Sub Culture in Canada
Jul 15, 2014

As many FrontLine readers are aware, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Canada’s marriage with submarines. It has been a tumultuous affair to be sure – replete with love, hate, utter euphoria and abject depression. There have been separations bordering on divorce, but although the union has been severely tested, the ties that bind have never been completely severed. This is due to a dedicated group of naval officers, non-commissioned personnel and civilians who very much believe that submarines must be an integral part of the maritime defence of Canada.

Most of the angst against submarines has resulted from the acquisition of used Upholder Class submarines from the United Kingdom. Flashy submissions, short on maritime operational knowledge and facts about the acquisition have garnered undue attention. As it is wont to do in this politically correct world, the government has seen fit not to respond to these allegations and, as such, has ceded the high ground to the naysayers.

It is not my intention to wrangle about this acquisition except to try and set the record straight as to why these submarines were selected in the first place. If you harken back to the mid-80s, the conservative government of the day under Brian Mulroney directed that the diesel submarine replacement program (CASAP) should also include a nuclear powered option. Two years later, the nuclear option was cancelled and CASAP unfunded. This left the Navy with 20-plus year-old submarines and no funded replacement program.

Generally, when programs are canceled or ships retired they are almost never replaced on a one-for-one basis. For example, 33 Argus Maritime Patrol aircraft were replaced with 18 Aurora aircraft, 41 Seaking ASW Helicopters will be replaced by about 28 Cyclone ASW Helicopters, and 4 AAW destroyers will be reduced to three.

In 1993 two individuals, of which I was one, were authorized to travel to the United Kingdom to determine whether the acquisition of the Upholder class submarines for Canada was feasible. It was deemed to be, and the Royal Navy retired the Upholders in 1994. What was not envisaged at the time was that it would take five to seven years to transfer them into our navy. The boats lay idle for this period and some would argue that this was the root cause of the maintenance issues they have faced ever since.

Why was the Upholder class selected by Canada? Remember we had no program and no money, and the use of Canadian training facilities in exchange for payment was an attractive option discussed in the initial talks. Simply put, the Upholders were the only game in town if Canada was to remain in the submarine business.

Submarines 101
Submarines are essential in today’s navies. Don’t take my word for it, just look at the number of submarines operating today in large and small navies around the world. In the history of peacetime naval fleets, there has never been an explosion of submarine acquisition as there is today. Some Canadian think tanks have pronounced that the Cold War is over and hence the need for submarines has died with it. The festivities in Crimea, the Ukraine and other hot spots argue against that thesis and, in my view, things are not looking up. A prudent government and military needs to cover its basis as best it can regardless of what is fashionable in the armchair world.

This is the age of special operations. Admiral William McCraven, the USN’s senior Navy Seal recently retired, argues that one reason that small groups of well armed and well trained troops with a good plan gain advantage over larger numbers of defenders is that they are able to gain “relative superiority” over their enemy. This struck me as being similar to what happens with submarines and why submarines can attack and sink much larger and better armed ships.

The single factor that gives submarines this advantage is its ability to hide in the sea. Submarines are the ultimate stealth weapon system, and it requires an extraordinary expenditure of effort and expense to find them – far more than the cost of the submarine itself. Another key advantage is that submarines can range the oceans at will. They do not need overflight or basing agreements.

I understand that 60% of the cost of maintaining the Canadian forces is tied up in personnel costs. Submarines do not contribute to this problem. The crews of the four Victorias equal the total number of personnel in one frigate. Yes, submarine crews do require extensive training regimes, but so do pilots and other personnel who operate complex machinery.

Submarines are excellent intelligence gathering vessels as they can stay on station for extended periods of time. They were used with great success in the Falklands War and in the Adriatic during the Bosnian conflict. Setting the stage for success, the submarine and the maritime patrol aircraft work well together. The submarine’s sensor range and the aircraft’s speed make for a good partnership.

They are of course fighting vehicles. Twenty-one inch torpedoes allow it to engage in combat with virtually anything that floats. Superior passive sonars and quiet fibre optic wire-guided heavy weight torpedoes give the submarine a significant range advantage over its enemy.

Submarine launched anti-surface ship and land attack missiles are enlarging the role of submarines. They are no longer just commerce raiders but vessels capable of bombarding shore targets and providing naval gunfire support. Similarly, small UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles) are being adapted for submarine use and it is looking as though they can assume a large role in submarine intelligence gathering.

Submarines have traditionally been the referred to as the “silent service” but in today’s world they are also required to play well with others. Modern communication technologies mean they are never out of touch. They go to sea as integral members of battle groups and task forces. They can work equally well alone or as part of the team.

Naval Special Forces
It was about 20 years ago that the Soviet Union collapsed and Western governments began planning to spend their “peace dividend”. How naïve that sounds now. The Russians have begun to build up their submarine fleet again and appear to be sailing on what might be referred to as cold war submarine operations. The first Gulf War led to the overthrow of a dangerous dictator, but a key lesson that was not lost on Iran, was the value of submarines. Iran immediately began building a submarine force that could allow them to impede ­passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Submarine growth among Asia-Pacific countries is exploding, and submarine roles are changing from the traditional to close submarine escort missions, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and clandestine operations such as the support of special forces.

Navies operate in three environments, air, surface and sub-surface. Canadian submarines operate in that third environment below the surface. In my view they are the special forces of the Navy. Canadian naval strategy must include operations in that third environment if it is to properly protect the interests of its government.

Peter Cairns retired as a Vice-Admiral after 39 years of service in the Canadian Navy.
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