The Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) submarine fleet, consisting of four Victoria-class vessels, has been plagued by numerous problems since their acquisition from Great Britain between 2000 and 2004—including a dent found on HMCS Victoria in 2002, a fire on HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004, damage caused to HMCS Corner Brook in a 2011 accident, and a defect with HMCS Windsor’s diesel engines discovered last year, not to mention a supply-chain that had to be built from scratch. Such problems have sharply curtailed fleet operations, with an Initial Operating Capability only achieved in 2006.
Yet many of these challenges arose from the admittedly under-estimated cost of re-activation and refits rather than fundamental design flaws with the former Upholder-class, as some critics maintain. Importantly, Canada’s undersea fleet will likely achieve an ‘operational steady state’ in two years time. Delays with achieving a full operational capability for submarines is also nothing new—as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) can attest, given the high costs of refitting its Collins-class submarines’ combat systems and continuing propulsion problems, at a procurement cost that dwarfs what Canada has so far spent on its own fleet.
Canada might even want to think about transferring its remaining Halifax-based submarines to the Pacific, now that it can expect to enjoy a steadily increasing operational submarine capability. With more vessels on hand, Canada would be in a better position to strengthen naval ties with its Australian counterparts. For one, the RCN’s Victoria submarines and the RAN’s Collins submarines have many similar characteristics, including displacement, range, and speed. Both have also been refitted to include more sophisticated combat systems and armaments, such the Mark 48 Mod 7 torpedo—with much of this work designed to ensure continued high-levels of interoperability with US and allied navies.
Yet the RCN and RAN also face obstacles in achieving a full operational capability, which could continue to reduce the operational availability of these vessels. As a consequence, both countries have been unable to maximize the potential utility of these platforms to train their surface fleets in anti-submarine warfare (ASW)—widely regarded as a key capability requirement to retain sea control in the Pacific. Canada could help alleviate this shortage with additional vessels on hand, especially if an arrangement is made to ensure either Collins or Victoria submarines are made available for ASW training. Another important beneficiary would be the US Navy, which does not operate diesel submarines but greatly values using them for ASW training as well.
This hints at other potential avenues for naval cooperation. For instance, Australia lost a key ASW asset after retiring its Sea Kings in 1996, with the RAN having gone more than ’15 years without the ability to conduct dipping sonar operations’, as ASPI’s Andrew Davies notes. Australia will soon acquire an airborne ASW asset with the new Seahawk MH-60R. But given the RAN’s lack of regular exposure, it may be many years before full proficiency in airborne ASW returns. Canada could prove a useful partner to facilitate such training, in so far as the RCN continues to be well versed in conducting such operations with its aging Sea King fleet.
Of course, Canada’s submarine fleet will likely need to be paid off by 2030, at least absent an end of life refit to extend its service by several more years. The same could be said of Australia’s six Collins-class vessels. Yet the RAN has at least moved forward to study extending their lives and replacing them with twelve new submarines, even if there are continuing concerns about the cost of this project and whether a capability gap will arise.
Canada could learn much from this debate. Unlike Australia, it has so far eschewed serious discussion on extending its Victoria submarines’ service life or finding a replacement vessel. Already, to avoid a costly life-extension program or a capability gap, the RCN will need to plan for an off-the-shelf replacement sooner than later.
Canada might also want to take a look at possibly collaborating with Australia in its submarine project, given that both countries have to replace their existing fleets at roughly the same time. Of course, the high expected cost of these vessels represents a significant barrier. Still, collaboration could potentially result in important cost-savings on both sides. Canada also has no history of building submarines, so it’s unlikely to face the kind of political pushback from shipbuilders that greeted rumours about collaborating on the UK’s Global Combat Ship.
It might be tempting to simply forgo this undersea capability and to rely instead on greater number of surface ships by the 2030 timeframe. But the RCN should think twice about divesting its submarine fleet. It takes many years to master the complicated procedures required for ASW, as naval expert Ken Hanson reminds us. Without submarines, the RCN’s will lose its ability to undertake regular training for such vitally important operations—and with that its well-deserved and hard-earned reputation in ASW.
David S. McDonough is a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science, University of British Colombia and a research fellow in the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University.Image courtesy USN via Wikimedia Commons.