June 28, 2013

The real reasons for problems with Canada’s submarine fleet

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:01

An interesting post at the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic, and Disarmament Studies looks at the real reasons the Royal Canadian Navy has had such a rough time with the current class of submarines:

Submarines are perhaps the most misunderstood weapon system in the Canadian Forces. Few Canadians, even those well-versed in military matters, understand their role in Canada’s defence. Worse, the technical issues that have afflicted the Victoria class submarines have dominated the media narrative for a decade, convincing many that they really are a set of lemons put upon us by the crafty British. In actuality, the navy had relatively few options to replace its aging Oberons in the 1990s. It was the decisions made then, rather than any inherent technical shortcomings, which created many of the problems experienced after these vessels entered active service. Yet, the choices for the navy were stark. Faced with a government that was essentially hostile to the idea of submarines, and limited in what it could spend, the used, but highly modern Upholders were the only option open to the RCN: it was either that or the end of the Submarine Service.

[. . .]

However, submarines were politically unpopular within the Chretien government. The former foreign minister called them “un-Canadian” in nature, and Chretien himself dithered on the decision. Sensing that the window was about to slam shut, the navy lobbied hard for their acquisition in what was called the deal of a century – four slightly used subs for $750 million. The old supply vessel HMCS Provider would be paid off early and planned refits for the O-boats foregone.

But the navy had to live within the tight limits that had been established by that $750 million figure. As such, much of the spare parts the RN had warehoused for the submarines were not purchased, nor was some of the technical information concerning the engineering of the submarine’ systems acquired from VSEL (later BAE Systems). In addition, a series of technical problems were discovered in the submarines as they began to be reactivated by the Royal Navy. Many of these were fixed before the boats were delivered to Canada, but several expensive fixes remained after they were acquired. The heavy demands made on the navy at the beginning of the War on Terror in 2003, just as the submarines were arriving in Halifax, also limited the ability to move quickly in resolving these issues.

In many ways, the problems experienced by the subs represent an “own goal” on the part of the navy. The decisions that were made at the time in order to get the boat were to come back to haunt the navy years later. The failure to acquire sufficient spares or establish supplier relationships resulted in many of the significant delays in making the subs operational as the navy worked to create its own network of industrial relationships to manufacture the specialized equipment found on no other naval system. It is this fallout from the procurement process, rather than the frequent argument that the subs were poorly constructed, that is responsible for the delays and technical setbacks in the programme. Given the constraints under which the navy had to operate in the mid-1990s there really were no other alternatives if the service was to be preserved. Despite the problems that came with the boats, it really was the deal of the century!


  1. I’m not seeing a whole lot of compelling argument in that article. It says the Upholder class were the deal of the century if the navy wanted to preserve its subsurface warfare capability, but that it patently untrue. The author himself notes that the navy shelved refit/SLEP plans for the Oberon boats in favour of buying the Upholders, and nowhere does he state that the Chretien government was going to torpedo the existing SLEP (only that it didn’t like subs in general). Let’s say that in an alternate universe, the officer in charge of RCN’s yard inspection found the Upholders unfit due to corrosion and maintenance issues, and as a result the SLEP plan for the Oberons went ahead as planned.

    We might not have had a fire, removing one boat from the fleet for a lengthy period of time. We wouldn’t have had boats going to sea without torpedoes for eight years, because the Oberons had already been upgraded to use the Mk48 fish. Eight years means some enlisted submariners served their entire career without their boat ever conducting a live fire. We certainly might have had financial or mechanical disasters as a result of the SLEP, but we wouldn’t have wasted so much time and effort cramming the Oberon fire control systems into the Upholders. Sure, the we might have had to retire one or two Oberon boats to save on SLEP and maintenance costs, but there’s nothing in that article to indicate that the choice was binary; Upholders or nothing.

    Comment by Chris Taylor — June 28, 2013 @ 11:45

  2. I suspect the SLEP was only going to wring so much more useful life out of the Oberons that there literally was not going to be a chance of persuading the government of the day to replace them at the end of those extended lifespans. Even a newly elected Tory government at the peak of an economic cycle was unlikely to sign off on buying new submarines, never mind a Grit government with no votes to be earned by “pampering” the Forces.

    Comment by Nicholas — June 28, 2013 @ 13:23

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