Saturday, March 7, 2015

Opinion: Why aren't submarines included in Canada's shipbuilding procurement strategy?

Canada has spent 17 years working on its submarines. Three of them are now 'operational.' One can actually fire torpedoes.
Cpl Chris Ward, Imaging Services, CFB EsquimaltCanada has spent 17 years working on its submarines. Three of them are now 'operational.' One can actually fire torpedoes.

By Michael Byers/National Post
3 March 2015
Canada’s fleet of Victoria-class submarines has achieved operational status, with three of the four vessels fit to sail. But this development — 17 years in the making — is no cause for celebration.
The dive depth of two of the submarines is restricted because of rust damage to the hulls, and only one has actually fired a torpedo. Just as worrisome, the Victoria-class submarines are a quarter-century old and will soon need to be replaced, though no such plans have been made.
The British-built submarines were mothballed in a Scottish loch for four years before being purchased second-hand from the Royal Navy in 1998. The vessels spent another two-to-six years immersed in salt water, without any rust-preventing maintenance, before being transferred to Canada between 2000-2004.
Since then, a series of mechanical problems and accidents has denied Canada the opportunity to have more than two submarines in operational condition at the same time.
In 2004, a fire broke out on HMCS Chicoutimi, causing one death. The fire was caused by seawater infiltrating through an open hatch, leading to an electrical short, but the water was only able to cause the short because the wiring system had just one layer of waterproof sealant — instead of the three layers the construction specifications required.
That same year, “catastrophic damage” was done to the electrical components of “certain onboard filters and power supply units” on HMCS Victoria while in port. According to the Halifax Chronicle Herald: “The navy had a new $1-million piece of equipment that was supposed to supply the sub with direct-current power while it was at dockside”; instead, it destroyed many of the submarine’s electrical components.
After the accident, the Navy spent “about $200,000 to buy old technology that mirrors what the sub’s British builders used” — equipment that one of the Navy’s own “electrical technologists” said “probably goes back to the ’60s.”
Then, in 2011, HMCS Corner Brook struck bottom during a training exercise, causing extensive damage and endangering the lives of everyone on board.
Although the Chr├ętien government made the decision to purchase second-hand submarines, the Harper government exacerbated the problem in 2008 when, instead of scrapping the subs and starting over, it awarded a $1.5-billion refit contract to a British company, Babcock International. By then, the submarines were between 16 and 22 years old — meaning that all the government could hope for from the vessels, after their refits, was another decade of service.
The 2008 decision to spend an additional $1.5-billion is all the more perplexing when one considers that, for the same amount, the Harper government could have procured 3-4 brand new submarines.
Although HMCS Windsor and HMCS Chicoutimi will likely soon demonstrate their ability to fire torpedoes, the rust damage to the hulls will not go away. When HMCS Victoria enters a three-year deep-maintenance period in 2016, Canada will be down to just two operational submarines — neither of which will ever actually be combat ready.
As for the damaged HMCS Corner Brook, the Navy claims it will be repaired by 2016. But previous repairs and refits have run years over time, making 2018 a more realistic completion date.
The passage of time has also meant that the four submarines now range in age between 23-29 years old. As Navy spokesman Lt.-Cmdr. Al Blondin told the Ottawa Citizen last September, the Navy only “intends to operate the Victoria-class submarine fleet until the mid-2020s.”
In February 2012, Chief of Maritime Staff Paul Maddison appeared before the Senate National Security and Defence Committee. “I would envision initiating a next-generation submarine discussion within the next three or four years,” the Vice-Admiral testified, “to ensure there is no gap in submarine capability, which is what we faced in the 1990s.”
The Navy will be worried about the fact that major military procurements in Canada currently take 15-20 years to complete.
All this raises important questions: Does the government have any plan for replacing the Victoria-class submarines? Will the new submarines be built in Canada? How much will they cost? And why are submarines not included in the much-vaunted National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which is supposed to continue until 2041?
If there is, in fact, no plan for replacement submarines, the achievement of operational status by the Victoria-class fleet will provide only a brief respite from underwater irrelevance.
National Post
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of the article “Does Canada need Submarines?”, published in the Canadian Military Journal last summer.

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