Rethinking Nuclear-Powered Submarines
Dec 10, 2015

It’s no secret that Canada has problems with military acquisition. While DND and its partner departments arguably do a good job selecting the right major equipment purchases for a bona fide requirement that has been vetted through the policy deliberation process, the Westminster parliamentary system effectively shut all opportunities for senior public servants and military officers to engage in meaningful dialogue with the public about these issues. The inevitable consequence is a misinformed and unsupportive Canadian public. Some of the more high profile examples that come to mind include the proposal to purchase nuclear submarines, the botched maritime patrol helicopter project; and most recently, the F-18 Fighter Replacement program.

Feb 2015 – HMCS Victoria returns home through the Straits of Juan De Fuca, after operations with the United States Navy. (Photo: LS Zachariah Stopa, MARPAC Imaging Services)

Canada’s top four defence priorities, enumerated in the Defence White Paper, Defence in the Seventies, and articulated by then Defence Minister Donald S. McDonald in his address to the Empire Club on 7 October 1971, are: first, the defence of Canada, including the surveillance of our own territory and coastlines, and the protection of our governmental institutions; second, the defence of North America in cooperation with the United States; third, collective defence under NATO; and, fourth, such international peacekeeping roles as we may undertake. While the fourth appears to have become a victim of transformative, worldwide geopolitical changes, the first three are still relevant, particularly #1 – the defence of Canada.

With her Navy convinced of the need for submarine capability for surveillance and defence, why does this discussion keep being swept aside?
A compelling case study of a lack of clear communication leads us back to the 1987 proposal to purchase 10 to 12 nuclear-propelled submarines, which is a starkly naked example of the perennial Canadian approach to defence: always a day late and a dollar short.

 Newest Nuclear-powered Submarines
  • Astute Class (BAE Systems), the latest in service with the British Navy, first launched in 2007.
  • Virginia Class (General Dynamics Electric Boat), the latest SSN in service with the United States Navy, first launched in 2003.
  • Yasen Class (Malakhit Central Design Bureau), the latest SSN in service with the Russian Navy, first launched in 2010.
  • Barracuda Class (DCNS), the latest SSN for the French Navy, the first will be commissioned in 2017.
  • Kalvari Class (Mazagon Dock Limited), the latest SSN for India, the first of six is expected to be commissioned in 2017.
  • Type 095 (Chinese designation: 09-V) is a proposed class of third generation nuclear-powered attack submarines for China’s navy.
  • The Brazilian Navy signed detailed contracts in late 2009 with the French naval manufacturer DCNS. These contracts included technology transfers and construction assistance for four Scorpene-class diesel-electric attack submarines, as well as one nuclear powered vessel. Construction of the first SSN is planned to end in 2023 with entry into service slated for 2025.


The Submarine Story
Germany’s wartime efforts constituted a guerre de course, or commerce warfare. Her strategic efforts to stop the flow of military equipment and supplies across the Atlantic by torpedoing merchant ships at night during the Battle of the Atlantic (1939 to 1945) should have been a significant learning experience for Canada about the essential value of submarines.

Canada played a critical role in reducing the submarine threat and forcing the German navy back from the Atlantic shipping lanes, however, fighting the U-boat threat came at a huge cost. Despite the best efforts of the Allies, the Merchant Navy lost more than 30,000 men, and around 3,000 ships in more than 100 convoy battles. The cost for the Germans was equally tragic, losing 783 U-boats, and 28,000 sailors. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) sank, or assisted in the sinking, of 31 enemy submarines at a cost of 14 warships to U-boat torpedoes and 8 ships to accidents in the North Atlantic. A majority of the 2,000 Canadian sailors who perished in maritime combat died at sea at the hands of their adversary. Canadian merchant seamen suffered much heavier losses. One in ten of the 12,000 who served in Canadian and Allied merchant vessels perished.

In his history of the Canadian Navy, The Sea is at Our Gates, Retired Commander Tony German describes the difficult birth of the post-war Canadian submarine service. “Post-war training needs had been inadequately met by borrowing from the RN [Royal Navy] and USN [United States Navy].” The RN permanently stationed three boats of the 6th Submarine Squadron in Halifax under Canadian operational command, and anti-submarine warfare training was contingent on USN generosity.

Canada’s early submariners served in British submarines to learn the vital skills necessary to operate these vessels safely and effectively. According to retired Navy Captain Norman Jolin, an RCN officer with experience in submarine operations, Canada paid for the services of British submarines (Sixth Submarine Squadron) operating from Halifax, Nova Scotia in the 1950s and 1960s.

It wasn’t until 1960 that a Canadian submarine service was approved and Canada began to search for a suitable boat for the fledgling service. Initial exploration looked at the possibility of acquiring American conventional Barbel Class submarines and six American-designed Thresher Class nuclear boats that could be built in Canada, but the price tag was too high. Instead, USS Burrfish, a Balao Class submarine, was loaned to the RCN in May 1961 after being decommissioned and laid up in 1956. Commissioned in Canada and renamed HMCS Grilse, she was operated by the RCN until 1969. USS Argonaut, a Tench Class boat had operated in the Mediterranean as late as 1968 before joining the RCN and renamed HMCS Rainbow in 1968. She was returned to the US in 1977 and later scrapped. With extensive British training under their belt by the time Canada procured her own submarines, the boats were crewed entirely by Canadians.

In the meantime, in 1963 the Canadian government approved the purchase of British-built Oberon Class submarines that were quiet, effective and cheaper. HMCS Ojibwa, Okanagan, and Onondaga were operational from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. Two others, Olympus and Osiris, were procured much later for use in harbour training and spare parts respectively.

Challenge & Commitment
As the Oberons aged, discussions for their replacement began. The Defence Minister at the time was longtime MP "Yukon Erik" Nielsen. Recognizing the importance of protecting ice-covered waters in Canada's North, Nielsen asked the ADM(Materiel) group, who were briefing him on conventional submarines, whether such subs could stay under ice. After being informed that only nuclear boats could perform such missions, he then asked why they they weren't being considered. According to sources, the response was that the Canadian public "probably wouldn't be supportive" and that they would be expensive. Nevertheless, Nielsen asked the Materiel group to look at nuclear submarine options and determine whether there were any that could be more affordable.

When Perrin Beatty took over the portfolio in 1986, the project was important enough to be included in the June 1987 defence white paper, Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada. “A program of 10 to 12 [nuclear submarines] will permit submarines to be on station on a continuing basis in the Canadian areas of responsibility in the northeast Pacific, the North Atlantic and the Canadian Arctic,” the report suggested.

Los Angeles Class nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Memphis (SSN_691) heads out to sea following a brief port visit at Souda Bay, Crete, Greece.

Even today, almost 30 years later, the result of that initiative is memorable. Much of the promise of the White Paper went unfulfilled, and the submarine program was still-born after an abortive competition between the British and French competitors to sell their submarine technology to Canada. With Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the long-awaited collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the purchase was repeatedly seen as unnecessary.

Canada’s three Oberon class submarines, already 20 years old when Challenge and Commitment was released, were extended a further 10 to 12 years and retired between 1998 and 2000, with no immediate replacement.

The 1994 Defence White Paper indicated an interest in Britain’s four Upholder Class boats built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering between 1983 and 1993. They were put on the auction block in 1994 when finances forced the Royal Navy to convert to a nuclear-powered submarine force. The UK could not afford to operate both a conventional and a nuclear submarine program, Jolin underscored. And with the procrastination that typifies major military acquisition programs in Canada, the government announced the Submarine Capability Life Extension Project on 6 April 1998, in which the four Upholders would replace the three Oberons.

The submarines underwent a reactivation refit before they were passed to the RCN and renamed the Victoria Class. A tragic fire on the voyage back to Canada was the first of many setbacks, however, they were put through a rigorous Canadian refit, notably to replace the British fire control systems with Canadian fire control systems designed to fire the MK 48 torpedo previously used in the Oberons, and install Canadian communications equipment, and were eventually integrated into the RCN fleet, seeing service in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and as far away as the Caribbean and the coast of Africa.

Now a quarter of a century old, they need to be replaced in the coming years. But the question is, with what?

The Future Canadian Submarine
Today’s submarines are designed to be principally anti-submarine vessels with integrated covert intelligence gathering resources. The submarine that replaces the Victoria Class boats “must be able to operate in Canada’s area of responsibility,” notes retired Capt(N) Jolin. “This means there is a need for an open ocean capability for the Atlantic and the Pacific, as well as near the ice edge, to deny access to the Arctic archipelago to a potential adversary.”

This requires a blunt discussion about propulsion systems for a class of submarine that must operate in the world’s most hostile and unforgiving maritime environments. It includes, not merely near the Arctic ice edge, but also beneath it, because it is a foregone conclusion that there are submarines beneath Canada’s polar ice cap, and they are not ours.

There must be a realization that Canada shares Arctic borders with three other nations, the United States, Denmark (at Greenland), and Russia, and the latter has proven to be an avaricious and pugnacious neighbour. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin declared that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. He is intent on returning Russia to its former position of global power.

Putin carved out Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, and invaded Georgia in 2008 over control of the two territories. Russia is seen as the source of a 2014 breakaway movement in Crimea and eastern Ukraine that gave Russia the pretext to annex the region. Although now collaborating to fight ISIS, it is doubtful that any such partnerships are anything more than strategic necessities, and will not change Putin’s end game in any way.   

Canadians should use these events to form a new prism through which to watch the Kremlin, and to interpret several significant events in the Arctic. In the 17 January 2014 edition of the Globe and Mail, columnist Mark MacKinnon notes that the Kremlin has identified the Arctic as a priority. MacKinnon identified two noteworthy events:

  • Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov planted a Russian flag on the sea floor at the North Pole on 1 August 2007;
  • In October 2013, Captain Valentin Davydyants, captain of the 25,000-tonne nuclear[-powered] icebreaker Fifty Years of Victory, established a speed record carrying the flame for the Sochi Olympics to the North Pole.

In 2010, the Norwegian Barents Observer’s Arctic watcher, Atle Staalesen, asked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about a NATO presence in the Arctic. “[T]he Arctic can manage fine without NATO.” He went on to say that the Arctic is part of the Russian common wealth, which does not have any relation to military objectives. However, former veteran CBC political correspondent Brian Stewart warned, in a 2 November 2015 report, that “Russia is not Canada’s only concern, but Russia is special.” Stewart writes that President Putin “has made a priority of the Arctic, where huge amounts of untapped oil and gas reserves are expected to become extractable as ice caps melt, and where strategically advantageous shipping lanes could yet open to fleets of Russian and Chinese icebreakers.”

Saying it has plans to deploy 80,000 troops to the far north in a crisis, Russia recently set up “Arctic Joint Strategic Command North,” consisting of two motorized brigades and Pantsir-S1 anti-air missiles, and held the largest Arctic military exercise with more than 35,000 Russian troops, 50 ships and submarines, and 110 aircraft.  

In the face of Putin’s apparent aspirations regarding the Arctic, it is time for Canada to get serious about military security, particularly maritime security, and about Arctic security even more so.

SSN – Ship Submersible Nuclear-powered
If there are submarines under Canada’s polar icecap, as retired Capt(N) Jolin asserts, the only vehicle that can respond to that incursion is a nuclear-powered boat, which is the only proven power source that is capable of prolonged operations under the Arctic ice. Anti-nuclear advocates encourage Canada to look at air independent propulsion (AIP) systems that do not require access to the surface atmosphere to generate power. However, these systems are simply not yet at the level of maturity or effective operation to offer the capability of prolonged under-ice operations. All AIP systems need to carry liquid oxygen in heavy, bulky tanks, which limit the boat’s ability to operate as well as its habitability.

A submerged conventional-powered submarine must recharge its batteries and clean its atmosphere by running its diesel generators at periscope depth with a snorkel (or snort) mast raised. Not only does it have to slow down for this, it increases the possibility of detection as radar can detect a snorkel, and diesel exhaust can be seen for miles, depending on the weather. And so, the need to snort compromises its most important attributes, stealth and speed. It also completely rules out sustained under-ice operations, as the boat must have the ability to come up to periscope depth in ice-free waters to snort.

AIP systems permit a submarine to generate power without having to snort for limited periods of time, but these systems do not have the endurance to permit under- ice operations for prolonged use. Submariners would still be confined to the ice edge and could operate at 20 knots and higher, but only very short bursts, often only for minutes at a time.

Present-day AIP systems have been developed for navies with different operational and tactical circumstances than Canada. A non-nuclear AIP system that can provide power comparable to a nuclear power plant simply does not exist.

The reactors of nuclear powered vessels are fuelled once and can then operate between 25 to 33 years, depending on the reactor. According to National Defence’s Cost Factors Manual (2015 edition), the budgeted annual cost of fuel for a single Victoria Class submarine is just under $1 million. Critics suggest that SSNs are out of financial reach – are they considering the $20-$35 million plus in fuel and operational savings over its lifespan?

The greatest advantage of a nuclear powered boat over its diesel-electric cousin is its endurance, able to remain submerged for an unlimited time within the life span of its nuclear core. Its reactor can manufacture the air for vessel operation and life support. The only limitations would be imposed by the habitability requirements of the crew. A nuclear boat is virtually invisible to its adversaries and friends alike. They can become an essential component of Canada’s naval fleet mix.

May 2015 – A dolphin jumps in front of Virginia Class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit John Warner (SSN 785) as the boat conducts sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries, by Chris Oxley)

What Submarines Do
Nuclear-powered vessels are strategic resources that, when submerged, anti-submarine warfare crews have to be either extremely lucky or have intelligence on the approximate search location, or face a very long, expensive and exhausting search. So, what do submarines provide to its navy and to its nation?

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR): An SSN can remain on station for unlimited periods and covertly trail other submarines and surface ships. As a “force multiplier,” its multiple sensors allow monitoring of surface and sub-surface military, fisheries, commercial and criminal activity, providing early and covert detection of suspicious or threatening activities. As a “force enabler,” it gives pinpoint directions for over-the-horizon friendly forces. And, as an intelligence vehicle, it positions prior to a conflict to conduct ISR activities, map the geospatial features of an operational area, observe the patterns, doctrine, tactics and capabilities of an enemy, and remain until hostilities have ceased.

Power projection: It can use maritime force within and outside its own waters to meet a threat, or to influence activities or events within its purview. Its weapons can include torpedoes and submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) through vertical launch silos or their torpedo tubes.

Sea control: A single submarine can deny area access to an adversary, both surface and undersea to the seabed below. This allows a navy to protect sea lanes; deny access to aggressor ships, submarines and aircraft; and deliver land forces ashore.

Sea Denial is a critical component of sea control. Deploying a submarine into an operational environment dramatically changes how opposing naval forces conduct their operations. Locating a submerged boat diverts ships, aircraft and other submarines from other missions, and consumes incredible quantities of resources, making its search and pursuit a strategic decision.

During the 1982 Falklands War, Britain deployed 2 aircraft carriers, 11 destroyers, five nuclear submarines, one diesel-electric submarine and 25 helicopters to anti-submarine warfare. They depleted much of their sonobuoys and anti-submarine weapons, and asked the United States to replenish the British inventory, all against one small Argentinean diesel-electric boat, the ARA San Luis.

In 2004, the two-day search for an old and noisy Chinese Han Class nuclear submarine in Japanese waters required an entire U.S. Navy P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft squadron, Japanese Defence Force P-3s, a number of nuclear submarines, and surface ships and a T-AGO surveillance ship with towed sonar.

In response to the 5 April 1986 fatal bombing of Berlin’s popular “La Belle” nightclub, the U.S. launched Operation El Dorado Canyon, and U.S. air strikes against Libya began 10 days later. US Navy submarines deployed into the area during the pre-strike and post-strike positioning of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, confined Libya’s fleet of six Soviet-built diesel submarines to port.

Operational stealth: Submarines conduct non-conventional military operations such as mining, clandestine mine reconnaissance, placement of maritime mines, and stealthy insertion and extraction of special forces. It remains virtually invisible to all but the best (and luckiest) anti-submarine forces.

In 1977, the Argentinean government was pressing the British government to pass over control of the Falkland Islands. Britain deployed two frigates and a submarine, but only the submarine was able to get near the islands while the frigates remained more than 1,600 km away. The British submarine used its full range of ISR, giving the British government the options of employing the boat’s combat capabilities or recall it as circumstances dictated.

Operational endurance: One of the nuclear-powered submarine’s most strategic attributes is its ability to remain on station, submerged, silent and invisible, for long periods to observe and develop options to respond to tactical and operational situations and unforeseen opportunities.

Freedom of movement: The ability to covertly move with relative impunity into and within the area of operations, including where surface vessels and aircraft cannot go.

Yasen Class submarine, the latest SSN in service with the Russian Navy, first launched in 2010.

Flexibility: The submarine has a wide range of sensor and communications equipment, a potential wide array of weapons, and an ability to operate in stealth, secrecy and silence across the spectrum of maritime operations.

New Technologies
Submarines have always carried torpedoes, but they can now carry and launch cruise missiles against land targets up to 2,500 km away. There are many new and enhanced technologies being integrated and retrofitted into submarines that give submarines a variety of futuristic characteristics and capabilities.  For instance, the Royal Navy’s new Astute Class nuclear submarine, and the USN Virginia Class submarines, are designed for the full spectrum of blue-water and littoral missions, each equipped with telescoping masts that do not penetrate the pressure hull.

The Virginia Class twin AN/BVS-1 telescoping photonics masts replaces the traditional periscope. Eliminating the periscope tube that protrudes from the steel pressure hull, increases watertight integrity and limits the risk of water leakage in the event of damage. The photonics mast exchanges the mechanical, line-of-sight periscope with high-resolution cameras, light-intensification and infrared sensors, an infrared laser rangefinder, and integrated electronic support measures. Information from these sensors is carried through fibre optic data lines to the control center with visual data displayed wirelessly on LCD monitors. The Virginia boats use pump-jet BAE Systems propulsors that reduce cavitation and are quieter than traditional bladed propellers; a fibre optic fly by wire vessel control system; and an updated AN/BSY-1 integrated combat system by General Dynamics AIS (previously Raytheon).

Globally, some 40 nations employ more than 400 submarines of all types. A resurgent Russia has its eye on the resource-rich Arctic, and with China’s growing interest in the area, it is time that Canada recognize the need for these specialized vessels with their suites of technologically sophisticated weapons, information and detection systems.

Capt(N) Jolin, whose experience included Oberon Class submarine operation on Canada's East Coast and the UK, did warn that while a nuclear-powered submarine is cost effective to operate, the shore-based facilities, training and supply chain to service and support these vessels “can be eye-wateringly expensive.” Perhaps frank and serious discussions with our American allies could induce them to allow Canada to piggy-back on existing USN infrastructure.

Another, albeit unlikely, way of addressing maintenance and repair facilities would be to negotiate with allied nations who wish to operate SSNs, and agree to jointly fund these services on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as common-use facilities. All participating nations would pay their share and the bills for their own use.

Convincing our U.S. cousins to admit us to the naval nuclear club may not be easy as the U.S. would then have to allow Canada access to some of their most closely-guarded technologies, capabilities and strategies. It will require long, hard and difficult negotiation and debate about common interest, mutual defence, and acknowledgement that we would be the junior partner in the arrangement – and that we would have to play by rules already established by the U.S. Navy.

NATO calls on its members to devote two percent of its GDP to defence. It’s been a long time since Canada has met that objective, but perhaps it’s time that we re-evaluate our defence spending in view of our neighbour, where the Canadian North meets the Russian North.

Tim Dunne is based in Dartmouth.
© FrontLine Defence 2015



I completely agree with the author. The Canadian Navy needs a paradigm shift in its thinking. Converting from a surface fleet to a SSN navy of 10 to 12 boats like the Barracuda class submarines would give Canada a much better bang for the buck. Our surface ships should be OPVs (join the USCG purchase with 12 to 15 additional ships to their order) and 3 to 4 heavy icebreakers. Place the CCG under the navy.