The threat of fire is ever-present on warships, which is why fire training is conducted every day a Canadian vessel is in port and at least once a week when it’s at sea. But the fire on Chicoutimi, which already had experienced a four-year delay in getting out of port, could hardly have come at a worse time for Canada’s “silent service.” It fuelled a controversy that had begun in 1998 with the purchase of the ship and three other mothballed Upholder-class submarines from the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. From the start, critics questioned the deal, which was supposed to cost $800 million for the subs and the conversion work required to bring them up to the Royal Canadian Navy’s requirements. (Few put it as succinctly as Mike Hancock, the British MP who asked, “Why were the Canadians daft enough to buy them?”) The fire simply added to what Paul Mitchell, a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, calls an already “well-established narrative of waste and dysfunction.”
In 1943, thousands of Canadians bought a book, co-authored by humorist and early supporter of the RCN Stephen Leacock, that gave a reasonably clear account of the U-boat attacks on the St. Lawrence in 1942, which claimed twenty-one ships and 249 lives, including 136 aboard the ferry SS Caribou. Ultimately, Canada emerged from the war with the world’s fourth-largest navy, most of which was quickly scrapped, or “paid off.” In the late 1940s, the threat posed to transatlantic shipping by Soviet submarines led the navy to purchase the aircraft carrier HMS Magnificent, which was replaced in 1957 by HMCS Bonaventure. When the Trudeau government decided to decommission the carrier — Misadventure, as some wags had dubbed it — commentators intelligently discussed the anti-submarine capabilities of the ships that would replace it.
What passes for naval debate today is, by contrast, too often uninformed and sloppy. The Halifax Chronicle Herald reported in September 2011 that Chicoutimi was being “cannibalized” for parts for HMCS Victoria (not acknowledging that this practice, known as a transfer request, is standard RCN operating procedure). And most articles about the submarine program are riddled with errors and boilerplate references to the 2004 fire. Compare that to a 1969 fire, which killed nine men aboard the destroyer HMCS Kootenay and quickly vanished from a more sea-conscious news.
For much of the late twentieth century, Canada’s three British-built, diesel-electric Oberon-class submarines served an important role as “clockwork mice” — targets for anti-submarine training exercises by Canadian and other Allied navies. After being equipped with passive sonar and Mark 48 torpedoes in the mid-1980s, these “O-boats” became true weapons platforms capable of performing their NATO missions in the Canadian Atlantic Submarine area. (Not until 2009 did the public learn of the “surreal moment” in late November 1986 during which Lieutenant-Commander Larry Hickey worked out the coordinates that, had he detected an offensive move, would have guided a torpedo from HMCS Onondaga into the hull of a nearby Soviet submarine — and possibly precipitated World War III.)
Last October, at the Naval Association of Canada conference in Ottawa, speaker after speaker lamented the public’s ignorance of these topics and, in many cases, its outright hostility toward submarines. Frigates, with their flared bows and graceful lines, intercept pirates in the Arabian Sea and hurry supplies to disaster areas after earthquakes and tsunamis. They sail to Toronto for the Canadian National Exhibition and make for good photo ops while passing under Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge. Part of the image problem, one speaker wryly noted, is that “you can’t host a decent cocktail party on the deck of a submarine.” Nor can the Victoria-class subs assert Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic in the muscular terms employed by Stephen Harper in his 2007 “Use It or Lose It” speech.
The submarine’s most important characteristic is its stealth. Far from being appreciated as a strategic asset, however, stealth jars with the public’s notion of a peaceable kingdom. Former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy went so far as to declare the ships “un-Canadian,” echoing British admiral Sir Arthur Wilson’s 1901 comment that they are “underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English.” According to Commander Michael Craven, gathering intelligence, joining with coalition partners to close off choke points, enabling “covert delivery and recovery of Special Operations Forces,” and performing a constabulary role against illegal fisheries and drug smugglers is exactly consistent with what Axworthy called “soft power.” That is, global influence exerted via “ideas, values, persuasion, skill and technique” and other forms of “non-intrusive intervention.”