The Submarine Question Finance vs Capability
Nov 15, 2014

Have the Royal Canadian Navy’s submarines of today already torpedoed the prospects of a replacement fleet tomorrow? The struggles of the four-boat Victoria class submarines now in service with the navy are well documented. What began as a ‘good deal’ purchase of surplus Royal Navy boats in the late 90s to replace the successful Oberon class, turned into a slow-motion disaster. Enroute from the UK to Canada, a fatality at sea from the fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004 would prove to be the beginning of a long road back to seaworthiness – equipment failures, increased costs and “Canadianization” complications were more extensive than many expected.

HMCS Victoria in transit near Esquimalt. (2012 Photo: Jacek Szymanski, Navy Public Affairs)

An argument can be made that this country has less of a submarine tradition than it does a series of more or less opportunistic acquisitions. It has been a century since British Columbia bought two submarines, CC1 and CC2, and gave them to Canada. Subsequent acquisitions included Royal Navy and United States Navy boats, and even two WW2 German U-boats. The three British Oberon boats purchased in the 60s were Canada’s first new submarines.

Today, the future of Canada’s submarine service is in doubt. At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Ottawa University Centre for International Policy Studies, the utility and value of submarines as a combatant type was never in dispute. “I am extremely pro-submarine; I will always be,” declared panelist Robert Fowler. The former Deputy Minister of National Defence went on to highlight two basic pros and cons. “Submarines aren’t very good for port visits and showing the flag or delivering humanitarian aid to earthquake victims, but they sure as hell are good at destroying the enemy.”

Anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that submarines are not extremely effective on such missions. Vice-Admiral Drew Robertson, who retired in 2009 as Chief of the Maritime Staff, described the unmatched capabilities of submarines, in particular their ability to create doubt and uncertainty in an operational area. “It is the boat’s powerful combination of stealth, endurance and lethality that give them the unique effects beyond the practical level,” he said. In fact, Robertson noted, with only six operational Halifax-Class frigates available for service today, the three operating Victoria-Class boats represent a third of the navy’s combat capability. “They will still be a quarter of that capability when the Halifax-Class are modernized and fully operational in 2019,” he remarked.

When it comes time to retire and perhaps replace the present submarine fleet, cost could be the decisive factor. Talking about submarines as a vessel type, David Perry, senior defence and security analyst at the CDA Institute said, “They are hugely expensive.” On the other hand, Robertson stressed the importance of looking at the total cost of ownership, “We’re not talking about an order of magnitude difference,” he said. “We’re talking about a slight, marginal difference for a capability that can do things surface ships can’t.”

Hugely expensive, or marginally different – no matter how that apparent contradiction resolves itself, there is a strong possibility that Canada simply will not ‘pay any price’ for a submarine capability it has lived without before.

Touching on the procurement issue, Perry called attention to a persistent perception that, “DND underestimates every single procurement it puts forward. The operating costs are inevitably, if not orders of magnitude, then simply substantially more than the original estimate, and DND has a very bad track record of simply advancing projects knowing that, once acquired, they are very hard to get rid of and kill.”

Of course the Canadian military is forced to keep equipment operating well past its “Best Before” date because replacement is so uncertain. Maintainers work hard to extend platform life beyond reasonable expectation, stopping only when safety concerns become inarguable. Many high profile examples abound, and the Navy is no exception.

In the case of submarines, Canada has made a big investment in maintenance, refit and repair, supporting the Victoria class submarines with an In-Service Support Contract worth up to $1.5 billion over 15 years. As a FrontLine Defence article pointed out in November 2011, “Both Naval Dockyards now have experience maintaining these submarines, and Canadian industry is quickly becoming world class in conducting the longer term complex docking and maintenance periods.”

The Canadian submarines are operated on an eight-year cycle, with six years of operations followed by two years of maintenance. The goal is to have two fully operational boats, with one available for service on each coast at all times. Will the current submarines be able to justify the purchase of successors through consistent good performance? Will submarines embed themselves in Canadian operational doctrine, and become a necessity rather than an operational extra?

Whatever the merits of the Victoria boats themselves, or the capabilities of submarines in general, Fowler and Perry were on the same page when it came to the costs of the entire shipbuilding program as presently embodied in the Canada First Defence Strategy and the $33 billion price tag associated with the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. “The $33 billion is absolutely unaffordable; for two reasons,” said Fowler. “The government clearly doesn’t intend to fund it, and I don’t see any opposition party any more interested in funding it than the current government,” he said. “The hypocrisy gap between what the government says and what it does is perhaps larger than what the case is for the two opposition parties, but if you look at the track of defence spending, of course it is unaffordable. Secondly, the government has been pursuing, for the last six years, a conscious policy of voting monies in order not to spend them.”

Perry agreed that while submarines may represent a great capability, the defence department as a whole, and the navy in particular, simply don’t have enough money. “Within that program I think the Surface Combatant project in particular is the big focus right now so that is going to be where any available money might go, at least in the interim – and with that sort of summary, I don’t think we can afford submarines.”

In a September National Post article, David Pugliese pointed out that the navy has already been taking money from other budgets to pay for the submarines, but that will probably not last long. As the Halifax-Class frigates return to service, money for the undersea fleet will probably dry up. The time to decide on a new submarine fleet is now. The Royal Canadian Navy only expects to operate the Victoria-Class until about 2025, and even 10 years is a short period of time for a direct replacement given typical production schedules for complex platforms as well as this country’s extended procurement timelines.

When RAdm Bill Truelove, Commander of Maritime Forces Pacific rededicated the Submarine Memorial Cairn at CFB Esquimalt last August, he said, “The Royal Canadian Navy would be incomplete without submarines.” Despite this assertion, there is indirect but persuasive evidence that the future Royal Canadian Navy will indeed be incomplete.

The decision may have already been revealed in the annual Defence Acquisition Guide (DAG), the first of which was published earlier this year, in June 2014. The list is so extensive that it includes a life-extension project for a capability ‘not yet fielded’ – the army’s Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicle. “There are 208 projects on the DAG,” noted Perry, but “there is no submarine replacement project.”

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.
© 2014 FrontLine Defence