle”. The failure of the military to replace our air defence destroyers in time for the retirements of the DDG-280 class ship now means that Canada’s future ability to respond with a self-sufficient naval task group, as it did during the Gulf War and most recently in the War on Terror, will be greatly limited. This reduction in capability will constrain the government’s hands in real ways. The navy played an important diplomatic function in keeping the Western coalition together during the difficult days following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as both Richard Gimblett and I have argued.52 In future crises, Canada’s steadying hand at sea may well be absent, especially if the Joint Support Ship project continues to experience delays.

Submarines remain one of the most potent military weapons a state can deploy. They remain difficult to detect and torpedo design has progressed to the point where a single weapon is capable of sinking most vessels. In an age when navy ships cost in the billions of dollars, the loss of a single vessel has a strategic impact all out of proportion to the tactical value they might provide. The loss of the Belgrano to HMS Conqueror’s torpedoes in the Falklands War caused the strategic withdrawal of the Argentinian fleet from the vicinity of the islands, complicating their defence from British forces. While the Argentinian air force continued to harry the British, their jets were operating at the very edge of their range and could stay in the area only for brief strikes. Further, Argentinian submarines successfully targeted HMS Hermes, the loss of which would have prompted the withdrawal of the British fleet.53 

It is often claimed that Canada’s O-boats provided considerable deterrent value during the so-called Turbot crisis, which Byers and Webb note in their paper. Laurence Hickey gives a detailed account just how effective Canadian submarines have been, both during the Turbot Crisis, as well as during on-going fisheries patrols aimed at American fishery vessels that stray over the border between the United States and Canada.54 As the above example demonstrates, navies are considerably cautious about deploying into areas where hostile submarines may be present.55 Because of their silent nature, conventional boats are particularly troublesome in this regard. Even old and obsolete boats can still pose a threat: during the Falklands, the Argentinean submarine Santiago del Estero, was inoperable due to an inability to submerge. Nevertheless, the Argentineans regularly moved it about to give the impression that it was capable of conducting operations.56

Byers and Webb make the argument that the demonstrable surveillance coverage provided by submarines could easily be replaced by UAVs. This is simply not the case. First, few UAV platforms can deal with the weather conditions found off all three of our coasts – they are not all-weather platforms. Second, UAV operations envisaged by Byers and Webb would require satellite uplinks, an additional cost not factored into their considerations. Further, such links would be unavailable in many areas of the Arctic as well due to the inherent orbital limitations of the communication satellites that carry UAV traffic.57 Although UAVs can fly much longer than manned platforms, they still do not have the persistence of a submarine. Even a conventional boat, using energy management, can remain underwater for weeks at a time listening to the traffic on the surface. Further, they can remain on station for up to a month without replenishment; a frigate can patrol only for about 12 days before it needs to be resupplied with fuel and provisions.58 Such long duration UAVs that could meet these
demanding performance figures remain experimental platforms only.59 Last, unregulated flight of UAVs is not permitted within Canadian airspace. UAV flights need special permission that must be arranged weeks in advance and lasts only for the duration of the flight itself, which dramatically limits their operational flexibility. While such flights may eventually be permitted, new regulations for UAVs may take several years yet to be drafted and will be dependent on the development of autonomous “see and avoid” technologies.60

While submarines will likely remain controversial in a Canadian context, they are an accepted part of the naval team in those navies that deploy them, including many of our allies. They provide tremendous value for long range and stealthy surveillance, and their offensive power is a prime consideration in the minds of opposing naval commanders. Our present submarines, even with the on-going costs involved, provide considerable value in this regard, as well as assisting our navy and that of the US in keeping their operational ASW skills honed and effective.  



While Admiral Garnett may have described the acquisition of the Upholder submarines from the British as the most improbable project, subsequent history has also shown it to be only one in a string of troubled procurements by the Canadian Forces. The acquisition of an “orphan class” together with the failure to acquire sufficient replacement parts for the boats led to the on-going delays in getting them operational. Nevertheless, the claims by Byers and Webb that the entire class was poorly constructed and fundamentally flawed from the outset has been shown to be as leaky as they claim the Canadian submarine programme to be.

Second, the argument that Canada does not require submarines for its defence is highly debatable. Only military success and failure can ultimately prove the worth of a specific weapon system. However, the history of submarine operations shows their continuing effectiveness. Canada will continue to deploy its ships into harm’s way and thus their crews must be prepared to face undersea threats in their operations. The navy clearly believes that these weapon systems are central to effective naval operations, both offensively as well as defensively. While it has an obvious professional interest in the answer to this question, nothing in this report fundamentally undermines the navy’s claim. Our submarines remain affordable within the confines of the existing naval budget61 and thus there is no reason to eliminate the boats.

Last, the argument that the government has some sort of secret plan to replace the submarines in the future, presumably against the best wishes of the Canadian public, is extraordinary – emerging as it does from such a privileged platform. The theory that Ottawa could conceal a multi-billion dollar project necessarily involving foreign contractors, domestic industrial interests, and considerable interdepartmental coordination must be substantiated with real evidence before it is released for widespread public consumption. We can and should have a serious debate on Canada’s military programmes. Such a debate needs critical perspectives like that Byers and Webb seek to provide in their report. However, serious debate also requires serious research and the commitment to pursue the truth, wherever it may lead, rather than substandard efforts to score easy rhetorical points. In this, That Sinking Feeling does not stand up to critical scrutiny.


About the Author 

Paul Mitchell holds a BA (Hons) from Wilfred Laurier University, a MA in War Studies from King’s College London, and a PhD from Queen’s University at Kingston. Following the completion of his doctoral studies, he worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Halifax in the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, where he assisted with the production of the Canadian Navy’s “Adjusting Course” strategy. He also worked as Directing Staff at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre on their Maritime Peacekeeping course in 1996 and 1997. He has worked at the Canadian Forces College since 1998, first as the Deputy Director Academics, and later as its first Director of Academics (DAcad). As DAcad, Dr Mitchell oversaw the development of the Master of Defence Studies degree following accreditation of the Command and Staff Course by the Ontario Council of Graduate Studies in 2001. Between 2005 and 2007, Dr. Mitchell was an Associate Professor at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University and also taught at the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute’s Command and Staff College.

Dr Mitchell was awarded the Literary Award by the United States Naval Institute and the Surface Naval Association for his paper on Network-Centric Warfare and Small Navies in 2003, the first non-American and the first civilian to be so recognised. He recently was published in the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ prestigious Adelphi Paper series with his Network-Centric Warfare: Coalition Operations in the Age of US Military Primacy.



The views expressed in this paper are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Canadian Forces College or the Department of National Defence. The author greatly appreciates the assistance of Commodore Laurence M. Hickey (RCN Ret.d), and Commander Scott McVicar (RCN). Any errors in this report are the responsibility of the author alone.


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  • David Dunlop
    commented 2018-10-02 15:03:15 -0400
    This article significantly illustrates the reasons why Canada should begin immediately to acquire a “new” fleet of 12 modern subs soonest! Canadian submarine interests are divided into three categories: the defence of Canada and North America, supporting Canadian expeditionary deployments to joint action ashore and Canada’s interest in global maritime stability. Recent Russian Submarine Fleet excursions into the North Atlantic and increased Russian activities in the air and at sea, has given the NATO alliance greater concern about the security of the North Atlantic. NATO aspires to have greater control of the North Atlantic by establishing a new Joint Force Command with Canada as a major player in this organization. Modern characteristics of 21ST Century submarines are: endurance, stealth, freedom of movement and versatility. The best sensor weapon that gives others pause is without question, another submarine. If Canada does not invest in a modern submarine capability, our navy will be unable to patrol its three oceans. The larger question to answer is: Why are replacement submarines not included in Canada’s National Shipbuilding Strategy?

    Canada can ill-afford to ignore what happens below the surface of our three oceans so vital to our national interests any longer. It is a foregone conclusion that there are submarines beneath Canada’s polar ice cap and…..they are not ours. As Vice-Admiral Maddison said four years ago, “losing the capability of underwater surveillance and attack, would be a dire day for Canada. In terms of surveillance of our ocean approaches and the protection of our own sovereignty, a submarine capability is paramount. To lose that, for a G8 (now G7) nation, a NATO member like Canada, a country that continues to lead internationally, and aspires to lead more, the loss of this submarine capability would be considered a critical loss”.
    The market for submarines, with emerging naval powers such as India and China, has grown exponentially, but there are only a handful of countries capable of building them. At the top of this list are companies like ThyssenKrupp Marine of Germany, BAE Systems Maritime–Submarines of Britain, DNCS from France, and General Dynamics Electric Boat from the U.S.A. Replacement submarines must be Canadian built, with Canadian Steel and Canadian Jobs, but with foreign expertise. Whatever submarine may be chosen, it is critical that Canadian support, infrastructure and crew training are included; a vital and expensive component in itself. The current fleet of four Victoria Class submarines are inadequate to provide an effective presence in our three oceans. A much larger fleet of twelve modern submarines is required, which permits the stationing of six vessels per coast and provide the option to deploy into the Arctic. Three boats would be high readiness/deployed; one to two would be in deep maintenance (every 5 years) and one to two in build up/build down/training mode. Canada then needs to judiciously select a modern submarine design.
    There is no doubt that Canada’s beleaguered submarine capability is in great peril, and could soon die a thousand deaths. There is no denying current Defence Department fiscal constraints, but also no denying that permanently moth-balling our submarine capability would be a major catastrophe and a critical mistake no matter which future government is in power. Canada’s allies have all agreed that a credible submarine capability brings with it enhanced flexibility to conduct military operations and the ability to collaborate with other allied states.
    The Canadian government may have sorely miss-lead Canadians into believing that “being back” as our Prime Minister has said within the NATO umbrella, means Canada will be participating in Peacekeeping and Peace Support operations in a much more meaningful way. If this is correct, then acquiring a Strategic Submarine fleet, no matter what propulsion plant is used, will be essential to this policy. The Canadian government must step up to the plate and commence the procurement process before the end of 2018 in order to judiciously acquire 12 new modern submarines for the RCN and carry out future government missions that all Canadians expect of us.
    An annual Defence budget increase of at least 2% of GDP, as proposed by the House Of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, will give the government the resources needed to build these submarines sooner rather than later, and allow Canada to easily fund an SSN/SSK acquisition programme, finally giving Canada the ability to contribute our “fair share” within NATO. A modern 12 submarine fleet replacement of the Victoria Class, with a commensurate increase in submariner strength, would then not only be possible, but any of these built-in-Canada designs either under construction or development, could be easily acquired and would be a transformative change for our country. There would be no negative effects on Canada’s defence needs in the future, or on Canada’s strong social economy. The ability to deploy it’s submarine forces at home or abroad from bases in Halifax or Esquimalt, has considerable appeal to a country that wishes to renew its NATO presence. Canada must seriously re-examine the concept of a Canadian SSN submarine programme. The time for such a re-examination is now.
    So long as the government of the day and military leadership remain willing to accept that our Nation’s future strategic, political and military options will not be unnecessarily reduced by the absence of a credible submarine capability, Canada will never live up to its full potential as an influential global middle power. It is time for our Prime Minister to clearly state the government’s intentions with respect to the future of Canada’s submarine fleet and begin the process of replacing the Victoria Class with a modern, credible, SSN/SSK capability. To accomplish this under current fiscal constraints, would be difficult at best. The Victoria Class fleet must be utilized for several years longer, past 2030-well beyond their shelf-life, before modern submarines can be secured, unless an increase in Defence spending is realized soon.

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