Underwater Sovereignty and Surveillance
Mar 15, 2014

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
– Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston

In 2010, the Royal Canadian Navy marked its centenary, causing Canadians to reflect on how our Navy has mirrored the development of our nation. As the 20th Century unfolded, so did Canada’s responsibilities as a sovereign nation. Today, our national priorities are no longer decided by others, they are being made in Ottawa, based on Canadian interests and, most importantly, resourced ourselves.

Canada’s growth from a former colony to a respected independent maritime nation has been defined by a number of issues, most notably geography. Possessing the world’s longest coastline, we are simultaneously an Atlantic and a Pacific and an Arctic nation. Moreover, this expansive and very diverse geography has forced us to develop uniquely Canadian approaches to the defence of our nation, which have necessarily included participation in global alliances.

In response to Canadian national interests, throughout the latter half of the 20th Century and up to the present, Canada’s maritime forces have been the unseen police officer patrolling the vast expanses of Canadian waters or acting on behalf of Canadians in far off waters. Submarines have always been an integral part of ­maritime defence. However, by their complexity and the nature of their capability and employment (much of which is unseen by the public), they have become a most misunderstood platform – but one that has none-the-less contributed significantly to Canadian sovereignty.

But why does Canada need submarines?
In these times of continuing fiscal restraint, where the post Cold War threat is no longer quite so obvious, Canadians understandably question the need for submarines. The answer is threefold:

  • There is a continued need to control Canada’s three-ocean estate to ensure our national sovereignty;
  • to achieve this, we need a distinctly independent Canadian underwater presence in areas of our national maritime interest; and
  • to be truly effective, Canada must be able to provide a balanced mix of maritime forces (surface, sub-surface and air) for both peacetime and wartime functions that includes a covert underwater capability.

Operating submarines allows Canada to assert full control over and under Canadian territorial waters and economic zones, which underpins our claims of national sovereignty. Through a balanced maritime presence, Canada gains the understanding of what is over, on and under our waters while maintaining the ability to deter unwanted intruders. Furthermore, balanced maritime forces – which include surface warships, submarines, and aircraft – protect vital Canadian national interests, particularly the ocean going trade that is essential to our economy.

How does Canada use submarines?
The main peacetime role of our submarines is contributing to national sovereignty – achieved through underwater ocean patrols. Additionally, secondary roles include ­support to Special Operations forces and other government departments, as well as the training of other domestic and international military units.

National sovereignty, much like law enforcement, requires a meaningful presence, an essential part of which is the ability to effectively conduct covert operations. This is a form of deterrence whereby any potential adversary faces a problem that is compounded by elements of surprise and doubt, thereby increasing the available options for the Government to demonstrate or imply a presence.

It is important to keep in mind that an effective underwater presence demands a credible and covert underwater capability that fixed sensors and occasional surface and air patrols contribute to, but cannot provide on their own.

While Canada remains, geographically, the second largest country in the world, it is also a coastal state with an unquestionable (yet often underestimated) requirement for effective maritime coastal security. The harsh realities of coastal operations in Canadian waters demand a long-range deep sea, or blue water, capability that is independent of the weather, and can also include a capability to monitor activities in the approaches to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This type of work requires a vehicle that can covertly patrol far from land, unsupported for extended periods, operating in extremely challenging acoustic conditions in vast areas of ocean, whilst remaining flexible to changing circumstances. Only a submarine can provide this covert capability.

These requirements are not new and Canadian submarines have, for decades, quietly contributed to national sovereignty efforts, mainly in the Atlantic Ocean.

In the 1980s, heretofore classified operational surveillance work (well beyond our 200 nautical mile economic zone) gained Canada well-respected international submarine credibility (particularly among the submarine forces of our most important maritime ally, the United States) as we tracked Soviet submarines. Canadians conducted these covert submarine patrols in response to national interests, thereby allowing the Government to control the entire operation and not be subject to conflicting alliance or coalition requirements. Canada then determined what information gleaned from these patrols was to be shared, and with whom.

Canadian submarines have also conducted counter-terrorism support to Special Operations forces and have been very ­successful in, and continue to support ­constabulary roles, such as narcotics ­interdiction, fishing violations, and illegal immigration.

In fact, it was during the 1990s that Canada’s Oberon-class submarines provided critical support to RCMP counter drug operations and, most notably, to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in conducting fisheries patrols with embarked Fisheries Officers.

A recently declassified review of ­Canadian submarine operations by the Department of National Defence’s Naval Historian highlighted how an increased awareness of submarine capabilities enabled Canada to use submarines as a deterrent during the 1995 Turbot War with Spain and the European Union. It is important to remember that these are national taskings in the national interest, and cannot be supported by allies or other non-national submarine assets.

In times of tension, submarines offer the government of the day viable response options, as they can be quickly deployed in support of Canadian foreign policy as part of alliance or coalition operations. In wartime, our submarines would be used primarily to deny an adversary access to our sovereign waters or to disrupt Canadian interests, particularly those affecting security or ocean-going trade.

Sovereignty Options
Think of our submarines as a piece of Canada out on a station, exerting a distinctively Canadian presence. The independent mission flexibility of a submarine can vary from an unprovocative patrol posture to directed operations (against illegal fishing, drug smuggling and terrorists), through to a full warfare capability if necessary. Simplistically, National Sovereignty is about managing the waterspace, and to do that, we must maintain a physical capability to put presence in important places that are the choosing of Canada, not our allies.

Canadian submarines operating independently under firm Canadian control and able to be deployed or withdrawn (either announced or unannounced), is unquestionably a powerful tool in asserting national sovereignty. Much like the marked police car of law enforcement, a surface warship provides a visible presence, but the submarine provides the invaluable capability for covert surveillance activities and follow-on unalerted operations.

But there is another side to the need to maintain a submarine capability – to quote Vice-Admiral Lynn Mason, former Commander of the Canadian Navy: “Dollar for dollar, the submarine is the most effective platform for a navy with modest means. In fact, for many of the world’s ocean-dependent nations, an adequate submarine force is the prime sea-going naval deterrent and the mainstay of maritime sovereignty enforcement.”

Clearly there remains a requirement for an effective balance between surface, sub-surface and maritime air assets, as no one platform can effectively do it all. That said, modern ocean-going conventional submarines typically have a crew one quarter the size of a modern frigate or destroyer and incur significantly lower operating costs. The ability of a submarine to conduct lengthy independent operations without external support, such as replenishment ships and forward operating bases, further underscores their utility in a balanced maritime force mix.

Vice-Admiral Peter Cairns, another former Commander of the Canadian Navy, once likened the situation to a craftsman and his toolbox. Remove any of the important tools and the Commander will struggle to protect these national interests – perhaps less effectively – with the remaining tools.
We all recognize that the realities of Canada’s geography will continue to strain finite fiscal resources when it comes to the national interests, however, such critical requirements can only be satisfied through the effective use of all available tools in the proverbial toolbox. For a nation with the fiscal resources of Canada, submarines, much like aviation platforms, are an effective and efficient tool to secure such an extensive ocean domain and maintain a sovereign presence throughout its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone).

What is the value of a submarine capability?
In 2012, at the official opening of Canada’s National Naval Monument, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly acknowledged that “Canada and its economy float on salt water” – a fact that may not be fully appreciated by the average citizen. Canada is a trading nation and our economy depends on the free flow of trade. Over 90 percent of all world trade is moved at some point by sea, so it is as important to the farmer in Saskatchewan, as it is to the industrial manufacturer in Ontario, to have unfettered access to international trade to get their products to the increasingly global marketplace. Our economy depends upon this and it is in the national interest of Canada to ensure we have the capability to protect that ocean-going trade.

Without a doubt, submarines are a logical component of a flexible, general purpose, combat capable maritime force. Clearly, a balanced maritime force with a credible sub-surface component is the best way to respond to the fiscal concerns of Canadians. Submarines can give medium sized maritime nations with modest means, like Canada, much more ‘bang for the buck’.

One only has to look at Australia, a nation with similar interests, and ask why they have invested so heavily in submarines. A quick look at a map will show they face the same problem as Canada: that of providing meaningful national ­sovereignty over huge maritime areas of responsibility.
Whither 21st Century Canadian sovereignty?

The 21st Century is seeing a truly global interest in international trade and resource exploitation – areas where Canada has deep-rooted, sea-based, economic interests that underpin our national economy.

Long gone are the halcyon days of discovery where planting a flag conferred ownership and title. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, when Canada stood up as a sovereign nation, one must take a moment to fully appreciate the price of that sovereignty. If Canada wishes to continue to assert a claim of sovereignty over this vast maritime domain and all the riches therein, then we have an obligation to protect it with balanced maritime forces.

While we will continue to have like-minded interests and share security concerns and resources with our allies, a sovereign nation will always have unique national interests that must be protected by that nation alone. A balanced Navy with a submarine capability gives Canada that capability.
To answer the question of why Canada needs to maintain a submarine capability, we hark back over 160 years to Lord Palmerston’s prophetic words. Canada has unique interests as a nation and, if we are to credibly assert our sovereignty over these interests, we need to field a balanced mix of maritime forces that include a covert underwater capability as an essential element of these forces.

Norman Jolin is a former naval officer who retired from the Royal Canadian Navy after 37 years of service in 2011. He is currently an independent defence and strategic analysis consultant.
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