The True North Strong and Free
Nov 15, 2011

Since the 1960’s there have been several instances where the Canadian Government has momentarily contemplated the acquisition of nuclear submarines to enhance protection of Canadian littoral areas. The last, and only major, endeavour was the star crossed attempt by the Mulroney ­government to acquire a fleet of 12 nuclear submarines from a non-American supplier over an approximate 15-year period. The government had done extensive research regarding the viability of nuclear-powered submarines and decided they would be a significant asset if acquired.

In terms of affordability, the Cabinet came to the conclusion that a nuclear-powered submarine capability was affordable and feasible if the fleet was built over a significant period of time. This would avoid a “capital bump” which could have consumed too much of defence funding in the short term and may have impacted other government departments. The normal ancillary, such as industrials offsets, training, logistics support and technical services, had been reviewed extensibly by various agencies of the government and the Cabinet was confident that there would suitable offsets as well as the necessary technology transfers to Canadian industry to support the new fleet.

However, timing of the final decision coincided with the economic and social collapse of the Soviet Union, a lessening of East-West tensions, and a major reduction of the USSR’s military capabilities to wage war on NATO. With an end to the Cold War in sight, Opposition MPs viewed the purchase of new submarines as a “huge waste of money.” In fact, they clamoured for a “peace dividend” to redirect the financial resources allocated to the Department of National Defence, reducing the huge deficit that had accrued over the last three governments. Social activists also sided with the Opposition in order to fund new “essential services” or, at the very least, increases to the existing ones.

Perhaps the most bizarre argument for against nuclear submarines was the incorrect assumtion that the Canadian government was planning to utilize nuclear missiles. Accordingly, they took to the streets to “protect Canada’s reputation” as a non-nuclear nation. Ironically, USAF nuclear weapons held on Canadian Air Force bases were neither mentioned nor protested.

A surprising failure on the part of the government was that they never seriously challenged the misinformed but vocal critics who set the protest agenda and orchestrated nation-wide protests against the project. It was never the Canadian government’s intention to buy submarines that housed nuclear weapons systems, but this was not adequately communicated.

Sadly, the self-serving positions taken by some US government officials served to further fan the flames of protest. Their comments all but affirmed myths about “secret agendas” and the desires of the Mulroney Government to become a nuclear power. The most controversial event was when the senior US Naval Attaché in Ottawa, gave a negative presentation to local media telling them that the option of a nuclear-propelled submarine force was “far too expensive an option and also far above current Canadian nuclear technology and capabilities.” These comments fired up the anti-nuclear movement and provided the final coup d’état that doomed any chance of proceeding with the project. The government again failed to take any action on this misinformation. It was blatantly obvious to supporters of nuclear-powered submarines that the Americans, who frequently used the Arctic Ocean, were afraid that they would be forced to report their operations in Canadian territorial waters if Canada were to also have a submarine force capable of operating for extended periods in the same area.

However, all of that is in the past and we must consider our current needs as a economically strong and independent nation. It is for good reason that the topic of nuclear-powered submarines, like a phoenix “arising from the ashes,” continues to resurface, and for good reason.

Canadian sovereignty has been a military concern for most of the latter half of the last century, and thus, the requirement for a fast, effective military force to protect Canada’s maritime interests in the North.

In fact, the issues of Arctic defence remains a key concern for Canada’s naval forces. If anything, the demand for the capabilities offered by nuclear-powered submarines has, with the current economic developments in Arctic regions, have increased exponentially over the years.

Recent exploration of Canada’s arctic regions has discovered a vast wealth of unexploited resources that are essential to our continued economic prosperity. Prospectors and developers have discovered diamonds, substantial mineral and ores. The likely probability of finding more even more massive deposits of Natural Gas and Crude Oil will be far in excess of the speculation of a generation ago.

With expectations that Arctic waters are warming and will permit the east and west passage of much of the world’s commercial shipping through Arctic waters. Although much of the ocean area will remain classified as international waterways, a significant portion of the Arctic passage will, nevertheless, pass through Canadian territorial waters. This fact alone poses major issues such as shipping control, search and rescue, as well dealing with all manner of diplomatic, international trade and policing issues.

When it comes to Arctic affairs, Canada needs to understand the sheer magnitude of Canada’s littoral waters. The coastline of Canada is some 23,000 miles long – a good portion along the Arctic Ocean. It is, without a doubt, the world’s longest coastline and it is our responsibility to ensure surveillance to protect Canada’s maritime environment, and to take action to prevent any clandestine, criminal or other inappropriate actions from taking place within our littoral and economic maritime areas.

It is time for a review and subsequent Action Plan – to develop a strategic military plan to guide both the required changes to defence planning and the acquisition of the necessary equipment to discharge such responsibilities.

How to Defend
Let’s take a look at the military and sovereignty requirements if we were to provide for major defence coverage of the North. As with the other Canadian littoral regions, there are three defence domains which must be addressed.

The first responsibility is to control and dominate all aviation activities over Canadian arctic airspace. This keystone requirement is a major task that will require new surveillance systems and long-range weapons capable of reaching hostile elements anywhere in all of Canada’s arctic littoral and designated economic zone.

Not only does Canada and the RCAF need to militarily guard Canadian sovereign territory, the Nation must assert control over all aircraft transiting through Canadian airspace. Critical safety services such as search and rescue for flights using the long-established Polar routes are also a necessity. The biggest challenge is in servicing such a vast, yet sparsely populated area. Effective minimum coverage of such remote areas may require UAVs such as the “Global Hawk,” or a Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft like the new Boeing “P8” (Poseidon). Another option could utilize command operations aircraft to monitor and control the myriad tasks, threats and environmental concerns that will arise.

In concert with aerial activities, there will need to be a specifically designed naval presence such as the current plans for the Arctic Patrol Vessel. It is hoped that it has been designed for an all-season arctic environment, equipped and armed with both non-lethal and lethal weapons such as Ship to Ship, and Surface to Air missile systems, a “Close In Weapons” system, and a main gun such as BAE’s “Advanced Gun System” which can fire rapidly and effectively to a range of 83 miles. These ships will pack sufficient protection and offensive capability to efficiently deal with any requirements that might occur.

Even though these ships will have a degree of ice breaking capability, there will be an additional need for extremely effective Icebreakers. These large ships can cut a channel under almost any conditions. In order to provide for the necessary power to conduct heavy duty ice breaking, it would also be necessary to follow the lead of other Arctic nations and to make them nuclear-powered as well. No doubt there will be some dispute on departmental ownership, but that is another political issue that is outside the scope of this article.

Northern Fencible Units
For years the Army has recognized the need for Arctic-capable ground forces. In fact, one of the major reasons for the creation of the Canadian Airborne Regiment was to be the “Quick Reaction Force” in the North. Its capabilities and fighting power far outweighed its size and composition. Its only serious limitation was the lack of sufficient airlift resources to deploy the regiment quickly.

Since the demise of the Canadian Airborne Regiment Canada, has depended upon the Canadian Rangers to provide a presence in the North. Composed of indigenous personnel, they have provided surveillance and assisted in the training of Southern Canadian soldiers learning to live in the high arctic. However, in order to provide for increased surveillance and presence in the North, other provisions must be made to maintain control of our territory.

The Army has consistently had difficulty in recruiting Northern residents – most do not want to serve anywhere else but in the North. Let’s take a page out of our historical military textbook and consider the raising of Northern Fencible Units – trained and equipped exclusively for operations in their geographic location.

The creation of this type of unit would create major benefits for the region. First, it provides a significant and capable military force in a region that is difficult for “southern” soldiers to acclimatize to and be able to perform their duties. Second, recruiting aboriginal personnel would target the lack of jobs that is a major cause of social unrest in their communities. It would be a very modest investment for what could be a major “win-win” situation. Re-raising the Yukon Regiment and support units in the Yukon and Northwest Territories would go a long way towards more evenly distributing a Canadian military presence in the North.

One might consider once again standing up the Canadian Airborne Regiment to provide a military force that could be deployed with the Fencible forces – to both reinforce the North and stand by as the first Canadian contingent in hostile or military issues abroad.

Whatever solutions Canada chooses to respond to Arctic challenges, suffice it to say that there will be a significant requirement for defensive capabilities.

Nuclear Power
One could go on at some length about possible solutions and the various requirements for all three of the Armed Forces in the arctic, however, we have now to re-examine the need for nuclear-powered ­submarines to assist in enforcing Canada’s government policies and defence strategy in Canadian Littoral regions. The Arctic environment creates unique needs and we must analyze whether nuclear-powered or conventionally powered submarines can realistically meet the increased need for military presence across these regions.

In reality, the major criterion by which we should assess Canada’s submarine needs boils down to the following factors: Cost; Effectiveness; Range; Capabilities: and Service Length.

Cost: At first glance, the difference in cost between constructing and outfitting a conventional submarine and a nuclear-powered submarine suggests that conventional would seem the most economical and efficient option. It costs about $500 million to purchase the (arguably) best conventional submarine, the German 212A. It can cruise for 8,000 kilometers underwater with its AIP propulsion system and carries an excellent sensor and weapons suite that can detect and deter any intruders and put naval power in whatever action the government wishes. The rather complex design incorporates fuel cell technology which uses Hydrogen stored on the hull. Her steel plates and fittings are made from de-magnetized steel or specially treated materials.

Nuclear-powered submarines, such as the Virginia and the Astute classes, cost considerably more to build and equip. While recent building and equipment procurement policies have been maximized to the greatest extent possible, the use of commercial “off the shelf” technologies for ­sensors and communications equipment has not only reduced costs but has created the potential to modernize and refit the nuclear-powered submarine quickly –  greatly reducing significant down stream costs. In fact, this option was a major design criteria inserted into the build requirements to facilitate the easy incorporation of improved systems and software without expensive refits that require the entire replacement of the electronic equipment at regular intervals during the life of the submarine. Although not stated in any of the review of current information on the class, one might well assume that the same holds true for the Astute class as well.

When comparing cost of the latest nuclear-powered “hunter-killer” submarines (the Virginia class) to a conventional submarine, the latter appears to be a “real bargain.” The costs for one Virginia class submarine are approximately $2B. However, when one compares the capabilities, it becomes just as apparent that the nuclear-powered boat is vastly superior.

The 212A conventional boat was designed for work in littoral waters and the Baltic Sea. While it can cruise for 8,000 kms, it only has 25 days of endurance. Transit times necessary to reach its patrol area and return must be calculated along with the loiter time in the patrol area. Essentially, unless the 212A is operating within a relatively close or proximal area it loses the value of the lesser procurement costs in capabilities of employment in the Arctic Ocean. The 212A was designed to operate within the range of 8 to 15 nautical miles per hour in near littoral areas and for some “Blue Water” tasks.

To provide for continuous coverage of the Eastern Arctic alone would require some 5 to 6 boats in order to ensure adequate coverage. There would always be one boat departing, one in transit, one on station, one in transit back, one in harbour and one in maintenance. If the conventional submarines are also to conduct operations within the Northwest Passage, the total number of conventional submarines would be required to increase even more, and more extensive support facilities would need to be located in the North to provide replenishment and maintenance support for the boats operating within the Arctic regions.

To operate effectively in the Arctic regions it could also require the additional purchase of a Submarine Tenders (a supply and support ship for the submarines) to respond to any logistics or maintenance requirements of this deployed fleet. This same analysis can be applied to the current crop of Swedish, Norwegian, Spanish, Italian and French conventional submarines which operate within the same parameters as the 212A. These conventional national submarines also carry different on-board equipment for search and detection, weapons management and battle management, which is likely not fully compatible with current and proposed battle management systems.

Nuclear-powered submarines have no such considerations to worry about.

One can conclude that, if the Canadian government was resolute in conducting sovereignty operations and other specified activities in the currently inhospitable regions of our littoral regions, then the choice of a nuclear-powered submarine is clear. The enhanced capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines means that the Canadian government can conduct all of its desired operations with substantially less submarines compared to that required for conventional submarines. Clearly, in terms of overall project costs, the length of the nuclear-powered submarine project would be substantially reduced because of the fewer number required to meet global and domestic obligations. Therefore, it would seem that the nuclear-powered submarines would appear to be the most economic and viable option for Canada.

Effectiveness: The mere fact that a nuclear-powered submarine is only refueled once in its operational life and that it can carry sufficient food on board to remain at sea for periods up to 90 days makes it a highly desirable and effective naval asset. It can reach a patrol area faster, stay on station longer, and can remain submerged for the entire period of its deployment. This fact alone lessens the requirement for additional submarines.

The size of the nuclear-powered submarine, when measured against the smaller conventional boats, allows the nuclear-powered one to carry larger cargo – material and personnel - everything from special equipment and supplies to Special Forces teams on “away missions.” While it can be argued that conventional submarines can also fulfill these roles to a lesser extent, a nuclear-powered submarine, by virtue of its larger design and increased speed capability does it quicker and more economically.

No doubt at some point in this discussion, reference will be made that conventional submarines are much quieter and result in far stealthier boats. While that may have been so in the recent past, today’s nuclear-powered submarines have made significant improvements in propellers, propulsion systems and boat sound dampening design changes. Many naval experts suggest that the quietness of both the USS Virginia and HMS Astute is now on a par with the German 212A and the French Scorpene submarines. For the most part, current thinking of strategic planners is that conventional submarines should remain in littoral waters at locations where their capabilities are best capable of being exploited like narrow straits, along coastal shipping lanes or in off-shore surveillance.

It would appear that the nuclear-powered submarines are more effective, or at least as effective as conventional boats in these situations. However, the fact that the nuclear-powered submarines can travel faster and further with no penalty makes them very attractive when dealing with “blue water” strategic or tactical issues. Their abilities when combined with their speed and endurance would give the RCN the ability to quickly and strategically place naval resources, to immediately challenge any illegal actions or incursions into Canadian territorial regions.

We must, therefore, conclude that these characteristics of the nuclear-powered submarines are far superior to those of a conventional submarine.

Range: While the conventional submarine may have excellent range, it, nevertheless, pales in comparison to the nuclear-powered submarine whose range is only constrained by amount of rations it can carry. It has been suggested in a number of articles on the subject of conventional submarines that the time a conventional submarine can stay at sea is limited to 25-30 days. However, while conventional submarines may have the range they certainly lack endurance.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s the United States Navy (USN) conducted year long nuclear submarine cruises where they circled the globe only stopping a few times to replenish their food stores, to collect mail and to allow the exchange of crew members for administrative and training purposes. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate to the American public that, as a strategic nuclear deterrent, nuclear-powered submarines could provide the United States with virtually undetectable ballistic missile carriers that would ensure that there sufficient retaliation insurance to ensure “Mutually Assured Destruction” – which could militate against any “first strike” operational planning by the USSR.

One of these demonstration voyages was under the Arctic Ocean to demonstrate how the new nuclear-powered submarines will operate within areas that were previously denied to naval ships except for specially designed and purpose-built icebreakers. It was a demonstration that the USN could be anywhere in the Arctic Ocean without being detected. Moreover, the presence of USN nuclear submarines forced the USSR to advise the American administration of their presence within the region to avoid possible conflict.

Clearly nuclear-powered submarines are superior to conventional submarines in their ability to travel long distances in relatively short periods of time. It can range further for longer periods of time and is more difficult to locate than their slower moving cousins. Therefore, we can but conclude that in this category the nuclear-powered submarine is the superior option.

Capabilities and Service Length: There is no doubt that the nuclear-powered submarine will afford a whole new range of capabilities to the RCN. These include:

  • The capability of conducting covert intelligence missions within Canadian territorial waters regarding ecological damage caused by transiting commercial shipping and fishing fleets;
  • The ability to conduct urgent and routine surveys of the Arctic Ocean’s bottom at ocean choke points or after major geographic incidents. Moreover, this capability can also be used to pinpoint any sunken ships and to protect both the wreck and the cargo.
  • The transiting of the Arctic Ocean by Canadian-nuclear powered submarines on a regular basis strengthens Canadian claims of sovereignty over the Arctic Ocean littoral regions as well as the two hundred mile economic zone we claim off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
  • The ability to monitor other nation’s military activities within the Arctic Ocean areas within our claimed areas by either covert or overt means signifying that we have claim on these littoral regions, and,
  • The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines working with the Arctic Ocean and its littoral areas will also enhance Canadian search and rescue capabilities.

Together with the ability to deliver potent and devastating firepower Canadian nuclear-powered submarines can reinforce sovereignty more economically than aerial over-flights or Canadian ground forces in these instances.

Although not officially stated, the new American and British nuclear-powered submarines are projected to have 35-40 year life spans with minimum time spent in dockyards for refits. They have been designed in such a manner as to be modernized on a continual basis. Much of the conventional submarines equipment must be inspected and overhauled at regular intervals because of their conventional engines and AIP systems such as fuel cells. In addition, it appears that all of the ­conventional sensors and weapons suites are purpose-built therefore having proprietary rights as opposed to the “open” options of readily available off-the-shelf commercial systems for items such as software upgrades and improvements to processors and memory storage. Conventional submarines are projected to have a similar lifespan but will require more time in maintenance.

With the new capabilities and the change in design and construction criteria, it would appear from the outset that over an equivalent life span the nuclear-powered submarine has the advantage. The lack of refueling requirement makes it a more economic choice over its lifetime. This coupled with its ability to cover greater distances for longer periods than are possible for a conventional submarine makes more operational and economic sense for a country.

Service Length: No doubt the old shibboleths of maintenance and training for nuclear-powered submarines will once again rise, however, much of the training for a new submarine done on the job. While all have taken a basic submarine course and skills training, the majority of their training is conducted by “hands-on” experience under the guidance of a qualified NCO. Canadian submariners are, by all accounts, some of the best trained and competent in the world’s navies. However, as part of the contract negotiations, Canadian authorities could either requests to have their serials go through either the Royal Navy’s or the USN’s submarine schools to acquire the needed skills. This, coupled with the tradition of “on board” instruction should be fully manageable within both the Capital and O&M budgets.

There is no logic in building an expensive school to cover all aspects of submarine operations when there are other sources of training that can meet the requirements at a much lower cost.

The second great hue and cry of the anti-nuclear-powered community ­suggests we cannot afford to establish the facilities to service nuclear-powered propulsion systems. Well, that’s simply not true.

Canada has had nuclear technology since the 1940’s. There are nuclear scientists, technicians and other necessary agencies that are ­thoroughly trained in areas such as nuclear imagery at your local hospital, and technicians using nuclear energy to test for stress and cracks in all areas of Canadian life. While we may not yet offer military training for nuclear technicians, there are likely unexplored training venues that could be made available. Even if there are not, contracting the training through CO-LOG with the United States military training facilities is more than feasible.

As you have probably noticed I am not suggesting that nuclear-powered submarines are capable of doing all the surveillance and corrective actions needed to enforce Canadian sovereignty and international bilateral or multilateral agreements.

There must be a three pronged program to provide surveillance, and the potential military ability to apply the judicious use of scalable military responses.

This “Triad” of capabilities needs to be a cornerstone of our defence planning and procurement program in the very near future, because time is not on our side. We cannot again let a small minority of the country stop the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines because they don’t fully understand the requirement or care to understand.
Rob Day is a military historian.
© FrontLine Defence 2011