The Royal Canadian Navy is actively considering how to replace its aging submarine fleet in what promises to be a daunting logistical and financial challenge.
Earlier this month, defence officials told The Canadian Press that a team is being created to inform the government on a potential replacement class of patrol submarines.
David Perry, VP and senior analyst for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, believes it’s “long past time” Canada examined replacing the fleet, but noted that it will not be easy.
“Submarine construction is an engineering challenge that requires a specialized skill set that gets more difficult even over and above regular shipbuilding,” Perry said in an interview.
“I don’t believe that the skill sets, the people, the expertise in doing that kind of acquisition are in the government of Canada right now. So they [should access this] by hiring people on the market or trying to get it through consultancies or third-party advice and contracts.”
Canada’s current fleet consists of four Victoria-class submarines bought second-hand from the UK in 1998 for $750 million. The fleet has spent more time in repairs than at sea.
James Fergusson, deputy director for the Centre of Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, recommends that Canada phase out its current submarine fleet and not replace them. He warned against the 1998 purchase as well.
“I said this to military officials that this was the worst decision they could ever make. This will go south. It will go bad. It’s a waste of money. … And of course, those four submarines have been one disaster after another disaster after another disaster,” Fergusson said in an interview.
Babcock Canada has been contracted to maintain and repair the submarine fleet since 2008. According to a Department of Defence report, the company damaged one of the HMCS Corner Brook’s main ballast tanks in March 2020 when it “inadvertently over-pressurized the tank and caused it to rupture.” The subs cost $300 million annually to maintain.
The Liberal government’s 2017 “Strong, Secure, Engaged” defence policy document promised the current subs would “undergo incremental modernization in the mid-2020s, which will ensure their continued effectiveness out to the mid-2030s.” But the document made no mention of a new generation of submarines.
Fergusson regards it as a vanity project to procure a new set of submarines.
“The navy wants to look in the mirror and say, ‘We’re a real navy because we are above the surface, on the surface, and under the surface, and in a sense it’s an ego thing,” he said.
“Canada has no capacity to design a submarine. We have no production capacity to build a submarine. Industry may lick its chops and others may think, oh boy, we’re going to get this money. But … the idea of setting up from square one a new design facility to build submarines and a production facility to create them is simply a disaster waiting to happen.”
Despite the challenges, Fergusson expects the preference will be to build at home.
“We’ll provide four or six—not many—which doesn’t enable us really to reap the benefits of economies of scale, and learning curves in production, which means everything costs more. And then we’re going to shut this facility down. It will be a big white elephant again. Why we don’t learn from it?”
Perry agrees it would be better to buy than build.
“We have a tendency in Canada to take pristine designs and start making a whole bunch of changes to it. The more you do that, the more complication you’d add. So if we can try and keep that to a minimum, that would maximize your chances of success.”
Australia has been working more than 10 years to buy 12 submarines designed by France. Costs have mushroomed to more than $80 billion—almost double the original estimate.
“A submarine is able to basically defend an awful lot of water space, because even just by virtue of having one, other [nations] have to be cognizant of the fact that it could be in the water, and they just might not see it. So it has a deterrent effect on defending your own territory,” Perry said.
Depending on how they are equipped, submarines can also complement warships in attacks against other submarines or vessels, launch missiles at targets on the shore, land special forces stealthily on the shore, and do reconnaissance.
Canada and NATO allies are engaged in what some call the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic—the previous three confrontations being the two world wars and the Cold War. A resurgent Russia has rebuilt its submarine fleet and conducted large-scale exercises in the North Atlantic Ocean, prompting the need for anti-submarine warfare capabilities in Western nations.
“Other countries, in Asia particularly, are building tons of these things,” Perry said. “And it’s a key threat that the navy has to be able to defend against. If you have one yourself, it raises the level of skill in your own anti-submarine warfare.”