Image credit: Mat 1 Kendric Grasby, Forces armees canadiennes
by Adam Lajeunesse
This editorial was crafted with the Naval Association of Canada to address a critical security issue at an inflexion point.
On April 30, the Department of National Defence concluded its public consultations for the Defence Policy Update. More than the standard policy refresh, the decisions made as a result of the review may very well define Canada’s response to the rapidly deteriorating global security situation for generations to come.
Of the many critical questions that will need addressing, perhaps the most strategically important is the future of Canada’s submarine fleet. Today, Canada’s four Victoria-class submarines are rapidly approaching obsolescence, with decommissioning expected to begin in the mid-2030s. While DND has launched a project to explore their replacement, that process has yet to result in firm decisions or a public commitment.
Time is not on Canada’s side. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has radically altered our national security situation. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace noted this month that Russian submarines are probing new routes in the North Atlantic while Moscow doubles down on naval construction. In the Pacific, an increasingly aggressive China is radically expanding its submarine force, from 56 vessels today to a projected 70 by the end of the decade. This growing strength has emboldened Beijing in its steady stream of threats towards Taiwan and other Canadian partners in the region.
The value of submarines is beyond dispute. Even as its surface fleet has been pushed back into port by the threat of anti-shipping missiles, Russia can reliably close the Black Sea to Ukrainian ships with only two submarines. American planners have repeatedly seen this value in war games focused on Taiwan. There, submarines consistently emerge as the key to success or failure against a Chinese invasion.
These are not new revelations. During the Falklands War, Britain pushed the entire Argentinian navy back to port after sinking the cruiser Belgrano by a submarine. The mere threat of these vessels operating in the area was enough to do the job, demonstrating why they are considered strategic assets.
Closer to home, Canada now faces a growing set of challenges. New defence threats from Russia and China have joined emerging security threats from illegal fishing, trespassing and environmental degradation. These all require deterrence and stealthy surveillance. Even state-backed sabotage has re-emerged as a real threat, dramatically demonstrated by the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines and the NATO tracking of Russian spy ships now being equipped to sabotage undersea cables and critical infrastructure.
Other states have already begun adapting to these new realities. Australia has announced a fleet of nuclear vessels, the Europeans are expanding their fleets and American shipyards are working at capacity. Meanwhile, the global submarine market for new procurement set to reach $45 billion annually by the early 2030s.
Canada risks being the only G7 state without this vital capability. The loss to national security will be immeasurable. Canada’s influence at NATO will fall further, the new Indo-Pacific Strategy will be unmasked as hollow and the country will become increasingly beholden to Washington for the surveillance and defence of our national waters.
The Defence Policy Update needs to be a real political and financial commitment to procure a fleet of at least eight submarines for the navy – the number studies identify as the bare minimum needed to reliably undertake the tasks Canada will demand of them. The procurement process must also be streamlined to deliver capability by the 2030s. Without this commitment, Canada’s contribution to its allies, and even to its own defence, will ring hollow.
Quick action is possible. There are many friendly nations building submarines that would be open to a partnership with Canada for an off-the-shelf procurement. Sweden, Korea, and Japan are likely the most suitable. Canada has even shown that it can streamline the processes in a crisis. During the fighting in Afghanistan equipment was bought and deployed quickly as soldiers’ lives were at stake. Canada’s current support for Ukraine has, likewise, shown its ability to cut through the red tape to purchase and deploy equipment rapidly when the pressure is great enough.
Canada’s submarine fleet demands the same sense of urgency. The window to save and revitalize that vital capability is small and rapidly closing. A strong and independent Canadian navy needs submarines and that will require a clear statement of requirement from the Defence Policy Update. That statement must also be matched by a real investment of political capital and a willingness to expedite the process in a way that major procurement projects have not been in the past.
About the Author
Adam Lajeunesse is an associate professor at St. Francis Xavier and research co-ordinator at the Naval Association of Canada (NAC).