In all the discussion concerning the current recapitalization of Canada’s military, there has been a virtual silence concerning the Royal Canadian Navy’s submarine capability. Silence, that is, from the government of the day. Various pundits have opined that the silence means that the submarine capability will quietly be abandoned as too expensive. The silent service will sink beneath the waves of public notice before being crushed by budgetary pressure.
When we look at conventional submarine (SSK) proliferation around the world, it is easy to see that even if Canada has doubts about submarines, they are not shared. More and more navies are acquiring SSK’s and Brazil has even taken the bold step of starting a building program for domestically-produced nuclear submarines. That program is proceeding with technical and design assistance from DCNS of France. Australia has launched a program to replace the Collins-class SSK’s which will reach end of life at approximately the same time as Canada’s Victoria-class boats, the Royal Australian Navy has chosen a conventional variant of the DCNS Barracuda to be equipped with Air Independent Propulsion. This “Shortfin Barracuda” will be one of the most advanced conventional submarines in the world.
Before looking at whether Canada can establish a need for SSK’s, an examination of the area to be patrolled is warranted. The World Ocean covers almost 70% of the Earth’s surface with a surface area of approximately 361,000,000 square kilometres. Canada has the longest coastline of any nation measuring over two hundred thousand kilometres. A significant portion of Canada’s immense coastline is found in the area of the Arctic Archipelago, an area where Canada has long professed both environmental and sovereignty concerns. Canada’s “share” of the ocean surface, as encompassed by territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone, is some 7,100,000 million square kilometres, 2% of the total ocean surface. In the Arctic, a sizeable fraction of the area is ice-covered for all or part of the year.
We should not assume that Canada’s maritime interests end with that 2% though. Maritime trade means that Canada has commercial interests across the World Ocean. Military interests are equally far-flung, ranging from Canadian shores to areas as far afield as Australia. As Europe and the Pacific Rim become more important to Canada’s trade, so too will Canada’s interests in the oceanic trade routes increase. Canada can ill-afford to ignore what goes on either above, or below, the surface of the oceans so vital to our national interests.
To meet Canada’s needs the RCN must have a submarine capacity. Without submarines, Canada cannot have the vital maritime situational awareness of who is operating in our waters. This is especially true in the vast Arctic area. The vast Arctic Archipelago spends much of the year covered in ice, and only a system that can reach under that ice can tell us what else might be operating there. The conversation about this looming capability loss, with the public, needs to start now. Canada then needs to start the process of selecting a submarine to replace the Victoria-class as it reaches end of life. We also need to decide on the number of submarines to acquire.
During the Cold War the RCN operated three Oberon-class boats, frequently as passive Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) training aids. That was not all the boats did though, and even in that role they helped build the RCN as a premier ASW force. The Oberons were replaced by four Upholder-class boats, brought into service with the RCN as the current Victoria-class. Problem plagued in early days, they have now reached a steady-state operational capability. They are highly capable boats, providing sterling service to the country.
Of note here is the numbers, three or four boats. That fleet size is sufficient for a single coast, although the RCN does try to keep operational subs in both the Atlantic and Pacific. The numbers work against the RCN though, simple math tells us that in the High Readiness, Low Readiness and Maintenance cycle a fleet of four subs will be hard pressed to keep two subs ready for High Readiness operations at any one time. What Canada really needs is six boats, three per coast. This would all but ensure that each coast had one boat at High Readiness at all times.
There are three serious contenders for submarines suitable to Canada; The Japanese Soryu-class, the Thyssen-Krupp of Germany Type 216 and Shortfin Barracuda from DCNS of France.
Construction of the boats is unlikely to occur in Canada, but it is worthy to note that both DCNS and Thyssen-Krupp have experience in working with local shipyards on construction. Balancing cost against local jobs would be a factor in any RCN acquisition; it is an unavoidable part of all defence projects in Canada.
We need to take the next steps though, to define the required specifications for our next submarines and then to start the process of studying available options for acquisition. The process of buying new submarines won’t be cheap. The alternative though is to slowly abandon the submarine capability.
That would be far more expensive.