Another Canadian Submarine Program: Some Useful Lessons of History

Apollo, 6 August 2021

So, the RCN is going to put itself through the submarine acquisition wringer again. Unfortunately, there is a sad history of such programs over the last 70 years; most of which, if not all, follow the same tedious pattern from which many lessons can still be learned.

  1. A navy proposal based on a strategic requirement.
  2. Initial political scepticism and, on occasion, outright rejection.
  3. Extensive negotiation among politicians, bureaucrats, and the naval staff.
  4. Development of a politically acceptable compromise.
  5. A bureaucratically-driven, extended procurement process in which political concerns invariably trump operational considerations.

After the late 1970s when some well-funded special interest groups attacked the controversial nuclear submarine proposal, a cohort of new and very vocal players entered the submarine debate and, as it turned out, the larger debate on the entire defence policy process. With full war chests, the various groups systematically attacked the basic concept of Canadian submarines be they nuclear-powered, hybrid, or diesel-driven. Politically, it was a brutal and very public gauntlet to run that left deep scars.

That said, it seems that Canadian politicians have always had an aversion to submarines. There was, however, one notable exception -- the ill-fated 1987-89 nuclear submarine program which was believed to have political benefits for leverage over the Americans in the Northwest Passage. Apart from that short-lived incident, the dislike was pretty constant from the end of WWII.

Before 1945, the very modest RCN involvement in submarines during and just after the First World War and the fact that a handful of Canadians served in RN submarines during WWII were not politically sensitive issues. It was only when the RCN and RCAF needed submarines for Cold War anti-submarine training that their acquisition became politically complicated. For some reason, any type of submarine became synonymous with the German U-Boats of WWII -- that just wasn’t the Canadian way of conducting operations at sea! Eventually, de-fanged training submarines were accepted as necessary, but rather reluctantly.

So, it was under that concept that the 1954 agreement with the RN for the loan of training submarines in Halifax, the loan of USS Burrfish (HMCS Grilse) for West Coast training, and the convoluted process in 1961-3 that saw three British Oberon-class submarines acquired to replaced those on loan in Halifax. Even then, political and bureaucratic support was far from unanimous. It always seemed that some influential person had a better idea and the clout to make himself heard. The RCN’s original plan called for six American-designed modern submarines (Barbel-class) to be built in Canada but a powerful intervention and a new Defence Minister changed the plan to the three Oberons. It was just one more example where a politically motivated compromise left the RCN short on its operational requirement.

The latest submarine acquisition program for the four British Upholder-class is still a good example of how the Canadian military procurement process has become painfully slow and needlessly convoluted with more concern for political factors than the end operational product. Let me explain.

Cancelling the nuclear submarine program in 1989 for ‘financial’ reasons left the RCN with three obsolete Oberon-class submarines and no approved plan to replace them quickly. Not replacing them would not only leave the RCN without its own submarine capability but would also lead to a loss of the necessary skills to operate a submarine in the future. Against quite heavy political opposition, the RCN and its support groups waged a public education campaign arguing the reasons why submarine were a necessary capability for Canada. It took far too long to convince the political leadership to buy the British submarines and even then there was strong public opposition based largely on the old belief that ‘submarines were un-Canadian’ and, anyway, the deal was thought a poor one. The Canadian media was in the forefront of the opposition and was never convinced of their real value -- perhaps a case of ‘giving a dog a bad name before hanging it!’

In the public debate a couple of key factors were seldom, if ever, taken into account:

  1. The four Upholders (now the Victoria-class) met the need for quick replacement of the older submarines.
  2. A submarine had not been built in Canada since 1916.
  3. Few options for an off-shore purchase existed and those options had long wait times.

Simply, if a Canadian submarine capability was to be maintained, the Upholders were the only logical option.

All this brings me back to the future program. Here, the lessons of history point to some actions the navy planners should take early in the process. First, and probably most important, is the need to explain clearly and simply the value of modern submarines to Canada under a wide range of scenarios. Second, there should be a thorough analysis of the ability of Canadian shipyards to build a series of submarines in a timely manner. Third, a study of foreign submarines presently under construction should be done with realistic estimates of when and if a Canadian buy could be accommodated.

All that is nothing more than good staff work done by successive Naval Staffs in Ottawa since the end of WWII. Based on past experience, launching the public education campaign well ahead of any political announcement makes the subsequent steps easier. Being unable to do this nearly jeopardized the Upholder program.

One of the most difficult issues within a new submarine proposal will be the push to build them in Canada. Although preferable for nationalistic reasons, doing so runs the risk of adding extra time for both design and the necessary re-tooling of any yard selected -- or if a new yard is created for the purpose (green fielding). 

At some other time and under some other political culture, the ideal solution would be for the RCN to select the best foreign design and then convince the politicians that no other logical option exists. But that really is asking too much today, isn’t it? Who ever heard of Canadian politics being logical?

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