Are SSN’s essential to ensure Canada’s arctic sovereignty? (IV)

Acquiring new nuclear boats for the Canadian navy would be the most powerful way of reinforcing Canadian sovereignty in the arctic. What Canada requires more than anything in the arctic is a regular presence in the waters of the Northwest Passage, and the nuclear submarine (SSN) is the tool most capable of providing that presence. The measures proposed by Mr. Wentzell, while helpful, would not provide that essential element of Canadian control over the dispute waters.

Yet, the economic and political realities being what they are, it is unlikely that Canada could afford the optimal solution. Modern SSNs run anywhere from $1.6 billion (French Barracuda-class) to $2.5 billion (U.S. Virginia-class) and, while the Canadian economy is in better shape than it was during the last attempt to acquire nuclear boats, it is unlikely that any government will want to spend that kind of money.

If Canada has the political will and the willingness to compromise, there are alternatives. An agreement could be reached to further expand NORAD into the maritime regime, giving that organization operation control (if only nominal) over USN submarine activities in the arctic. Canada Command and the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) might be able to cooperate in the defence and surveillance of the arctic waters. Such an arrangement would only enhance North American security and would likely smooth over an issue about which neither government wants a confrontation.

If such cooperation is undesirable, Canada may pursue different technologies which offer many of the same capabilities as nuclear boats. New advances in air independent propulsion (AIP) fuel cell technology, showcased by the German Type 212 and Type 214 submarines, could be applied to the Canadian arctic. Such vessels, operating out of a submarine base at Nanisivik could patrol the entire Archipelago twelve months of the year. Such boats would be far easier to afford, being cheaper than the patrol craft the government currently plans to acquire. Politically such vessels would also be far easier to sell to a Canadian public still avers to nuclear technology.