A Future for Canadian submarines? Costs, Capabilities, and Interests

Canada’s submarine fleet often sparks debate over its high maintenance costs and over whether Canada needs submarines at all. Going forward, that debate must centre on how costs, capabilities, and Canadian interests align with one another.

Canada’s Victoria Class submarine fleet has been controversial since its inception. Most recently, a report by Michael Byers and Stewart Webb argues that the time has come to either phase out the program or commit to a robust discussion of how to replace the fleet. Critics cite a disappointing history of expensive repairs, time lost, and a tragic fire. Supporters insist that the boats provide important capabilities. And Navy planners have sought to get the ball rolling on acquiring new subs sometime after 2020. Going forward, debate over the current fleet and its potential replacement should include all of those elements, but focus on how they align with one another, on whether submarines provide the right capabilities at the right price to serve Canada’s national interests.

An aerial shot of HMCS Corner Brook

Costs

The subs were launched in the late 1980s and early 1990s, laid aside by the UK in 1994, purchased by Canada in 1998, and delivered between 2000 and 2004. Canada undertook their first real refit after years sitting in saltwater, ending in significant cost overruns. Tragically, during its cross-Atlantic voyage a fire broke out on HMCS Chicoutimi resulting in the death of a sailor and deferral of Chicoutimi’s repairs to 2010.

Since 2003, the boats have spent a combined total of 1131 days at sea (less than 33% of the time). HMCS Corner Brook remains in maintenance, begun after she ran aground during exercises in 2011 (to be completed in 2016) and despite a recent $209-million refit HMCS Windsor is restricted to operations in Canadian waters until one of its engines is removed and replaced late this summer.

Nevertheless, the fleet is scheduled to reach “steady state,” (two subs at high readiness, one at standard readiness, and one in refit) with the completion of Chicoutimi’s repairs at the end of 2013. As one retired Admiral says, the fleet may be turning a corner and Canada may be able now to reap some benefits.

With regard to replacing the fleet, Byers and Webb note the three main options range in cost (depending on capabilities) from $365 million to $950 million per ship. They also note, though, that replacement subs would be new, off-the-shelf (but built in Canada) and unlikely to have similar maintenance problems and costs.

Interests and Capabilities

Canadian interests to which submarines could be relevant can be divided into three categories: the defence of Canada and North America, supporting Canadian expeditionary deployments, and supporting Canada’s interest in global maritime stability.

First, regarding the defence of Canada and North America, proponents argue that submarines provide the ability to covertly carry out coastal sovereignty and surveillance patrols, including in the Arctic. But as Byers and Webb point out, in Canadian waters at least, these functions can be performed better (and cheaper) by aircraft and drones, combined with surface-craft for enforcement. Also, the Victoria Class has no under-ice capability, although new subs likely would.

Second, submarines could support certain expeditionary deployments. The current fleet can provide security for other naval platforms, their covert surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities would be valuable, and they can enhance the activities of special operations forces. New subs could have the capability to hit land targets with guided missiles launched from offshore, as American and British boats did in support of NATO’s Libyan operation in 2011.

Supporting global maritime stability is a key interest for Canada as it relies heavily on sea-borne trade, even with the United States. More broadly, Canada has long worked to entrench and expand global trade, which is heavily sea-reliant. As its government seeks to expand trade relations with Europe, Asia, and Latin America the importance of commercial sea routes, and therefore of global maritime stability, will only increase for Canada.

This is particularly the case in the quintessentially maritime Asia Pacific region where China in particular is driving growth in economic and military power. Byers and Stewart argue that because of its global trading links, including with Canada, China is unlikely to engage in conflict, so investing in submarines based on the slim probability of Canadian engagement in such a conflict may be unwise. But according to Elinor Sloan, “Horizon 2050: A strategic concept for Canada’s navy,” the document presumed to be guiding future naval platform acquisitions, views maritime inter-state competition in the region with concern.

As I outlined previously, territorial disputes, great power strategy, and nationalist emotions in Asia Pacific create a volatile mix. In this environment conventional deterrence and power projection will play an important role, either in maintaining stability or in actual conflict. The potential for a Canadian submarine presence in such Asia Pacific roles was forecast by HMCS Victoria’s participation in the US-led Rim of the Pacific, 2012 exercise.

In this vein Commander Michael Craven notes that submarines provide access to areas denied to other forces and serve as a credible deterrent against almost all forces, including other states’ sea-borne power projection platforms. They can also serve in a power projection role, especially around shipping “choke points” and littoral areas. To be sure, surface ships can perform these roles (and others that submarines cannot), but they lack the tactical and psychological advantages of stealthy subs. Submarines can also provide these capabilities in the Arctic. As Byers and Webb point out the Victoria Class has no real under-ice capability, but any new subs would almost certainly have air-independent engines, allowing them to operate under the Arctic ice.

Conclusion

Debate concerning Canada’s submarine fleet and its possible renewal will consider many factors, from costs to capabilities and interests. The final decision must be made based on how those factors align with each other. Submarines provide many capabilities, but they are not necessarily the only platforms that do, and may or may not be the most efficient platforms in the doing. I am not qualified to judge whether submarines are the ideal platform for Canada to secure its interests as efficiently as possible, but that discussion of balance must be the centre of debate in the future.

 

About Andrew Chisholm

Andrew graduated from the Master of Global Affairs programme at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs in 2015. He previously graduated from the University of King’s College in 2012, with a B.A., Combined Honours, in Political Science and History, and studied Conflict Resolution and the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His primary interests are in inter- and intra-state conflict, sovereignty and governance, diplomacy and negotiation, and national security. Contact: andrewmchisholm@gmail.com