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The Navy can’t wait for new submarines

by Stewart Web (feat. Canadian Global Affairs Institute)

National Post
June 8, 2016

It has been reported that the Liberal government will be purchasing new Super Hornet jets as a stopgap measure until a decision can be made about what will replace the CF-18 fleet. This has been a policy that both Australia and the U.S. Navy have adopted. It’s a policy that the Trudeau government is getting some flak about.

The truth of the matter is that the flying hours of our CF-18s have been eroding because of recent missions in Libya, Iraq and Eastern Europe. No contract has been signed to replace them and something needs to be done. There is a long history of the Canadian Armed Forces operating equipment well past its service life. A most notable example is, of course, the Sea King helicopters. Another would have to be the Victoria-class submarines, much to the chagrin of the naval leadership.

The Royal Canadian Navy is on a public relations campaign to prove the worth of our submarine fleet during the new Defence Review. Sixteen years after the first Victoria-class submarine was commissioned, we have one “operational” submarine — HMCS Windsor.

The fleet has proved useful. During a recent NATO exercise, Windsor switched missions to track down five real Russian submarines. Unfortunately, the submarine recently returned to Halifax with engine trouble. It was on its way to participate in NATO’s annual anti-submarine exercise, Dynamic Mongoose. If Windsor is promptly repaired, it will certainly be absent for part of the exercise and if not, it will miss out entirely, and the cost of its repairs will gain national headlines again.

To understand the Victoria-class submarine legacy, we need to look back to its Canadian inception back in the 1990s. Our Oberon-class submarines were obsolete, and there was a risk the cash-starved Canadian military would retire them without replacements. If so, we risked losing not just their military capabilities, but the expertise acquired by our small, but highly skilled corps of submariners. The then-Liberal government decided to replace the submarines, but the available budget was tiny.

Only one workable option presented itself  — relatively new diesel submarines commissioned by Britain’s Royal Navy, but then mothballed after the British decided, post-Cold War, to move to a smaller, all-nuclear-powered submarine fleet. Canada was not the only country that expressed some interest in these Upholder-class submarines, but in 1998, we were the ultimate purchaser. 

In Canada, it was almost immediately known that there were going to be problems. The submarines had been out of service for years, and had deteriorated. They also did not use technology that was fully compatible with existing Canadian systems. They have proved challenging to bring to full operational status.  The fire on HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004 resulted in the death of one crew member and the submarine has not fully recovered. The other three have experienced serious problems with rust, electrical and propulsion issues, and it took years to arm the ships with modern torpedoes and firing systems.

The Harper government signed a $1.5-billion deal in 2008 to maintain the four beleaguered submarines, which we bought for $750 million. The cost rose to $1.7 billion and now it has been announced it will reach $2.6 billion.

The Harper government also announced the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) in 2010, which aims to reinvigorate the fleets of the Canadian Coast Guard and the Navy. Interestingly, there was no mention of replacing our submarines. By 2041, when the plan is scheduled to be complete, these will be approaching 50 years old. To put this in context, it is typical for naval ships to be replaced when they reach 35 years. It is also typical that the ships will not have had nearly the troubled history of our subs.

The NSPS could have incorporated submarine construction in its original plan. And there is no reason why it cannot now. Australia just signed a deal with France’s DCNS group to build 12 new submarines at Australia’s Adelaide facility. The challenge for Canada, of course, is politics. Our military procurement is about “creating jobs” first, and arming our troops second.

The government, the Canadian public and, more importantly, the Navy itself, need to understand that the Victoria-class subs were not a permanent solution. The deal should have been sold to the public, and appreciated by the government, as a stopgap measure to tide the Navy over and maintain our submarine capabilities. At the very least, a replacement program should have already been under way.

It is true that the Trudeau government is already saddled with several high-profile military procurement challenges. But submarines are a key military capability, and take time to build. The Navy can’t wait. 

Stewart Webb, editor of DefenceReport and a defence consultant, has written numerous reports on defence procurement, including fore the Navy. His most recent report, Canada’s hidden plan for predicted failure: Planning for the introduction of the Canadian Surface Combatant was published in January through the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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