(OTTAWA) The federal government is at a crossroads to replace its navy’s aging submarines, as cost considerations clash with pressures over the need for such vessels — and allies pursue their own plans.
The Royal Canadian Navy revealed in July 2021 that it had begun long-awaited moves to replace its four Victoria-class submarines. She then put together a task force to determine exactly what the Navy needed. It is estimated that it would take at least 15 years to design and build new submarines.
Yet there was no formal commitment from the Liberal government at the time to build a new fleet of submarines after the retirement of the Victoria-class vessels in the mid-2030s – a commitment that did not still not been caught, by the way, almost two years later.
Defense Minister Anita Anand’s spokesperson on Tuesday described the submarines as “one of Canada’s most strategic assets for providing surveillance in Canadian and international waters, including the near Arctic.”
But he would not say whether the government was committed to replacing the current fleet. He instead pointed out that the government was reviewing its existing defense policy, published in 2017, to determine the long-term needs of the armies.
Adam MacDonald, a former naval officer turned defense expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, argues the government is behind the times if it wants new submarines ready before current ones are withdrawn.
“Most people who really study this issue are basically saying there has to be a decision […] now or in the coming year,” he says.
This lack of political direction comes as the United States, Britain and Australia have placed submarines at the heart of a new tripartite defense partnership, known as “AUKUS”, which aims to repel Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region.
The senior ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces have repeatedly spoken of the importance of submarines, as did again last week in an interview with the Chief of the Defense Staff, General Wayne Eyre, when asked about the immediate needs of the Canadian army.
But experts say there’s no guarantee Ottawa will commit to spending the money needed to replace the Victoria-class submarines, whose own costs and benefits have been hotly debated ever since they were were bought second-hand from Great Britain in 1998 – 25 years ago.
“I don’t think it’s absolutely certain that we’re going to continue to have submarine capability,” MacDonald said.
“Painted in the Corner”
It’s that the Liberal government faces other financial pressures, including escalating costs for other military acquisitions, such as plans to build a new fleet of ships, and calls for spending controls after a decade of deficits.
“The financial environment we find ourselves in now is increasingly precarious,” admits defense analyst Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary, who fears that the Liberals will end up “putting this issue under the carpet “.
“Even if we had a government that was committed to strict security, we got so painted in the area, how could we get there now? »
It must be said that Canada’s current fleet has not helped the Navy’s file. Touted as a bargain when they were bought from Britain for 750 million in 1998, the submarines have since spent more time at dock than at sea, for repairs and maintenance.
Ottawa has been forced to invest billions of dollars in the fleet for more than 20 years to fix a series of problems and incidents, including fires and faulty welds. There were also several accidents during military operations and sea trials.
Military commanders – current and former – nevertheless insist that submarines are essential to the defense of Canada’s waterways as well as to the success of military operations abroad, especially as China and the Russia are rushing to build their own fleets.
Describing the oceans as a three-dimensional battlefield, retired Vice-Admiral Mark Norman explains that submarines are essential to knowing and controlling what happens under the waves.
“I’ve used the analogy of a police force trying to patrol the streets of a city, only to discover that there’s a whole system underground that allows illicit activity to flow freely without their knowledge,” said this former Navy commander.
The ‘AUKUS’ partnership appears to lend weight to these arguments, with the US taking the highly unusual step of agreeing to share its nuclear submarine secrets with Australia – it will be only the second time.
“The reality is that you have an ongoing underwater arms race,” Professor Huebert said. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Americans are building submarines at a rate we haven’t seen since just before World War II. »