Canadian submarines: redux or realistic?

29 July 2023

The Conference of Defence Associations Institute may have inadvertently – deliberately? – presented the federal government with solutions to a couple of lingering conundrums. One is how to relieve some of the push within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for Canada to spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defence. The other is how to be more prepared on the global front, especially in the increasingly strategic Arctic.

It’s all set out in the latest in a CDAI “force development series” of discussion papers, this one flowing from a roundtable of subject-matter experts last November. Published in late July, it discusses “future submarine capability” as the Royal Canadian Navy contemplates replacement of its four Victoria-class boats which are approaching the end of their service life.

The bottom line, as it were, for Canada is that to sustain a fully-operational fleet on three ocean fronts, the ideal program would involve a dozen subs: one at sea, a second ready at dockside for rapid deployment, a third at dockside for “regeneration” or short-term work, and the fourth in drydock for “deep” maintenance, upgrades and/or repairs.

That approach isn’t new, having been recommended to cabinet in the early 1960s by the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Herbert Rayner. But the fly in the ointment was that nuclear-powered subs were the preferred option, which he had inherited from his predecessor, Harry De Wolf.

The latter had recommended in 1959 that five new U.S. Skipjack-class subs be purchased, but Rayner’s resurrected call for a dozen nukes was too rich for the government (and nuclear-averse voters), so three British diesel-electric Oberon-class boats were procured instead.

In the early 1980s, the RCN, rebadged as Maritime Command by the government, began a program to replace the Oberons and expand the fleet to as many as 12 with under-ice capability. The initial proposal was to stick with SSKs but tactical realities in the Arctic prompted Conservative Defence Minister Erik Nielsen to revisit the nuclear option.

That set the stage for a proposal to build 10 Canada-class attack submarines, with an option for two more, the goal being better monitoring of activities in the Arctic and enforcing Canadian sovereignty.

But it was scuttled in the face of significant political and public criticism, leaving the RCN to continue making-do with its aging Oberons until June 1998 when Canada looked across the Atlantic again, eventually getting four Upholder-class boats from the Royal Navy. Designed in the 1980s and commissioned from 1990 to 1993 as a supplement to the Silent Service’s nuclear subs, the first of which had entered service in 1960. The four Upholders, originally were proposed as a 12-boat fleet, were paid off in 1994 later when the British government decided it wanted an all-nuclear fleet as part of a growing global trend.

So in June 1998, Canada signed an eight-year interest-free, lease-to-buy arrangement for the lightly-used Upholders, renamed the Victoria-class, as Oberon replacements. Some of the $750 million cost was paid off in various barter agreements (strawberries were rumoured to have been one element) that included Canada deferring or waiving charges for the use of Canadian training bases. The “new” subs were marketed as a “cost-effective” interim measure to maintain the RCN’s submarine capability for the RCN pending a permanent replacement for the Oberons. That expectation turned out to be optimistic due to a problem-plagued introduction that lasted a decade.

Dealing with corrosion, battery fires and leaks in the pressure hulls meant that the Victorias didn’t reach full fleet operational status for nearly a decade and they’re now are expected to remain in service, two each based on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, until a replacement projected for the late 2030s. But the CDAI paper cautions that “it is highly unlikely that Canada will continue to get ‘real’ value from this capability well into the 2030s.”

Any procurement plan will inevitably spark a round of lobbying on behalf of foreign submarine builders. U.S. yards are nuclear-focused but the CDAI identifies a number of diesel-electric options. They include the Japanese Taigei, South Korea’s KSS III, the Swedish Blekinge, Germany’s Type 216, the French ShortFin Barracuda, and Spain’s Isaac Peral S-80. Japan currently has the fastest-build time, 48 months, followed by South Korea, Italy, Germany, Sweden, France, and Spain.

There also will be equally inevitable arguments to Canadian subs built at Canadian shipyards even though they have never built submarines, but the consensus as the CDAI roundtable was that Canada does not have the time to develop that capability – let alone the expense of reconfiguring domestic capacity.

“Time is the ultimate challenge,” the CDAI says. “The optimal Canadian design may not exist yet, but avoiding the looming capability gap is the most important variable as ‘perfection is the enemy of good enough’,” it says. Given the strategic requirements and various challenges, the hybrid build option, with the base vessel constructed offshore and electronics and major components outfitted domestically, appears to be the most viable solution.”

The CDAI doesn’t really need to make a case for the RCN continuing to have submarines, but it does highlight their role as “strategic deterrents, capable of altering adversaries’ decision-making across various maritime theatres.” With 41 other countries operating subs, “it is incumbent upon Canada, in line with our allies, to maintain a modern and capable submarine fleet.”

That said, it identifies a number of challenges: the fundamental procurement, the need for specialized crew training, naval infrastructure cost and the aforementioned lack of domestic construction expertise.

Then there’s the public perception which drive the politics, especially with the next federal election set for late 2025 unless the New Democratic Party torpedoes the minority Liberal government beforehand. On that note, the CDAI reports an possibly naïve consensus within the roundtable that “Canada needs to depoliticize defence procurement” but that is unlikely.

“Given the historical policy and budget constraints that have shaped Canada's approach to submarine procurement,” the CDAI puts out three procurement routes: a domestic build, a foreign off-the-shelf purchase, or a preferred hybrid approach involving a foreign “bare hull” fitted out in Canada.

Whatever the option, and possibly ignoring the global warming trend, the paper argues that “under-ice warfare will be likely and should be factored into the design of Canada’s future submarine.” That was predicated on non-nuclear-powered submarines which infers capability at the edge of sea ice and not deep into the Arctic which has the potential to be an area of conflict. Then there’s the Indo-Pacific region where the federal government is focusing renewed attention as China asserts its growing influence.

“Merely suspecting that a submarine might be in the vicinity can force an enemy to adjust their tactics and exercise greater caution, providing Canada and its allies with a strategic advantage,” the CDAI says. “Submarines are Canada’s only platform capable of providing strategic deterrence, making them indispensable in the current era of multi-polar strategic competition.”

To remain “relevant” within NATO in the face of growing threats, it adds that “Canada must carry its weight by modernizing all defence capabilities, including its submarine fleet.[…] A proactive defence strategy is crucial rather than merely hoping for positive outcomes in global conflicts or areas of tension, such as those in Ukraine, Taiwan, North Korea, and Iran.”

In urging investment in a capable submarine fleet, the CDAI says it would enable Canada to confront emerging threats and maintain its position as “a responsible and reliable ally” in a complex and dynamic geopolitical landscape. “This underscores the importance of acquiring and modernizing submarines to ensure that Canada remains capable of defending its national interests.”

With the current fleet creeping toward the 40-year mark, there is a policy framework in place for continental defence renewal. But aimed mainly at the North American Aerospace Defence Command, it doesn’t specifically reference the maritime demand. Moreover, the governmen’s 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged policy paper only points to further modernizing rather than replacing the four submarines.

“This may change with time,” the CDAI ventures, anticipating a Defence Policy Update promised in the 2022 federal budget. “But there cannot be any guarantee without strong, political leadership. The lack of public support, CAF personnel shortages, and an increasingly volatile strategic environment also add to the complexity of the situation.

“Canada's grand strategy on the international stage is rooted in an older era's myth and an unwillingness to invest resources in military options. With only one submarine working at any given time and three coastlines to protect, it is crucial to determine the optimal number of submarines and their specific maintenance and crew requirements. This involves reassessing Canada's strategic ambitions and balancing them with realistic resource allocation.”