Submarines – the Silent Service
May 15, 2007

Following the May 2005 completion of the Board of Inquiry (BOI) into the tragic accident involving HMCS Chicoutimi the previous fall (see backgrounder next page), Vice-Admiral Bruce MacLean, then the Commander of Canada’s Navy, lifted the operational pause on Canadian submarines. Within days, following essential repairs and remedial training mandated by the BOI, HMC Submarines Victoria and Windsor returned to sea. Since then, Canadian Victoria Class submarines have logged 268 days at sea, steaming 32,450 nautical miles and participating in 27 exercises with Canadian and allied navies. This resounding success has marked the return of an important capability to the Navy, the Canadian Forces, and importantly, to the Government of Canada.

Given the traditionally reserved nature of the “silent service,” many Canadians are not aware of the increasingly important role that Victoria Class submarines play. After the in-depth media coverage of the unfortunate Chicoutimi incident, there has been limited coverage about subsequent successes.

The current concept of operations calls for an enhanced level of cooperation between military elements never before seen. Joint Task Groups that bring together select components from Canadian and allied forces are the way of the future, and Canadian submarines have a role to play here as well. In addition to conducting covert solo patrols, the Victoria Class submarine is capable of conducting operations as an element within a wider task group. This particular role has been rehearsed repeatedly over the past few years and promises to become of even greater importance in the future. Other tasks within their mandate include enhanced co-operation with the U.S. in the sphere of maritime security, and a greater emphasis on domestic operations.

Previous and present Governments have re-iterated the ­commitment to complete, in the near term, the process of ­bringing the Victoria Class submarines into active service. The Canadian Navy has responded, and the situation in early 2007 shows HMCS Corner Brook on the threshold of becoming an operational and deployable asset for the Government of Canada.

Canadian submarines have always worked closely with the U.S. Navy, and these past 18 months have been no different. HMCS Windsor has participated in three U.S.-led exercises, including operations with the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group and port visits  to Charlestown, Mayport and Cape Canaveral.

Maritime interdiction operations (MIO), covertly monitoring and reporting shipping, are a traditional submarine specialty. Both Corner Brook and Windsor have contributed to the security of North America by collecting and reporting information on vessels of interest in the approaches to our major seaports and within the economic exclusion zone.

As mentioned, an area of increasing importance has been joint exercises with the Canadian Army. HMCS Windsor conducted Exercise Joint Express during 2006, which involved working with army Patrol Pathfinders, naval coastal defence vessels and CC-130 Hercules aircraft, focussed on developing procedures for the covert insertion of specialist forces. The initial exercise in the spring of 2006 was the first time Victoria Class submarines had worked with Canadian specialist forces, and was oriented towards developing joint operating procedures and protocols.

Another recent first, was a submarine vs submarine exercise in December 2006 that pitted Windsor against Corner Brook. This marked the first time that Canadian submarines have exercised and sailed together since the early 1990s.

Victoria Class submarines have also participated in exercises with American, Colombian and French submarines. Furthermore, Canadian officers have taken part in American, Dutch and Norwegian Submarine Command Courses.

A quick review of Jane’s Fighting Ships, the authoritative naval reference book, reveals that the number of navies operating submarines has remained relatively unchanged in recent years (just over 40 countries) with a worldwide total of over 300 submarines. It is important to note that while the total number of submarines worldwide has declined, the general quality level is rising and, consequently, a potent threat remains. Thus, despite the importance of surface warfare capabilities, particularly MIO in support of the global war on terrorism, and notwithstanding the end of the Cold War, the submarine threat is still very real and submarines represent the main core of ASW expertise in NATO navies. Recent naval operations near Yugoslavia and in the Persian Gulf have been severely impacted by the presence of submarines operated by neighbouring nations that are not involved in these deployments but are closely monitoring such activities taking place in their own backyard.

The next few years will remain somewhat of a challenge, from a maintenance point of view, as the initial major docking work periods for Victoria and Windsor are completed. Meanwhile, Corner Brook will continue to contribute to our force generation efforts and advance the re-integration of the submarine capability within our fleet. The Canadian Submarine Service has turned the corner and is once again making a valuable contribution to the defence of Canadian interests.

Lieutenant-Commander Christopher Robinson has served in submarines since 1994 and is a former Executive Officer aboard HMCS Windsor. A recent Submarine Command Course (Perisher) graduate, he is currently on the staff of Sea Training (Atlantic).
Commander Luc Cassivi is a former Commanding Officer of HMCS Victoria, Corner Brook and Windsor. He is currently the Commander Submarine Division and the Officer-in-Charge of the Submarine Sea Training Group.
© FrontLine Defence 2007