A Future for Canadian Submarines? Costs, Capabilities, and Interests

By Andrew Chisholm

Canada’s submarine fleet often sparks debate, over its high maintenance costs and over whether Canada needs submarines at all. Going forward, that debate must center on how costs, capabilities, and Canadian interests align with one another.

Canada’s Victoria-class submarine fleet has been controversial since its inception. Most recently, a report by Michael Byers and Stewart Webb argues that the time has come to either phase out the program or commit to a robust discussion of how to replace the fleet. Critics cite a disappointing history of expensive repairs, time lost, and a tragic fire. Supporters insist that the boats provide important capabilities, and Navy planners have sought to get the ball rolling on acquiring new subs sometime after 2020. Going forward, debate over the current fleet and its potential replacement should include all of those elements, but focus on how they align with one another: whether submarines provide the right capabilities at the right price to serve Canada’s national interests.


The subs were launched in the late 1980s and early 1990s, laid aside by the UK in 1994, purchased by Canada in 1998, and delivered between 2000 and 2004. Canada undertook their first real refit after years sitting in saltwater, ending in significant cost overruns. Tragically, during its cross-Atlantic voyage a fire broke out on HMCS Chicoutimi resulting in the death of a Sailor and deferral of Chicoutimi’s repairs to 2010.

Since 2003, the boats have spent a combined total of 1131 days at sea (less than 33% of the time). HMCS Corner Brook remains in maintenance (to be completed in 2016) begun after she ran aground during exercises in 2011, and despite a recent $209-million refit HMCS Windsor is restricted to operations in Canadian waters until one engine is removed and replaced late this summer.

The HMCS Corner Brook at sea, sort of
The HMCS Corner Brook at sea, sort of

Nevertheless, the fleet is scheduled to reach “steady state,” (two subs at high readiness, one at standard readiness, and one in refit) with the completion of Chicoutimi’s repairs at the end of 2013. As one retired Admiral says, the fleet may be turning a corner and Canada now able to reap some benefits.

With regard to replacing the fleet, Byers and Webb note the three main options, ranging in cost (depending on capabilities) from $365 million to $950 million per ship. They also note that replacement subs would be new, off-the-shelf (but built in Canada) and unlikely to have similar maintenance problems and costs.

Interests and Capabilities

The Canadian interests for which submarines could be relevant can be divided into three categories: the defense of Canada and North America, support of Canadian expeditionary deployments, and support of Canada’s interest in global maritime stability.

First, regarding the defense of Canada and North America, proponents argue that submarines provide the ability to covertly carry out coastal sovereignty and surveillance patrols, including in the Arctic. But as Byers and Webb point out, in Canadian waters at least, these functions can be performed better (and cheaper) by aircraft and drones, combined with surface-craft for enforcement. Also, the Victoria Class has no under-ice capability, although new subs likely would.

Second, submarines could support certain expeditionary deployments. The current fleet can provide security for other naval platforms, their covert surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities would be valuable, and they can enhance the activities of special operations forces. New subs could have the capability to hit land targets with guided missiles launched from offshore, as American and British boats did in support of NATO’s Libyan operation in 2011.

Supporting global maritime stability is a key interest for Canada as it relies heavily on sea-borne trade, even with the United States. More broadly, Canada has long worked to entrench and expand global trade, which is heavily sea-reliant. As its government seeks to expand trade relations with Europe, Asia, and Latin America the importance of commercial sea routes, and therefore of global maritime stability, will only increase for Canada.

This is particularly the case in the quintessentially maritime Asia Pacific region where China in particular is driving growth in economic and military power. Byers and Stewart argue that because of its global trading links, including with Canada, China is unlikely to engage in conflict, so investing in submarines based on the slim probability of Canadian engagement in such a conflict may be unwise. But according to Elinor Sloan, “Horizon 2050: A strategic concept for Canada’s navy,” the document presumed to be guiding future naval platform acquisitions, views maritime inter-state competition in the region with concern.

As I outlined in a previous article, territorial disputes, great power strategy, and nationalist emotions in Asia Pacific create a volatile mix. In this environment conventional deterrence and power projection will play an important role, either in maintaining stability or in actual conflict. The potential for a Canadian submarine presence in such Asia Pacific roles was forecast by HMCS Victoria’s participation in the US-led Rim of the Pacific, 2012 exercise.

In this vein, as Commander Craven notes, submarines provide access to areas denied to other forces and serve as a credible deterrent against almost all forces, including other states’ sea-borne power projection platforms. They can also serve in a power projection role, especially around shipping “choke points” and littoral areas. To be sure, surface ships can perform these roles (and others that submarines cannot), but they lack the tactical and psychological advantages of stealthy subs.


Debate concerning Canada’s submarine fleet and its possible renewal will consider many factors, from costs to capabilities and interests. The final decision must be made based on how those factors align with each other. Submarines provide many capabilities, but they are not necessarily the only platforms that do, and may or may not be the most efficient platforms in the doing. I am not qualified to judge whether submarines are the ideal platform for Canada to secure its interests as efficiently as possible, but that discussion of balance must be the center of debate going forward.

Andrew Chisholm is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. He recently graduated from the University of King’s College with a B.A., Combined Honours, in Political Science and History, and studied Conflict Resolution at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Andrew focuses his writing on contemporary Canadian foreign, defence, and security policy. His wider interests include sovereignty and governance, international diplomacy, and emerging security threats. Contact: andrewmchisholm@gmail.com

Leading the Blind: Teaching UCAV to See

In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock Holmes laments, “You [Watson] see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” Such is the current lament of America’s fleet of UCAVs, UGV’s, and other assorted U_V’s: they have neither concept nor recognition of the world around them. To pass from remote drones living on the edges of combat to automated systems at the front, drones must cross the Rubicon of recognition.

To See

Still can't see a thing.

The UCAV is the best place to start, as the skies are the cleanest canvas upon which drones could cast their prying eyes. As with any surveillance system, the best ones are multi-faceted. Humans use their five senses and a good portion of deduction.  Touch is a bit too close for UCAV, smell and hearing would be both useless and uncomfortable at high speed, and taste would be awkward. Without that creative deductive spark, drones will need a bit more than a Mk 1 Eyeball. Along with radar, good examples for how a drone might literally “see” besides a basic radar picture are the likes of the layered optics of the ENVG (Enhanced Night Vision) or the RLS (Artillery Rocket Launch Spotter).

Operators for typical optical systems switch between different modes to understand a picture. A USN Mk38 Mod-2 24MM Bushmaster has a camera system with an Electro-Optical System (EOS), Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), and a laser range-finder. While a Mod-2 operator switches between the EOS and FLIR, in the ENVG, both modes are combined to create an NVG difficult to blind. For a drone, digital combination isn’t necessary, all inputs can be perceived by a computer at one time. Optical systems can also be put on multiple locations on the UCAV to aid in creating a 3D composite of the contact being viewed. Using an array of both EOS and FLIR systems simultaneously could allow drones to “see” targets in more varied and specific aspect than the human eye.

For the deployment of these sensors, the RLS is a good example of how sensors can “pass” targets to one another. In RLS, after target data is collected amongst audio and IR sensors, flagged threats are passed to the higher-grade FLIR for further designation and potential fire control solution. A UCAV outfitted with multiple camera systems could, in coordination with radar, pass detected targets within a certain parameter “up” to better sensors. Targets viewed in wide-angle scans (such as stealth aircraft only seen) can be passed “down” to radar with further scrutiny based on bearing. UCAV must be given a suite of sensors that would not merely serve a remote human operator, but for the specific utility of the UCAV itself that could take advantage of the broad-access of computer capabilities.

And Observe

In-game models for real-life comparison.
In-game models for real-life comparison.

However, this vast suite of ISR equipment still leaves a UCAV high-and-dry when it comes to target identification. Another officer suggested to me that, “for a computer to identify an air target, it has to have an infinite number of pictures of every angle and possibility.” With 3-D rendered models of desired aircraft, UCAV could have that infinite supply of pictures with varying sets of weapons and angles of light. If a UCAV can identify an aircraft’s course and speed, it would decrease that “range” of comparison to other aircraft or a missiles by orienting that contact’s shape and all comparative models along that true motion axis. Whereas programs like facial recognition software build models from front-on pictures, we have the specifications on most if not all global aircraft. Just as searching the internet for this article, typing “Leading” into the search bar eliminates all returns without the word. In the same way, a UCAV could eliminate all fighter aircraft when looking at a Boeing 747. 3-D modeled comparisons sharpened by target-angle perspective comparisons could identify an airborne contact from any angle.

A UCAV also need not positively identify every single airborne target. A UCAV could be loaded with a set of parameters as well as a database limited to those aircraft of concern in the operating area. AEGIS flags threats by speed, trajectory, and other factors; so too could a UCAV gauge its interest level in a contact based on target angle and speed in relation to the Carrier Strike Group (CSG). Further, loading every conceivable aircraft into an onboard database is as sensible as training a pilot to recognize the make and model of every commercial aircraft on the planet. A scope of parameters for “non-military” could be loaded into a UCAV along with the specific models of regional aircraft-of-interest. The end-around of strapping external weapons to commercial aircraft or using those aircraft as weapons could be defeated by the previously noted course/speed parameters, as well as a database of weapons models.

Breaking Open the Black Box

The musings of an intrigued amateur will not solve these problems; our purpose here is to break open the black box of drone operations and start thinking about our next step. We take for granted the remote connections that allow our unmanned operations abroad, but leave a hideously soft underbelly for our drones to be compromised, destroyed, or surveilled at the slightest resistance. Success isn’t as simple as building the airframe and programming it to fly. For a truly successful UCAV, autonomy must be a central goal. A whole bevy of internal processes must be mastered, in particular the ability of the UCAV to conceive and understand the world around it. The more we parse out the problem, the more ideas we may provide to those who can execute them. I’m often told that, “if they could do this, they would have done it”… but there’s always the first time.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

CIMSEC Membership Outlook

As I conduct turnover with Chris Barber, CIMSEC’s new 2013-14 Director of Membership, I have found it exciting to reflect on the growth that CIMSEC has seen in the last year.

Upon assuming the inaugural position of Membership Director in June of last year, I found CIMSEC to have a whopping 30 ‘official’ members. But this was not an insurmountable challenge: Scott C-P, Matt Hipple, and other CIMSEC leaders were actively engaged through social media and other outlets. There were many great candidates corresponding and participating in our discussions. The great aspect of CIMSEC is that we have been very open and flexible to the topics discussed here, and I personally believe that this fundamental strength has drawn in many more interested participants and willing blog posters. This angle of CIMSEC, along with social gatherings, membership recruiting, social media feeds, hat-tips from other bloggers, CIMSEC published works, and down-right good articles – has expanded membership to an exciting level.

In the last year, CIMSEC has grown by 99 members (I could not hold out writing this post any longer for that milestone 100) and the physical locations and areas of expertise are vast:

Ladies & Gentlemen, Please start a line to the left!
           Ladies & Gentlemen, Please start a line to the left!
  • USN, USNR, and USMCR
  • USN and USCG (Retired)
  • E-5 to 4-star Admirals
  • CEOs of various companies
  • PhDs, MBAs, Masters, Bachelors, and Midshipmen
  • Contractors, Government Employees, and Congressional Aides
  • International Military Officers (Philippines, Cameroon, Uruguay, Norway, Poland, Royal Navy)
  • US and International Organization members (UN, ACC, EIAS, ICWA, NOAA, USNI, Institute for Security Policy, and Pew Trust)
  • Other international locations: Japan, Canada, Germany, Australia, Lebanon, India, Portugal, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Egypt, Hong Kong, R.O.K, Djibouti, and New Caledonia)

Despite this great growth of membership, we know that there are many more interested CIMSEC followers out there. They may just need a slight incentive or urging to apply for membership and start participating. I ask all current members to reach out to their family, friends, and co-workers who have the potential of providing valuable articles, counter-points, or comments to consider joining CIMSEC – strengthen the discussion of International Maritime Security.

I know Chris will do an outstanding job as the new Director of Membership and with our member’s assistance I believe we can see membership increase threefold in the next year.


A.J. “Squared-Away” is a husband, father, U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer, and is currently a joint planner at a US combatant command.  He has completed multiple deployments to the Mediterranean Sea and Arabian Gulf on patrol boats, destroyers, aircraft carriers and aboard an Iraqi oil terminal.  He is a graduate of the USMC School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW) and holds two master’s degrees from Marine Corps University.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Does Seapower Pay?

Daniel Drezner is an International Politics professor at Tufts University with an informative and entertaining blog at Foreign Policy.  He recently published an article in the journal International Security asking whether “military primacy yields direct economic benefits.”

This is an important issue for seapower advocates, with organizations like the U.S. Navy traditionally claiming that American dominance at sea is part of the bedrock foundation of a smoothly running international economic system.  The 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower argues that the “maritime domain…carries the lifeblood of a global system that links every country on earth,” and that “United States seapower will be globally postured to secure our homeland and citizens from direct attack and to advance our interests around the world that relies on free transit through increasingly urbanized littoral regions.”  

The 2010 Naval Operations Concept similarly envisions U.S. naval forces that “effectively conduct the full range of maritime security operations and are instrumental in building the capacity, proficiency and interoperability of partners and allies that share our aspiration to achieve security throughout the maritime commons.”

The current strategy document for the U.S. sea services, a Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower
The current strategy document for the U.S. sea services, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower

Drezner examines three potential ways in which a state’s military primacy could provide tangible benefits:

1. Geoeconomic Favoritism: “Military preeminence” may spur private sector investment both domestically and from abroad, as “all else being equal, a country is far more likely to attract foreign capital if it is secure from foreign invasion.”

2. Geopolitical Favoritism: Weaker states may “provide voluntary economic concessions to the dominant security actor.”

3. The Public Goods Benefit of Military Primacy: Military “primacy facilitates the creation of global public goods” with “a wide range of international relations theorists” claiming “that a liberal hegemon is a necessary and sufficient condition for the creation of an open global economic order.”

The particular potential benefits of U.S. seapower in its current, globally-deployed state would most likely be realized in terms of the “Public Goods Benefit.”  The particular hypothesis which Drezner is trying to test here is whether “by acting as a guarantor of the peace in hotspots such as the Middle East and Pacific Rim, the United States keeps the international system humming along-which in turn yields significant benefits to the United States itself.”

In terms of concrete examples of how the U.S. military has secured the global economy by protecting the sea-lanes, Drezner cites naval operations in the Middle East, an area of both political instability and significant economic importance due to the need to securely ship oil out of the region as well as the recent multi-national campaign against Somali pirates.  However, he then proceeds to question whether naval or military power can be credited with minimizing energy market disruptions or defeating piracy, pointing out that “world oil markets” can be relatively resilient and are capable of adjusting to severe price changes, and that “improved private security on board” merchant shipping may have been a more important factor in the decreased threat from Somali pirates.  With his focus being military power in general, however, he does not provide a detailed discussion of seapower’s role in the global economy other than his brief discussion of oil and piracy.

Keeping the trucks rollin'
                          Keeping the trucks rollin’

Drezner claims that if “unipolarity” and military primacy worked as predicted, China should have been “pacified” by the various manifestations of U.S. policy towards the Far East as part of the the 2011 “pivot,” but instead has acted increasingly aggressive towards its neighbors.  Unaddressed in this article, yet probably at the top of the list of factors impacting and/or justifying continued U.S. naval hegemony in the Pacific, is the tangible impact of growing Chinese strength afloat.  It is often assumed by China-phobes that a China with a strong navy acting assertively in regards to its claims over the surrounding oceans would be bad for the international system (presumably through somehow limiting freedom of navigation in the region), hence justifying continued American military presence in the Pacific.  However, there is no empirical evidence to prove that case yet (because it has not happened), and advocates of both sides are forced to rely on hypotheticals.  Drezner has asked the right macro-level questions, but it is unclear if there is specific enough data to generate a definitive answer regarding the tangible benefits of specifically American (or Chinese) naval primacy in East Asia.

Drezner concludes that military primacy is an important resource for a Great Power, but that “military preeminence” alone  does not produce “significant economic gains.”  Although primacy can be an “an important adjunct to the creation of an open global economy and the reduction of militarized disputes and security rivalries,” a hegemon whose economic strength is declining may not be capable of reaping the benefits of the economic system it has established and protected.

While members of the sea services or naval enthusiasts generally embrace the notion that seapower is an important element of protecting the international system and prosperity both at home and abroad as undisputed truth and gospel, the jury is still out on whether military power is always worthwhile in economic terms, and Drezner questions those often reflexive assumptions here.  In an era of budget uncertainty, the Navy needs to have good tangible answers to justify its continued existence when these types of questions are asked in the future.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff.  He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS Essex (LHD 2).  The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.