Canadian Submarine Capabilities: A Reply to Ken Hansen

Ken Hansen’s excellent post on the subject of submarines raises important issues concerning the future of submarines in the RCN. For those of us who ‘get it’, the post hits all the right buttons, especially his comment “what if the first time our surface ships encounter a sub is when they have deployed?”

The trouble is that most Canadians don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to submarines (indeed, most military capabilities). Canadians are a solidly sensible group, which generally has a very good idea about the kind of role our nation plays in international affairs. As such, they remain committed to the ideas of peacekeeping and our image as a peaceable kingdom in a world racked by conflict. Submarines are, by their very nature, an affront to our national mythologies. They sink ships! Worse, they do so by stealth and guile, breaking all the rules of fair play! The role they played in both world wars hardly recommends them to Canadians: in their mind, they play out the images of Das Boot with hapless merchant mariners abandoned to die of exposure or drowning in the wilderness of the North Atlantic. This weapon, like land mines and cluster bombs, is not one that our nation should employ.

The trouble with this perspective (and it is one that Hansen inadvertently falls victim to) is its ‘tactical’ nature. By focusing on ASW, training of ships, and the potential use of submarines to sink other vessels, we are concentrating on very specific missions and scenarios. Rather, we should be focused on the ‘capability’ that submarines bring to the table. A case in point: in considering Canadian perspectives on a potential Syrian intervention, it was observed that our contribution would be of necessity purely diplomatic as Canada does not have the military tools to participate in any intervention. In this, the justness or necessity of any Syrian intervention is rendered entirely moot; our contemporary military does not give our government the flexibility it might desire to participate in an air operation to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

Thinking about capabilities removes us from chasing narrow ‘scenarios’ about why a given weapon system might be desirable to acquire or maintain. To Hansen’s observation above, a critic of the Canadian military, like Michael Byers might respond, The RCN shouldn’t be engaging in scenarios where our ships are at risk of being sunk by foreign submarines. However, as the French diplomat Talleyrand once observed, you can do many things with bayonets except sit on them. So it is with submarines. As I have argued elsewhere, in addition to sinking ships, submarines remain, par excellence, among the best platforms for conducting strategic deterrence, intelligence collection, and operational support to joint task forces. Further, as we have seen since the end of the Cold War, even our most militarily cautious governments have found a variety of missions to assign the Canadian military, usually in places no one could have imagined in the first place. As such, the RCN needs to become less defensive about submarine capability; a first step would be to think about it like we think about police forces. Despite historically low crime rates, no one suggests dramatically cutting police departments.

Those arguing that submarines have no use in a Canadian context are thinking in narrow technological terms about what types of threats they can imagine given the current political environment. They have difficulty imagining how the awesome capabilities characteristic to submarines would be employed by the Canadian government in future operations, and thus dismiss them as unnecessary. There is a fundamental problem of using such logic to determine Canadian naval requirements. As we have seen in terms of Syria, our military contributions to Canadian security should be determined by our values and interests rather than the availability of specific military equipment. Those who only concentrate on technology avoid the difficult question of what, as a country, we are willing to fight for when all other options have been ruled out.

Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College.  He was a post-doctoral fellow of the CFPS between 1995 and 1997.  The views expressed above are his alone and do not represent those of the Canadian Forces College or the Department of National Defence.