Where do submarines ‘fit’ in future navy plans?

Murray Brewster’s article [The Globe and Mail, “DND may be shopping for new subs, sources say”] casts an interesting light on the future of Canada’s submarine fleet. The existing four Victoria-class submarines are consuming the largest portion of the navy’s maintenance budget. A midlife refit to keep them operating into the 2025 time frame has been estimated to cost an additional $865-million. While Defence Minister Peter Mackay views the submarines as “strategic assets,” he will not comment on reports the navy is weighing the costs of buying new submarines versus refitting the old ones.

With the much-delayed Canada First Defence Policy rumoured to be going back for Cabinet approval for the third time, one wonders how the navy will retain its submarine fleet. The rationale for having the boats in the first place was never properly explained to the public and opinion makers (first hand experience tells me this problem remains as the submariner community continues to operate on the assumption that “smart people know why we need them” without a clear explanation). The other possibility is that the public understood and rejected the arguments, and the government went ahead irregardless. Either way, one would think there will be little public appetite for retaining submarines, especially in the face of other priorities.

It is unlikely that the funding for the frigate life extension programme, destroyer replacements, and a submarine upgrade or replacement is all there. Those that hold out hope of a Conservative majority government suddenly giving heed to DND’s every fiscal desire should ask themselves what the Tories would gain politically from doing so, rather than putting more money into say, the environment? I suggest that the government would gain very little politically from spending more on defence, and that a larger defence budget is simply not in the offing. If this is true, how can the navy possibly recapitalize its entire fleet? Chances are it can’t. Barring something drastic (like a mass casualty maritime terrorist event in Canadian waters) the required money isn’t coming, so the navy is going to have to make some tough choices.

Which is more important, a submarine or a destroyer?

Better yet, which has the better chance of getting approved by Cabinet?

Admittedly, the subs are just now beginning to conduct operations, such as the deployment on Operation Nanook in August, but it may be too little, too late. Yes, we got a good deal on them, but what return have we had on the investment? I would hazard a guess that a member of the attentive public might remember that a submariner was killed during the fire in HMCS Chicoutimi, but I seriously doubt they could tell you what the boats have been doing since we bought them.

Even if the government commits to upgrade or renew the fleet, remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that a Tory government, focused intensely on the Arctic, and pledging to rearm the CF, promised a fully functioning submarine fleet.

That government didn’t deliver, and the similarities today seem a bit eerie.