Peter Rindlisbacher and the Canadian Society of Marine Artists

First Ladies at Sunset, by Peter Rindlisbacher. Canada’s first submarines, the CC1 and the CC2, as seen off the Fisgard Lighthouse in British Columbia, circa 1914.

The Contribution of Submarines to Canada’s Freedom of Action on the World Stage

by Paul T. Mitchell

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Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor in the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College. He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Vice-Admiral (RCN Ret’d) Dean McFadden, Commodore (RCN Ret’d) Lawrence Hickey, Commander (RCN) Scott McVicar, and Lieutenant-Commander (RCN) Tony March, as well as other officers who have chosen to remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not represent those of the Canadian Forces College or the Department of National Defence. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author alone.

DND photo IS2005-1328 by Sergeant Roxanne Clowe

HMCS Windsor sails along with HMCS Montreal at sunrise, 20 November 2005.


Michael Byers has been a longtime critic of Canadian Defence Policy and of submarines in particular.1 Thus, it is of no surprise that the answer to his question, “Does Canada Need Submarines?” is no. Early last year, both he and his research partner Stewart Webb released the ironically-titled That Sinking Feeling: Canada’s Submarine Programme Springs a Leak through the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, where they made similar arguments.2 Despite Byers’ standing as a leading scholar on Arctic and legal issues, his analysis of the submarine file is considerably flawed, although understandably popular. The recent generator problems experienced by HMCS Windsor have once again put the troubled submarine program back into the public spotlight.3 Many Canadians are outraged by the continuing problems our submarines experience, and naturally question the rationales under which they have been acquired. It almost seems that the image problem the submarine service endures is the biggest threat Canadian submariners confront. The selective nature of this attention must be particularly frustrating, as other accidents and incidents within the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) fail to attract similar levels of public concern.4

In this environment, the more difficult job should be convincing Canadians of the need to invest in a submarine capability for the navy. The real irony is that this debate on Canadian naval capability is so narrowly focused on a single weapon system. The real argument that needs to be made forcefully is that Canada’s navy requires a combined arms team that includes a variety of platform types in the air and at sea – such a formation deeply at risk with the obsolescence of our air defence destroyers, and the erosion of at-sea logistic support. Nevertheless, the task at hand today is to argue for the role of submarines in that combined arms team. As such, this article will dispute Byer’s principal arguments, and then establish that the strategic capabilities afforded by submarines make them, not only a critical part of that maritime combined arms team, but also among the most cost effective platforms for protecting Canadian interests in a rapidly changing international environment.

Unfit weapon systems?

Byers has argued that planning for the Victoria class replacement must soon begin, largely because of poor construction, long storage in salt water during their period of decommission, and due to the subsequent accidents (experienced by Corner Brook and Chicoutimi).5 I have rebutted these claims elsewhere,6 but it bears repeating that the basis upon which Byers makes these assertions is unsupported by any evidence. Indeed, the very sources he uses to establish the supposed deficiencies of the Victoria’s construction in Britain during the 1990s contradict his own claims.7 The submarines have developed a reputation as ‘lemons’ among the Canadian public, largely because of a series of unfortunate incidents. This has been reinforced by the delay in getting the boats operational, an impact that speaks more to stresses stemming from a tight budget for operations and maintenance during a period of wartime operations.8 The navy also took some risk in acquiring an ‘orphan system,’ which complicated the establishment of a logistics system to support on-going operations.9 Again, none of this has anything to do with deficiencies in the construction or design of the boats, and speaks only to the shoestring budget under which the RCN acquired the submarines in the 2000s.

Two features explain some of the difficulty Canadian submarines have experienced in their long road to operational status. First is the level of their technical sophistication and the high demand this places upon the professionalism of the submarine’s crew. The Victoria class submarines are among the quietest submarine systems in the world. They share key technological systems with Britain’s Trafalgar class nuclear submarines, highly sophisticated and classified features that must be expertly used if they are to be effective. Second, the very environment in which submarines operate also places a premium upon professional excellence. Submarines share more in common with space programs than they do with other naval programs. The unforgiving nature of working at depth is akin to working in the vacuum of space: errors of tactical judgment and operational protocols can be instantly lethal. While safety is always a concern for professional mariners, it assumes an existential priority for submariners. It is for both these reasons that the course for command qualification in submarines is traditionally called ‘Perisher.’10

These two aspects mean that maintaining an effective operational capability implies significant investments in infrastructure and training regimes to generate effective operational practice (and experience). The length of time the Canadian government took in the decision to acquire the submarines meant that both of these had significantly atrophied in the intervening period. This had to be expensively rebuilt in the last decade, and at the same time significant naval operations were being conducted in support of the War on Terror. This, rather than supposed deficiencies in the design of Canada’s submarines, explains their long road to operational capability. 45157077

HMS Tireless, a Trafalgar-class submarine.

All we need is a war… with China

Byers devotes an extended consideration to the RCN strategic concept called “Horizons 2050,” which argues, “…we should anticipate the possible re-emergence of inter-state maritime armed conflict… including the possibility that certain states will seek to deny others access to their maritime approaches.”11 However, rather than providing direct analysis of the original source, he recycles Elinor Sloan’s conclusion that a potential war with China seems to be the principal concern of the document. He sums up with the observation, “…it seems doubtful that speculative security concerns about a country that has been embraced by the Canadian government as central to our trade and foreign policy, can reasonably be used to justify spending billions of dollars on submarines.”

Of course, this is only Sloan’s interpretation of Horizons 2050. One might point out that Horizon 2050’s anti-access discussion is equally applicable to many other powers besides China. Submarines are a growing component of many navies’ order of battle. In the last 20 years, almost every significant navy in the Asia Pacific has acquired submarines.12 Russia continues to operate a sophisticated submarine force, one that has recommenced making regular visits to North American coasts.13 India has entered the nuclear submarine community,14 and yes, China’s submarine fleet continues to grow.15 It is not an enormous intellectual stretch to argue, as Horizon 2050 does, that naval warfare in the 21st Century will “…employ more sophisticated area denial capabilities… using ‘high-end’ conventional or asymmetric capabilities such as advanced missiles or submarines.” If anything, the wide proliferation of submarine systems internationally speaks more to their continuing utility.

Getty Images/AFP GY10057255967/Guang Niu

A Chinese Navy submarine attends an international fleet review, 23 April 2009.

Arctic Angst

The acquisition of the Victorias from Britain was partly justified on the premise that they could be retro-fitted for Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), making them suitable for under-ice operations in the high Arctic. This has been a capability the RCN has always desired. Admiral Brock’s 1961 report on future naval capabilities argued for AIP.16 An under-ice capability formed the justification for its futile quest to acquire nuclear submarines in the 1980s,17 and it also has formed the basis for long-term cooperation with the United States Navy (USN) in a series of secret operations conducted by American submarines in the Canadian Arctic throughout the Cold War.18 As such, Byers suggests that without AIP, unlikely to be procured for the Victorias in the current fiscal climate, Canadian submarines are of little value in protecting the Arctic. Furthermore, Byers also points out that submarines add little to Canada’s position on the Northwest Passage.

However, it is quite likely that the high Arctic will be increasingly ice-free in the coming decades. Shipping companies are expressing increasing optimism with respect to using polar trade routes to shorten the sailing distances between Asia and Europe, and many companies are eyeing the potential resources that may become exploitable in Arctic waters once year-round ice disappears. Canadians frequently forget that the Arctic is an ocean, one that is about to get considerably busier in the coming decades, and one that is gathering increased attention by many major powers, China and Russia included. The RCN has a real interest in monitoring activities in this region, and submarines will play an important role. Even if they remain incapable of extended under ice operations, access to the Arctic is through waters that are largely ice-free, allowing the RCN to conduct barrier patrols of those chokepoints, and enabling Canada greater visibility on the maritime and naval activities taking place in its Arctic waters (a capability that was practiced during recent iterations of Operation Nanook).

DND photo HS2006-0814-01 by Corporal Rod Doucet

HMCS Corner Brook, 21 December 2006

Intelligence Sharing and other Naval Cooperation

Byers argues that the exclusive submarine forums in which the RCN participates with its closest allies can be preserved in the absence of strict possession of these systems. Of course, this is just his opinion, as no evidence is provided that such arrangements would, in fact, be possible. While he speculates that essentially it would be in the interest of Canada’s allies to continue to cooperate due to safety and search and rescue issues, especially in the Arctic, he fails to understand that waterspace management is not about search and rescue, but rather about route deconfliction. Allies participating in submarine waterspace management do not specifically reveal where each of their submarines are at any given moment. Waterspace management is all about the safe operation of submarines among friendly partners to ensure that their submarines do not collide with each other, or are detected as unknown and potentially hostile targets.19 Remove Canadian submarines from the game, and there is no longer a ‘need to know’ basis for sharing information.

In terms of their most highly guarded secrets, nations do not operate on the basis of charity. This was made dramatically evident to Canada in 2003 when its decision to abstain from the Iraq invasion caused the momentary loss of all military information sharing with the United States.20 New Zealand still feels the reverberations of its decision to ban US naval vessels from its ports in the 1980s. While the concept of ‘need to share’ has been in vogue since the events of 9/11, it has never been fully embraced, and information sharing, even in organizations such as NORAD, where Canadian and American operations are completely integrated and command and control is shared, remains problematic.21 Even in terms of waterspace management, not all information is shared among allies, as the collision between HMS Vanguard and the French SSBN Le Triomphant demonstrates.22 Further, Canada’s decision to eschew offensive cyber capabilities for its armed forces has limited cyber cooperation with ‘Four-Eyes’ allies. Getting out of the submarine business would most certainly end any role for Canada in allied waterspace management. 45152113

HMS Vanguard home after a patrol at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane, Scotland.

Byers also dismisses Canadian naval cooperation with the USN as unnecessary, given that the US could find other NATO partners to conduct ASW training against conventional diesel powered submarines. While this is undoubtedly true, it misses the whole point of why such training is conducted in the first place. The US benefits from training against Canada’s conventional submarines, but our navy (and air force) also gain significant benefits from these activities. Canada’s navy is rightly regarded as a world class professional force, despite its small size. Such professionalism makes Canadian ships highly desired in multinational formations, and has also allowed the RCN to lead those formations in many instances. International cooperation is a critical aspect of maintaining this level of world class professionalism. Furthermore, given the highly technical nature of submarine operations, working with American units is a key way to ensure that our submarine crews are every bit as good as their colleagues on the surface.

Surveillance and UAVs

Byers argues that “…as a result of technological developments, the surveillance of non-state actors can be done more effectively and efficiently with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”),” pointing to the RCAF’s Justas program to acquire these types of aircraft. It is true that such aircraft, on a vehicle-by-vehicle comparison, are dramatically less expensive than a submarine, and often less expensive than manned aircraft as well. However, the Justas program is nowhere near to fielding an operational capability for the RCAF. Further, with regards to the argument that UAVs can achieve the same effect as submarines, there are significant cost and capability issues that Byers is unaware of, or chooses to ignore.

First, maritime surveillance operations are those conducted at a distance, involving areas of thousands of square miles. In order to communicate with and control UAVs at these distances, some form of satellite communications are required. The infrastructure associated with this type of capability is neither easy to acquire, nor cheap. For example, Great Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) has been operating Reaper UAVs in Afghanistan since 2006. However, only recently has the RAF been able to acquire its own command and control systems for its fleet of UAVs. In the meantime, it has had to use USAF facilities at Creech AFB in Nevada.23 UAVs’ dependence upon satellite communications flying such distributed operations will also dramatically reduce their effectiveness in Arctic operations as well: the communication satellites on which the military relies for UAV control are geostationary systems that have little coverage above 60 degrees north. A government proposal exists for a Polar Communication and Weather Mission satellite to support (among other things) high bandwidth communication for the support of UAV operations in the Arctic, but it has not yet been approved. Furthermore, it would require a constellation of satellites in either polar or ‘Moliniya’ orbits to assure continuous coverage, highlighting again the expensive infrastructure necessary to support this type of technology.24

Second, significant modifications to Transport Canada’s air safety regulations will have to be made in order to use UAVs in ‘unsegregated airspace.’ While aircraft above 5000 feet are in controlled airspace, they all operate within a ‘seek and avoid’ paradigm with respect to other aircraft. With a pilot absent from the aircraft itself, the situational awareness of UAV pilots is significantly restricted. Furthermore, collision avoidance radars continue to experience developmental issues.25 As such, save for over controlled military ranges, UAVs are currently banned from flying in both domestic and international airspace used by private and commercial aircraft, unless such flights are planned long in advance. Under present flight regulations, UAVs lack sufficient flexibility to conduct surveillance operations for any purpose.26

Last, there are presently few UAVs that are capable of flying in the extreme weather conditions, those which are frequently present in demanding environments off the coasts of Canada.27The US Navy has stood up two squadrons of maritime surveillance UAVs because they have undoubted utility, but such systems are not inexpensive. The present system is based on the Global Hawk airframe, one of the most expensive UAV systems in operation.28In comparison to UAVs, submarines, given their capacity to submerge below extreme sea conditions, can remain effective and on station in the worst weather conditions. 090304-F-3192B-301

RQ-4 Global Hawk

Submarines in the Contemporary Strategic Environment

Despite the continuous barrage of bad press, submarines remain a critical component of maritime capability. As Byers’ contributions demonstrate, the debate over them, sadly, remains mired in narrow tactical considerations, rather than considering the broader strategic effects the technology offers. In contrast to the hopes of Byers, the future remains unpredictable, but is unlikely to be orderly. The Western liberal order established at the end of the Second World War is under increasing challenge by a variety of states. While none presently seek to replace it with one of their own, the threat of fragmentation through development of regional spheres of interest is a very real possibility. Russia’s recent actions in the Crimea, and growing Chinese assertiveness in both the East and South China Seas, all point towards a world in which international governance may break down considerably; where the rules of the road are set by the brute application of force, rather than accommodation, negotiation, and legal norms. Such a world is clearly not in Canada’s interest. The defence of the liberal order, however, may ultimately require the use of force: the failure of it will certainly require it.

With that said, Canada is not powerless in the strategic environment. The Government of Canada has seen fit to deploy its military forces in a variety of operations in support of both the United Nations and NATO since the end of the Cold War. In many of these operations, the geographic areas in which the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has taken action could hardly be called ‘expected’ or foreseeable. As a wealthy developed nation with interests in maintaining the present liberal governance structures of international society, Canada has seen fit to deploy its forces in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Libya, in order to ensure that the values that underlie international society are protected from forces that seek to undermine and replace them with other forms of governance (either locally or globally).

In committing forces to international coalition and alliance operations, Canada has worked to protect (and project) liberal internationalist values, not only from hostile forces, but also to influence its closest allies in terms of the interpretation of those values as they affect the conduct of operations. Working with the United States has been central in all these operations. In the past, Byers has warned against the dangers of operating with the Americans, fearing close interoperability with America could usurp legal Canadian command and control of its own military forces.29 The experience of the past decade of conflict has demonstrated how unfounded this argument actually is. Rather than being insidiously employed for narrow American interests, a highly professional and interoperable military has, in fact, given the Canadian government the tools to influence the conduct of American operations towards Canadian values. As Commodore (Ret’d) Eric Lerhe has demonstrated, legal officers from the CAF were able to shift American detainee policy away from unilateralist interpretations of the Geneva Conventions and towards a more internationalist interpretation of that code.30 It is unlikely, without “skin in the game,” that such arguments would have been listened to as effectively as they were. The fact that the Canadian Army was engaged in the use of force in Afghanistan, risking lives and treasure, as well as taking prisoners in its operations, made our arguments for respecting the Geneva Convention so forceful. Furthermore, Canada’s naval leadership in the Persian Gulf arguably helped maintain coalition unity in the War on Terror as the United States launched operations in Iraq.31

DND photo IS2005-2126a by Sergeant Frank Hudec

Members of HMCS Winnipeg’s naval boarding party board a fishing dhow during operations in the Gulf of Oman, 30 July 2005, as part of Operation Altair.

Thus, for a medium power, albeit still far removed from the sources of conflict, maintaining key military capabilities will be increasingly important for preserving Canadian freedom of action to influence this environment. Large military powers, such as the United States, China, and Russia, can afford to experiment with different forms of military structures as well as to endure the operational and fiscal consequences that ensue. The size of their armed forces gives them tremendous reserve capabilities to endure failures. While Canada deployed large, capable military forces in the First and Second World Wars, the cost of reacquiring such capabilities in the present environment would be enormous, and would require significant sacrifices to our existing social spending programs (and probably large tax increases as well). For the foreseeable future, the size of the CAF is unlikely to grow. Canada will have to carefully husband its military power.

Thus, the employment of a fully capable navy, including the use of submarines, permits the Government of Canada to exercise both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power in a significant fashion with its allies, as well as against its enemies. In this, submarines offer tremendous flexibility to the Government of Canada as it determines the range of options it needs to pursue on the uncertain world stage.

We should consider, therefore, the following options that submarines offer to governments. Besides their ominous tactical offensive capabilities, three strategic roles fall naturally to submarines: Strategic Conventional Deterrence, Intelligence Collection, and Operational Support.

Strategic Conventional Deterrence

Submarines are enormously difficult to find at sea. During the Second World War, the huge casualties suffered by German ‘wolf packs’ were partly caused by the speed of convoys that forced most submarines to attack on the surface, where ships and aircraft could more easily retaliate against them. However, modern submarines are much faster, which gives them the tactical manoeuvrability to attack while submerged.

As the Royal Navy found out in the Falklands War, modern ASW is far trickier than it has proved to be in past conflicts. In 1982, Argentina possessed four submarines of varying capability. However, they effectively possessed a single submarine with which they could conduct offensive operations against the British task force. Facing that single submarine were parts of NATO’s North Atlantic ASW group, the ASGRU2, arguably one of the most experienced ASW forces in the world at the time. Despite the ASGRU2’s depth of capability, the Argentinians were able to conduct two separate attacks on the British task force, both of which failed, due to technical malfunctions in the Argentinian’s torpedoes.32 Local acoustic conditions, however, rendered British forces helpless: over 150 weapons were released with no hits scored against the Argentinian submarine San Luis. According to the captain of the San Luis, “…there was no effective counter attack. I don’t think that they knew we were there until they heard our torpedoes running.” The implication is that every weapon expended in the British ASW effort was against a false target.

Such operational difficulties exert a strong psychological effect on navies. Knowledge of an operational submarine in a particular area will often deter navies from entering the area at all. Following the sinking of the General Belgrano by HMS Conqueror, the Argentinian navy returned to port. However, such dramatic psychological effects can be created only by effective crews. Recalling the earlier discussion of the operational demands of sophisticated submarines, the Argentinian attack, while frustrating for the British, did not create the same impact as the successful attack by Conqueror. The presence of an operational submarine in the area of a naval task group cannot be simply wished away, demanding the huge expenditure of resources by the British. However, Argentinian forces lost the opportunity to deter the United Kingdom because their crew was not sufficiently capable from a technical perspective to prosecute an effective attack: the most experienced Argentinian crewmen were all in Germany at the time of the war, supervising the construction of new submarines. None of the command crew assigned to the San Luis had any experience in the Type 209 submarine in which they were sailing. Inexperience led to operational failure.33

Reuters RTR624S/ Reuters photographer

Argentine Navy light cruiser ARA General Belgrano

In a similar fashion to the effect created by Conqueror, the knowledge that the Canadian navy had deployed submarines to the Georges Bank in 1995 assisted in managing the crisis between Spain and Canada during the Turbot War.34

Intelligence Collection

The same features that enhance conventional deterrence also play an important role in intelligence collection. The ability to cruise undetected close to hostile shores demonstrates the utility of these vessels. During the height of the Cold War, American submarines were able to penetrate the ports of some of the Soviet Union’s most sensitive naval installations, conducting signals and electronic intelligence, as well as photographing the undersides of Soviet submarines;35 a standard to which Canadian crews also train. Aside from such dangerous missions, in other operational contexts, they are also extremely effective assets complementing the intelligence resources available to a naval or a ground force commander. Further, such missions might be able to collect intelligence unavailable by other means, especially the covert collection of signals and electronic intelligence. Opposing forces can avoid or deceive satellite reconnaissance as long as the orbital periods of space assets are known. Long range high altitude aircraft, such as the U-2 and Global Hawk UAV, are highly scarce resources which may not be available on short notice. Further, these and other aircraft may be detected, thereby warning the opposition that they are being watched. A submarine’s stealth avoids both these problems in maritime areas. No other platform has the ability to covertly track, identify, and monitor vessels in the bad weather conditions that occur frequently off our coasts. “Bottomed” submarines, resting on the sea floor, can conduct long range and long term intelligence operations in strategic waterways with little likelihood of being detected. Canadian submarines have been used for such purposes to monitor American fishing vessels thought to be illegally harvesting fish in Canadian waters,36 and have supported counter-drug efforts in the Caribbean.37 Having sovereign control over the collection and analysis of intelligence enhances Canadian decision making, especially during crises. 090522-F-OV986-023

A USAF U-2 Dragon Lady strategic reconnaissance aircraft at an undisclosed location in Southeast Asia, 22 May 2009.

Operational Support

Lastly, given the difficulty in finding and communicating with submerged submarines, they are rightly considered solitary weapon systems. However, in some circumstances, they can provide powerful operational support to other military systems. Under good sonar conditions, and when equipped with a towed array, a single submarine is capable of covering 125,000 km2 over a forty-to-fifty day patrol, whereas a surface task group of five-to-six ships, with a combined helicopter capacity of eight aircraft, has a continuous surveillance coverage of 192,000 km2 in a 30-day patrol. Thus, considerable resource savings can be had with submarines, especially given that Canada’s Victoria submarines have a core crew of 48 sailors, whereas a similarly capable naval task group might have as many as 1400 personnel, not to mention the considerable fuel costs of a five-ship formation, compared with that of a single submarine.38

Operating in conjunction with maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), submarines are able to assist in controlling enormous areas. Again, the sensors on board these vessels provide useful long-range information; however, the submarine’s ability to respond to that information may be limited by speed and safety considerations. Submarines operating with MPA (or even in the future, organically-deployed UAVs)39 can pass on their target information, allowing the aircraft to conduct more detailed investigations of contacts that are far removed from the submarine’s position. This also has the benefit of allowing the submarine to remain covert. In this, Canadian operations in support of Operation Caribbe, as well as Dutch operations in support of the NATO Operation Ocean Shield, off the coast of Somalia, are both excellent demonstrations of how submarines can support surface forces.40

Conclusion: A Powerful and Economic Military Resource for an Increasingly Risky Strategic Environment

Those arguing that submarines have no use in a Canadian context are thinking in very narrow terms about what types of threats they can imagine, given the current political environment and how military force might be employed by Canada. Unable to envision how the Canadian government might employ the capabilities characteristic to submarines in future operations, they choose to dismiss them as unnecessary. There is a fundamental problem of using such logic to determine Canadian naval requirements. Our military contributions to Canadian security, whether exercised in terms of domestic operations or those in alliance, coalition, or UN operations should be determined by our values and interests, rather than by the availability of specific military capabilities.41 Those who rely upon the ‘capability argument’ avoid the difficult question of for what, as a country, we are willing, and occasionally need, to fight.

Clearly, as history since 1991 has shown, there are some things that even the most war averse government has deemed necessary to support with military force.42 What those issues will be in the future is entirely unknowable, just as it was impossible to imagine the high intensity operations conducted by the Canadian Army in Kandahar province in 2006/2007, or the bombing operations undertaken by the RCAF over Libya in 2010. Submarines offer tremendous flexibility with respect to how they can be used. While their acquisition costs are high (and their complex safety requirements make maintenance issues pricey), once acquired, their operational costs can be quite low.

Reuters RTR3OESO by RIA Novosti

Russia’s President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev watch the Victory Day Parade in Moscow’s Red Square, 9 May 2014.

As Yogi Berra famously observed, “the future ain’t what it used to be.” Russia appears to have made a fundamental determination that it cannot pursue its interests within the present liberal order: under the administration of Vladimir Putin, it will not behave like a ‘normal state’ for which the West has hoped since the end of the Cold War. China also appears to be indicating that it seeks to challenge liberal norms that underlie international governance, as its actions in both the East and South China seas indicate. It seems unlikely that either state will pose the type of ‘full spectrum’ threat to international order that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union historically represented. Both Russia and China, along with a host of minor military actors such as Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, and others can easily play the role of “spoilers” in a process some have referred to as “lawfare,” eroding the legal rules, norms, and values that help to keep international relations peaceful and restrained.43

Canada’s regional environment will be locally unaffected by many of these actions, and thus, Canadians have some amount of discretion as to whether they participate in future military operations that seek to support and enforce these liberal norms. Unlike those states immediately threatened by geographic proximity to aggression, Canada can choose to leave the hard work of protecting international society to others. Such a decision, however, would be in keeping with neither our traditions nor our interests. As a wealthy Western state, Canada should bear a certain responsibility to protect an international order from which, as a power with limited military means at our immediate disposal, we greatly benefit. It is not in our interests to see that order eroded to the point that instability abroad begins to affect our local peaceful environment. In this effort, submarines can play a critical role for robust military response. Further, despite their recent problematic nature, they can do so in a far more economical and discreet fashion than many other forms of military power. It would be a mistake to conclude otherwise.

DND HS2007-G025-006 by Master Corporal Blake Rodgers

HMCS Corner Brook on arctic patrol


  1. Michael Byers, Canadian Armed Forces Under US Command, (Vancouver: Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues, 2002); Michael Byers and Stewart Webb, “Canada’s F-35 Purchase is a Costly Mistake”, in Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2011; Michael Byers and Stewart Webb, The Worst Procurement in the History of Canada: Solving the Maritime Helicopter Crisis, (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2013).
  2. Michael Byers and Stewart Webb, That Sinking Feeling: Canada’s Submarine Programme Springs a Leak, (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2013).
  3. “East Coast’s only Working Submarine Going in for Generator Repairs,”in The Globe and Mail, 5 February 2014, at .
  4. Lt(N) Gervais Gamache. “Atlantic Region News – HMCS Toronto: Gas Turbine Replacement in the Persian Gulf,” at; “Fire-damaged HMCS Protecteur Could be Headed for the Scrap Heap,” in National Post, 4 March 2014, at
  5. Byers & Webb 2013, p. 7
  6. Paul T. Mitchell, Full of Holes: Byers and Webb on Canada’s Submarine Programme, (Calgary: Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, 2013).
  7. Ibid, pp. 2 & 7.
  8. Ibid, pp.4–5.
  9. Only four Upholders were built when the RN divested itself of them. There is considerable commonality between the Trafalgar and Victoria classes. However, some differences exist, especially since Canada has conducted extensive modifications to the boats. Moreover, the spares the RN held were not fully acquired by the RCN, due to strict limits placed upon the cost of the program. Re-establishing these supplier networks has proven both expensive and challenging for the RCN.
  10. “Exclusive Glimpse Behind the Scenes of the Royal Navy’s Grueling Submarine Command Course Known as Perisher,”in Daily Record, 12 October 2013, at The BBC has produced a television program on the course, available on YouTube, at
  11. Elinor Sloan, “US-China military and security developments: Implications for Canada,” in International Journal 66 (Summer 2011), pp. 265–283.
  12. Koh Swee Lean Collin, “Submarines in Southeast Asia: Proliferation, Not an Arms Race,” in The Diplomat, 30 January 2014, at
  13. Phillip P. Pan, “Russian General Calls Submarine Patrols off U.S. East Coast Routine,”in The Washington Post, 6 August 2009, at; “Russian Attack Sub Discovered Just 200 Miles from US East Coast is Given Safe Harbor During Hurricane Sandy,” in Daily Mail Reporter, 6 November 2012, at
  14. Rajat Pandit, “India’s First Nuclear Submarine and ICBM will be Ready for Induction Next Year: DRDO,” in The Times of India, 8 February 2014, at
  15. Zachary Keck, “Russia May Sell China New Advanced Submarines,” in The Diplomat, 28 March 2014, at; Owen R. Cote Jr. “Assessing the Undersea Balance Between the U.S. and China,” in MIT Security Studies Program Working Paper, February 2011, at
  16. Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Bland, “Continuity in Canadian Naval Policy, 1961-1987,” in Canadian Defence Quarterly, April 1989.
  17. Julie H. Ferguson. Through a Canadian Periscope: The Story of the Canadian Submarine Service, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995), p. 301.
  18. Adam Lajeunesse, “A Very Practical Requirement: Under-ice Operations in the Canadian Arctic, 1960–1986,” in Cold War History, Vol. 13, No. 4, 2013, at
  19. Captain (N) Phil Webster (RCN), “Artic Sovereignty, Submarine Operations, and Water Space Management,” in Canadian Naval Review, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall 2007, at
  20. Paul T. Mitchell, Network Centric Warfare and Coalition Operations in an Age of US Military Primacy, Adelphi Paper #385, (London: Taylor and Francis, 2006).
  21. Paul T. Mitchell, Network Centric Warfare and Coalition Operations: The New Military Operating System, (Abingdon UK: Routledge, 2009), pp. 68–96; Richard A. Best Jr., Intelligence Information: Need-to-Know vs. Need-to-Share, (Washington: Congressional Research Service, June 6 2011).
  22. Richard Norton Taylor, “Two Subs, Dozens of Nuclear Warheads, One Huge Ocean - and a Stroke of Bad Luck,” in The Guardian, 17 February 2009, at; “French and UK May Coordinate Submarine Patrols,” in Die Welt, 2 February 2009, at
  23. RAF Reaper Drone Squadron Stood up at RAF Waddington,” in BBC News, 23 October 2012, at
  24. See “Polar Communication and Weather Mission,” Canadian Space Agency, 23 October 2013, at; “Polar Communication and Weather Mission: Industry Day,” at ps://; and “Space Bandwith Blues,” in The Strategy Page, 30 April 2007, at
  25. Bill Carey, “Navy Rethinks Sense-and-Avoid Radar on MQ-4C,” in Aviation International News, 16 August 2013, at
  26. Major J.S.F. LaPlante, The Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems in Canada’s Unsegregated Airspace: Foundations and Roadmap, Masters of Defence paper, Canadian Forces College, 2013, pp. 16, 43–45.
  27. Lieutenant-Colonel Jason Kenny, Unmanned Aerial Systems: Are Expectations Realistic? Masters of Defence paper, Canadian Forces College, 2012, pp. 30–54. See also “UAV Not Best Choice For Finding Boats,” in UAS News at
  28. “MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAS, United States of America,” at See also Sharon Weinberger, “Meet Triton, the Navy’s New Spy Drone,” in Popular Mechanics, 14 June 2012, at
  29. Byers, 2002.
  30. Eric Lerhe, At What Cost Sovereignty: Canada–US Military Interoperability in the War on Terror, (Halifax: Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, 2013), pp. 159–206.
  31. Mitchell, 2006; Richard Gimblett, Operation Apollo: The Golden Age of the Canadian Navy in the War against Terrrorism, (Ottawa: Magic Light Publishing, 2004).
  32. See: for an excellent technical discussion of the ARA San Luis’s attack on the British task group.
  33. Ibid. Furthermore, the submarine’s fire control system was inoperable and the crew was unable to repair it, limiting the submarine to a single manually controlled torpedo shot on each attack run.
  34. Canada issued a “Submarine Notice of Intention” in the spring of 1995, advertising an area where submarines would be operating as a way of communicating to the Spanish the presence of a Canadian submarine. Webster, 2007, p. 33.
  35. Sherry Sontag; Christopher Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, (New York: Harper Collins, 1999).
  36. Sean M. Maloney. “Canadian Subs Protect Fisheries,” in Proceedings Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 3, March 1998. See also Commander Laurence M. Hickey, “The Submarine as a Tool of Maritime Enforcement,” Integrated Coastal Zone Management, Spring 2000, pp. 117–122.
  37. David Pugliese, “Op Caribbe 2013 Wraps Up – Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships Edmonton and Yellowknife And HMC Submarine Victoria Complete Deployments In Eastern Pacific Ocean,” Ottawa Citizen, 17 December 2013 at
  38. Canadian submarines frequently sail with a crew complement in excess of fifty sailors. Commander Michael Craven observes: “By way of example, the steady-state cost of ownership of the four-boat Victoria fleet is estimated at about $C250 million per year, with an ‘all up’ personnel requirement, including support staff ashore, of less than 500 people. Comparatively, a non-nuclear submarine costs some 30 percent less than a frigate or destroyer to keep at sea on a daily basis, in part the consequence of smaller crew and greater fuel economy.” Commander Michael Craven (RCN), “A Rationality Choice Revisited: Submarine Capability in a Transformational Era,” in Canadian Military Review, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2008, at
  39. Owen R. Cote Jr. “Submarines in the Air-Sea Battle,” in MIT Security Studies Program Working Paper, 2010, at
  40. “Dutch submarine to help NATO combat piracy off Somali coast,” in NATO News, 28 June 2010, at
  41. James Fergusson, “The right debate: Airpower, the future of war, Canadian strategic interests, and the JSF decision,” in Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2011, p. 214.
  42. Joseph Jockel and Joel Sokolsky, “Lloyd Axworthy’s Legacy: Human Security and the Rescue of Canadian Defence Policy,” in International Journal, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter 2000.
  43. Colonel Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. (USAF), “Law and Military Interventions: Preserving Humanitarian Values in 21st Century Conflicts,” at; Speech Delivered by Brooke Goldstein, “Lawfare: Real Threat or Illusion,” at