W5 Investigates Canada's floundering submarine fleet
Published Saturday, November 12, 2011 6:56PM EST
Canada's navy is promising its Victoria-class submarines will by fully operational by 2013 -- nearly 15 years after the boats were purchased from the United Kingdom.
Speaking with W5's Lloyd Robertson on Oct. 28, navy commander Vice Admiral Paul Maddison said he understands Canadians' frustration with the submarine program.
"I understand why they would feel impatient. I ask all Canadians for patience. We are at the end of a long beginning," Maddison said.
Nearly $1 billion was paid for the boats, and another billion spent on their "Canadianization," including modification of torpedo systems and unplanned repairs necessitated by accidents such as the 2004 fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi that took the life of Lieut. Chris Saunders.
Canadian taxpayers can expect to spend an additional $1.5 billion on these submarines, according to Senator Colin Kenny, who has served on numerous parliamentary defence committees in Canada and NATO. Kenny believes Canada should jump ship on these subs.
"With this particular class we're sending good money after bad," Kenny said. "As a Canadian taxpayer I don't want us to waste any more money on a platform we're only getting to use a few days a year. It simply doesn't make any sense."
In the last decade, the four boats have been operational for less than 1,000 days, combined. If you do that math, that's out of an available 14,600 possible days the boats could have been at sea.
Maddison insists they will be fully operational and weapons-capable by 2013, with one submarine on each coast, a third "swing boat" and the fourth in deep maintenance.
Some critics think that Canada doesn't need any submarines at all.
"I think the days of Canada's submarine fleet are over," said Steven Staples, president of the Ottawa-based research group Rideau Institute that advocates cuts to military spending.
"If we're going to defend ourselves or monitor other submarines, we can do that from helicopters," Staples said. "We can do that from surface ships, from aircraft using sono-buoys. Some of our satellite technology can monitor submarines. (The) submarines we have can't even go under the Arctic ice."
The Commander of Canada's navy disagrees. He says that a submarine's defence capability is in its power to deter. And at least one of the submarines will test-fire a torpedo in 2012.
"Canada's a maritime nation," explained Maddison. "The economy floats. And when there are pressures, by piracy, by illegal activity, by regional conflict, if Canada's going to stand alongside our allies and make a difference, we will need submarines."
Transpolar route to become more important
Forty-five nations currently operate at total of 450 submarines around the world, according to Maddison. Retired submariner and former navy commander Vice Admiral Bruce Maclean estimates that another 150 submarines worth about $100 billion will be built in the next decade.
"In the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties we may actually see a transpolar route across an ice-free North Pole as the preferred transoceanic highway for goods at sea. It will make the Arctic even more important in terms of Canadian national interest," Maddison said.
By the late 2020s the current Victoria-class submarines will require replacing, said Maddison. Senator Kenny, thinks that instead of waiting Canada should replace the Victoria-class with new diesel-electric submarines as soon as possible.
"The nuclear submarines that the Americans or Brits use are much more noisy," Kenny said, adding that the Victoria submarines are "past their best before due date."
Kenny said Canada should consider licensing the design of a submarine from a European country, like Germany, and have six to eight of them built in Canada, a process that will take five to seven years before new subs could be added to the fleet.
But the navy is proceeding full steam ahead with trying to get the Victoria-class subs into service, presumably with the government's blessing.
"There is no indication, that I have seen, that there is any desire to do away with the Victoria class," Maddison said.
He has a more pressing problem to deal with.
In September, Maddison commissioned a "submarine capability study" whose final report is due at the end of the month. The study's convening order, a copy of which was obtained by W5, states that "force generation of qualified, experienced personnel to crew the submarines remains a challenge." Translation: the Canadian Navy needs more submariners.
"I will need at least 380 qualified submariners, ideally about 430. Right now I've got about 300," Maddison admitted.
"Once we get those boats running, success will beget success. We'll attract more Canadians into the submarine service and that will be good," Maddison assured W5.