Under Pressure

In defence of Canada’s submarines

submarine with people visible inside it
Illustration by Lauchie Reid

Flashes erupted from behind the electrical panels that controlled the submarine HMCS Chicoutimi. The geysers of sparks told Lieutenant Peter Bryan, the executive officer, that water from a freak wave, which had earlier breached an open hatch, had now shorted the main power lines. Equally alarming, he recalls, were “the bangs that came in twos and threes and seemed to move around the control room.” After a final bang and cascade of sparks, the sound became a soft whish, and a wall of black smoke issued from the captain’s cabin at the front of the control room.

The smoke that filled Chicoutimi on October 5, 2004, 110 nautical miles off the coast of Ireland, was nothing like the vegetable-based fog Canada’s submariners use to simulate disaster. It was as thick as smoke from a tire fire and laced with toxic chemicals. Bryan knew it would quickly overcome the men gasping around him. The chief engineer and other senior officers hurried to establish a damage-control headquarters in the petty officers’ mess. An alarm sounded. Other men donned firefighting gear, including nine-kilogram tanks of compressed air, which made it difficult to navigate the sub’s narrow passageways. In spite of the darkness, Bryan located emergency breathing apparatuses on the aft bulkhead and handed them out to the men at their sonar and engineering posts before pulling one over his own head.

He then moved back to the centre of the control room and felt something underfoot. Not something: someone. With intense heat and oily smoke billowing around him, he bent down and made out SAUNDERS on the man’s nameplate. Lieutenant Christopher Saunders, who had not been there moments earlier, must have climbed up from Number 2 deck and been overcome. He wasn’t wearing a breathing apparatus. Bryan passed one to Lieutenant Dan Murphy, who slipped it over Saunders’s head. A moment later, the main circuit breaker tripped, cutting off the electricity fuelling the fire. Chicoutimi was dead and wallowing on “the roof”—the ocean’s heaving surface. There was no apparent way to clear the toxic smoke.

The threat of fire is ever-present on warships, which is why fire training is conducted every day a Canadian vessel is in port and at least once a week when it’s at sea. But the fire on Chicoutimi, which already had experienced a four-year delay in getting out of port, could hardly have come at a worse time for Canada’s “silent service.” It fuelled a controversy that had begun in 1998 with the purchase of the ship and three other mothballed Upholder-class submarines from the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. From the start, critics questioned the deal, which was supposed to cost $800 million for the subs and the conversion work required to bring them up to the Royal Canadian Navy’s requirements. (Few put it as succinctly as Mike Hancock, the British MP who asked, “Why were the Canadians daft enough to buy them? ”) The fire simply added to what Paul Mitchell, a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, calls an already “well-established narrative of waste and dysfunction.”

But is there any truth to that narrative? What the average Canadian knows about the subs—if anything at all—has been shaped by Lorne Gunter, a right-wing columnist, and Michael Byers, a left-wing academic. The two don’t agree on much, but both believe the subs are “duds.” Citing a 2011 report by the CBC, for example, Gunter wrote in the National Post that by the time Chicoutimi was fixed and sailed again, it would have been in active service for “exactly two days.” Byers questioned the four submarines’ technical capabilities, pointing out that HMCS Corner Brook hit the bottom of Nootka Sound, west of Vancouver Island, in June 2011.

Byers has even questioned the continued usefulness of subs in general, claiming that modern surveillance aircraft, such as the maritime patrol CP-140 Auroras, and surface ships are more than capable of patrolling our shores—the longest in the world.

But their co-authored narrative doesn’t hold water. True, repairs to Chicoutimi took a while. That’s because the navy went ahead and further Canadianized it, in addition to performing the multimillion-dollar “deep maintenance” all submarines must undergo. That ate into, but did not erase, the boat’s value. As the Department of National Defence pointed out in 2003, the “cost relative to the projected budget for the acquisition of new boats—$3 billion to $5 billion—established a significant margin for value.” When Chicoutimi did sail again late last year, it was fully repaired and boasted a new a fire-control system capable of tracking multiple targets and making full use of the heavy Mark 48 torpedo.

And yes, Corner Brook hit the bottom of the ocean. However, that was the result of human error—not flawed design. Its smashed bow made for shocking images, but only the fibreglass casing, which forms an outer fairing beside the ballast tanks and is designed to reduce the overall sonic profile, was damaged. The vital pressure hull was unharmed.

When it comes to the boats’ age, criticism ignores the reality that, on average, they have sliced through seawater—filled with salt and other particulates that act like sandpaper, grinding away the thickness of their hulls—for just over two years. They have experienced relatively few of the compression-decompression cycles that eventually so weaken a hull that it’s time for the scrapyard. And they are anything but overpriced, useless antiques. In fact, they’re relative bargains: Updating Canada’s Auroras is costing more than $2 billion, and surface ships cost hundreds of millions apiece. Upholder-class submarines, which the RCN rechristened Victoria-class, require relatively small crews and have greater fuel economy than most of the fleet. They cost about 30 percent less to keep at sea than frigates or destroyers.

Submariners believe criticisms of the small fleet betray the public’s lack of so-called sea consciousness. Given Canada’s coastline—71,000 kilometres along the mainland alone—and the centrality of seaborne trade to the country’s economy, this lack of consciousness would have shocked earlier generations. A century ago, Canadian newspapers provided extensive coverage of the Naval Estimates, the amount the navy planned to spend each year. The 1910 debate over the establishment of the Royal Canadian Navy, which pitted Liberal prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier against British imperialists (led by Conservative leader Robert Borden) and French-Canadian nationalists (led by Henri Bourassa), was front page news. Borden, in particular, thought little of what some decried as a “tin-pot navy.” Once in power, he used the parliamentary manoeuvre of closure (for the first time in Canadian history) to end the Liberal filibuster of the Naval Aid Bill. Had the Liberals not used their Senate majority to block it, the measure would have given the British Admiralty $35 million ($710 million in today’s funds)—instead of building up Canada’s infant force.

In World War I, none of Canada’s two aged cruisers, two submarines, or scores of yachts, drifters, and other ships pressed into anti-submarine work fired a single shot in combat. Nevertheless, Canadians cared deeply about the war’s naval engagements. Newspapers covered the 1915 sinking of RMS Lusitania; attacks on fishing boats off Nova Scotia; and the strategic threat to the Canadians fighting in Europe posed by unrestricted submarine warfare. Reports of the Battle of Jutland, which saw the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet check the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet in 1916, filled column inches.

During the lean years of the 1930s, William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government cut naval expenditures to the bone; Admiral Leonard Murray would later say that “they would be pleased if someone made up his mind to take the whole navy out into the middle of the ocean and sink it without a trace.” The navy was kept alive largely by future rear admiral Walter Hose, who created the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve, and by the Navy League.

As the decade wore on and war clouds once again gathered over Europe, the government began beefing up its ships. Reports of U-boats in the St. Lawrence during the first days of World War II led to the comic opera of a fire tugboat and a lighthouse tender boat with a sandbag-protected gun steaming out of Quebec City. The crisis on the North Atlantic prompted shipyards in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia to build corvettes and minesweepers by the hundreds, as well as 176 Park ships, Canada’s version of American Liberty ships.

In 1943, thousands of Canadians bought a book, co-authored by humorist and early supporter of the RCN Stephen Leacock, that gave a reasonably clear account of the U-boat attacks on the St. Lawrence in 1942, which claimed twenty-one ships and 249 lives, including 136 aboard the ferry SS Caribou. Ultimately, Canada emerged from the war with the world’s fourth-largest navy, most of which was quickly scrapped, or “paid off.” In the late 1940s, the threat posed to transatlantic shipping by Soviet submarines led the navy to purchase the aircraft carrier HMS Magnificent, which was replaced in 1957 by HMCS Bonaventure. When the Trudeau government decided to decommission the carrier—Misadventure, as some wags had dubbed it—commentators intelligently discussed the anti-submarine capabilities of the ships that would replace it.

Illustration by Lauchie Reid

What passes for naval debate today is, by contrast, too often uninformed and sloppy. The Halifax Chronicle Herald reported in September 2011 that Chicoutimi was being “cannibalized” for parts for HMCS Victoria (not acknowledging that this practice, known as a transfer request, is standard RCN operating procedure). And most articles about the submarine program are riddled with errors and boilerplate references to the 2004 fire. Compare that to a 1969 fire, which killed nine men aboard the destroyer HMCS Kootenay and quickly vanished from a more sea-conscious news.

For much of the late twentieth century, Canada’s three British-built, diesel-electric Oberon-class submarines served an important role as “clockwork mice”—targets for anti-submarine training exercises by Canadian and other Allied navies. After being equipped with passive sonar and Mark 48 torpedoes in the mid-1980s, these “O-boats” became true weapons platforms capable of performing their NATO missions in the Canadian Atlantic Submarine area. (Not until 2009 did the public learn of the “surreal moment” in late November 1986 during which Lieutenant-Commander Larry Hickey worked out the coordinates that, had he detected an offensive move, would have guided a torpedo from HMCS Onondaga into the hull of a nearby Soviet submarine—and possibly precipitated World War III.)

In 1987, as the O-boats neared the end of their lives, Brian Mulroney’s government proposed building ten to twelve nuclear-powered (but not nuclear-armed) hunter-killer subs capable of patrolling under Arctic ice. Almost thirty years earlier, John Diefenbaker’s government also had considered the nuclear option. In May 1958, just months before USS Nautilus transited under the Arctic, Vice Admiral Henry George “Harry” DeWolf stunned Canadians by announcing that nuclear submarines would soon “make up half of Canada’s fleet.” The plan collapsed, according to historian Julie Ferguson, because while Canada dithered over fears of cost overruns, US admiral Hyram Rickover “slammed the doors shut” on transferring the nuclear technology.

By mid-1960, the RCN had planned a smaller fleet of diesel-electric submarines. Though senior naval officials noted that in the public’s mind “submarines are almost in the same classification as poison gas,” Lester B. Pearson’s Liberal government completed desultory negotiations with the UK for the purchase of the Oberon-class subs. In an effort to quell criticism from Canadian shipbuilders, the contract contained millions of dollars in “offsets.”

Canada’s second flirtation with nuclear submarines followed defence minister Eric Nielsen’s seemingly offhand question of why the navy was not replacing the O-boats with them. Nielsen was not chiefly concerned about Soviet submarines under the Arctic Ocean. Rather, the Yukon MP was concerned about the threat to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty posed by the transit—without Ottawa’s permission—of the Northwest Passage by the US icebreaker Polar Sea in 1985.

The project manager overseeing the O-boat replacement learned of the nuclear option while sitting in the House of Commons gallery, listening to the new defence minister, Perrin Beatty, present the 1987 white paper Challenge and Commitment. Two years later, amid mounting public opposition (largely born out of confusion between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships), increasing cost estimates, the end of the Cold War, and a one-sentence agreement whereby the US pledged to transit the Northwest Passage only with “the consent of the Government of Canada,” Nielsen’s dream to build nuclear-powered submarines fizzled.

The purchase of the Upholder-class submarines took four years to come together. Since the Americans considered the undersea Arctic their domain, they were averse to the idea of Canadians patrolling beneath the ice. But the ships cannot operate below the ice, because they cannot surface to recharge their batteries. And since they incorporate certain design features and technologies the US had already shared with Britain for its Trafalgar-class nuclear submarines, the Americans supported the deal. As negotiations between the navies puttered along, public debates arose about the need for, and cost of, the vessels.

For decades, the “need” argument has boiled down to this: Since Soviet submarines no longer prowl North Atlantic waters, what purpose do Canadian submarines serve? In 1995, the Globe and Mail asked whence seaborne attacks might come before echoing Chief of Staff Major-General Andrew McNaughton’s 1934 argument that the government should pay off the entire RCN and patrol the coasts with planes. In 2013 Michael Byers, writing in That Sinking Feeling, his puckishly named study for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, added drones to the mix.

Drone technology has had a pretty good run in the media: the US military striking terrorists in Pakistan; Amazon delivering packages in New York; YouTube videos that offer breathtaking views of cities around the world. Last December, however, the US government released documents revealing that it costs $12,255 (US) an hour to operate a military drone, five times more than previously estimated, and that drones account for less than 2 percent of arrests of illegal immigrants at the Mexican and Canadian borders—both of which are areas much easier to monitor than vast oceans.

Drones may soon be small enough to avoid radar detection, and Aurora patrol aircraft can detect submarines hundreds of kilometres away, but both lack “sustained dwell time”—that is, they quickly run out of fuel. Maintaining surveillance over a given area requires four Auroras flying in sequence, at a cost of $190,000 per day; or a drone that costs $290,000 per day. A submarine can “loiter” at its target location almost indefinitely for $20,000 per day. And as retired commodore Larry Hickey notes, “Drones have yet to be proven in the complex meteorology of the littoral zone”—near the shore. Moreover, surveillance is one thing: “Once the threat’s identified, you probably want to do something about it. If the threat must be neutralized, you need something that packs punch. As such, the air-dropped torpedo is the poor second cousin to a submarine-launched heavyweight torpedo.”

Serving as humble clockwork mice might not jibe with an image of pugnacious submarine warfare shaped more by The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, and video games than by actual sea consciousness. Nevertheless, since the United States and the United Kingdom no longer operate conventional submarines, which are smaller and thus generally better suited to operations in the littoral, exercises involving Canadian diesel-electric submarines continue to be, as a 2006 Senate committee noted, of “great value in honing the skills of the crews of patrol aircraft and surface ships.”

Why not use simulators instead? Because a simulator, as one former senior submarine officer explains, can do only so much: “Even in the more basic exercises, when a sonar operator is trying to gain and hold a sonar contact, that operator is dealing with sleep deprivation, the movement of the ship, the havoc that temperature gradients and other distortions of the ever-changing water column can play on sonar—and, oh yes, someone’s just spilled coffee on the keyboard.” And more complicated exercises, particularly submarine-versus-submarine manoeuvres, are like real-time, 3-D chess games; they demand the highest levels of training from commander and crew, who must react not just to the unpredictable marine environment, but also to the complex movements and strategies of their opponents.

That Canada possesses the “assets,” as military planners call them, necessary to partake in these exercises—and to patrol its own shores—admits it to the select group of countries with access to the highly classified Prevention of Mutual Interference (imagine military air traffic control in the oceans) and other intelligence.

Illustration by Lauchie Reid

“Success in maritime operations requires the ability to have control above, on, and below the surface of the sea,” Vice Admiral Mark Norman, commander of the RCN, explains in an email. “To achieve this, nations require balanced maritime forces that include aircraft, ships, and submarines.” One submarine will always be in deep maintenance. With three operational subs, Canada has eighteen torpedo tubes. (Once USS Delaware is completed in 2018, the US Navy will have seventy-two tubes among its Virginia-class attack submarines alone.) Even with this limited attack power, the Canadian subs are potent as a force multiplier: you can’t hit what you can’t see, and Victoria-class boats vanish into the ocean and run even more quietly than their nuclear counterparts. “With their inherent lethality, stealth, and endurance on station, submarines have the distinct capability to ‘hold ground’ in a maritime environment,” writes Norman. “Compared to other maritime assets, their ability to deter a potential enemy is of unparalleled strategic value.”

Last October, at the Naval Association of Canada conference in Ottawa, speaker after speaker lamented the public’s ignorance of these topics and, in many cases, its outright hostility toward submarines. Frigates, with their flared bows and graceful lines, intercept pirates in the Arabian Sea and hurry supplies to disaster areas after earthquakes and tsunamis. They sail to Toronto for the Canadian National Exhibition and make for good photo ops while passing under Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge. Part of the image problem, one speaker wryly noted, is that “you can’t host a decent cocktail party on the deck of a submarine.” Nor can the Victoria-class subs assert Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic in the muscular terms employed by Stephen Harper in his 2007 “Use It or Lose It” speech.

The submarine’s most important characteristic is its stealth. Far from being appreciated as a strategic asset, however, stealth jars with the public’s notion of a peaceable kingdom. Former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy went so far as to declare the ships “un-Canadian,” echoing British admiral Sir Arthur Wilson’s 1901 comment that they are “underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English.” According to Commander Michael Craven, gathering intelligence, joining with coalition partners to close off choke points, enabling “covert delivery and recovery of Special Operations Forces,” and performing a constabulary role against illegal fisheries and drug smugglers is exactly consistent with what Axworthy called “soft power.” That is, global influence exerted via “ideas, values, persuasion, skill and technique” and other forms of “non-intrusive intervention.”

The Chicoutimi fire proved fatal: Lieutenant Saunders passed away en route to hospital. The rest of the fifty-seven-man crew owe their lives to quick-thinking sailors. Master Seaman Jason Murray is one of them. “After being ordered to evacuate the control room,” Bryan recalls, “he took a deep breath, took off his breathing apparatus, ran to the ladder, and climbed eleven metres up the conning tower. There he managed to open the hatch, which let some fresh air into the control room.”

The other was Petty Officer First Class Aubrey Rice. In what seems like a role written for Star Trek’s Scotty, he started one diesel engine manually (a feat even the engine’s designers were unable to duplicate). Since the engines draw air from the interior of the submarine, this created a vacuum that drew the smoke into the engine while sucking into the boat the tang of clean sea air—a brilliant improvisation that earned Rice the Meritorious Service Medal.

If second lieutenants speak of tactics and strategy, and generals speak of logistics, then submarine officers speak of technical issues. As the Chicoutimi incident showed, a single surge of sea water can precipitate disaster. In February, Lieutenant Commander Tim Markusson talked about his ship at Esquimalt, British Columbia. He explained that two connected questions are never far from a captain’s mind: “How much is left in the box? ” (that is, how much electricity is left in the battery) and “When can we next snort? ” (come close enough to the surface to raise the snorkel, run the diesel engines, and recharge).

Officers at the Naval Association conference agreed that, from technical and operational points of view, Canada is best served by nuclear submarines. But they know public opinion hasn’t changed since the 1980s, when roughly three-quarters of Canadians opposed building them. Given the government’s difficulty in replacing the CF-18 Hornet fighter jets, Iroquois-class destroyers, and Halifax-class frigates—not to mention in purchasing trucks and rifles—it is unlikely it will attempt to procure nuclear submarines anytime soon.

There are other options. The German multinational ThyssenKrupp makes subs that use a variant of the Ballard fuel cell, which was developed in British Columbia and uses oxygen and hydrogen to produce electricity: liquefied oxygen is stored in tanks, while the hydrogen is stored as metal hydride outside the pressure hull. The system has its advantages, but it adds to a craft’s weight, and as a result requires more power than diesel-electric subs of the same size.

“Krupp’s system works, but it is designed for subs operating in the Baltic or Mediterranean that are close to supporting shore-based infrastructure,” says one former Canadian submariner. “Our submarines must be able to operate in the North Atlantic and North Pacific in consistently worse weather conditions and at greater distances, for longer periods of time, from their supporting infrastructure. In theory, Krupp’s submarines could operate under the Arctic ice for short periods, but in practice none have done so, as their fuel cells cannot produce the kind of power needed to replenish or scrub the atmosphere.”

The Victoria-class submarines are far from perfect. Even setting aside the problems of bringing them online, they can’t patrol one of Canada’s three oceans. With their smaller fuel tanks, they have shorter legs than did their Oberon-class predecessors. But these are the submarines Canada has. They are equipped with modern command-and-control equipment and heavy torpedoes. Their passive sonar can identify the cavitation signature of ships and other subs more than a hundred nautical miles away. They can quietly defend the country’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They can fulfill their NATO-assigned roles, and perform constabulary duties. The force’s officers believe in what they call their “boats.” All they ask is that we do the same.

This appeared in the April 2015 issue.

Nathan M. Greenfield
Nathan M. Greenfield wrote The Forgotten: Canadian POWs, Escapers and Evaders in Europe, 1939–45.