Acquiring equipment for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is a notoriously drawn-out and complicated process that typically can take up to 15 years or longer.2 When it comes to Canada’s four boat Victoria-class diesel-electric submarines, a decision on a new replacement will have to occur over the next five years to ensure the capability survives past the 2030s.
Currently, neither the government’s official defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged (2017) or the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) own strategic guidance, Leadmark 2050, earmarks a replacement for the Victoria-class.3
Both documents and the Department of National Defence’s (DND) own procurement priority list, the 2018 Defence Investment Plan, reiterate efforts to keep the Victorias in service until 2035 by which time the oldest of the subs will be nearly 50 years old. To make this happen, the fleet will undergo an estimated $2.5 billion modernization project backed by a new $1 billion to $5 billion maintenance contract.4 The RCN aims to have the modernization contract in place by 2022.5
However, the price tag associated with a new submarine purchase in conjunction with the submarines’ checkered history (see below) raise the question of whether replacing the Victorias is a politically viable option. Modern submarines, whether powered by diesel-electric, nuclear, or air independent propulsion (AIP) systems, are some of the most complex machines ever built.
Only a handful of countries build them, key of which are the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, Japan, Russia and China. Moreover, as the Australian experience with the Collins-class has demonstrated, creating a domestic submarine manufacturing industry from scratch is fraught with start-up challenges, from securing local sources of steel, recruiting management and building expertise, and sorting out intellectual property negotiations.6
Even buying new submarines from a foreign supplier is not necessarily a cheap option. A 2003 DND audit noted that had Canada bought four new submarines in 1998, as opposed to buying second-hand British-made Victorias for $897 million, the price tag would have ranged from $3 billion to $5 billion.7 In 2015 dollars, the bill would amount to between $9 billion and $15 billion.8 In contrast, six new Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships are currently being designed and built in Nova Scotia for $4.3 billion.9
This paper makes the case that the retention of a RCN submarine capability is not only desirable but also necessary. Beneath the negative headlines is the story of a force multiplier that can shape the strategic behaviour of an adversary, gather critical intelligence information, insert special operations units, and strengthen Canada’s alliances. Notably, unique among all military assets the submarine requires a “disproportionate response from an adversary.”10
In making this argument this paper will begin with a brief historical overview of Canada’s submarine service, then explain the capabilities submarines bring to decision-makers, what capabilities need to be considered in a replacement and, finally, procurement options.
Click here for the full paper (13 PDF pages) on the NAC website.