Canada’s submarines are once again in the news. The R.C.N. has recently announced that they have turned the corner on the program to bring the Victoria class submarines purchased by the R.C.N. in 1998 into service. It is their fond hope that in the foreseeable future they will have at least one active boat on each coast. As with previous pronouncements the public has taken this a certain amount of skepticism. In fact it might even be said that the role of submarines in the Canadian Navy has become a matter of public debate.
Because they do so much of their work far from cameras and the citizenry that pays for them Navies in general, and submarines in particular, have always faced difficulties in explaining their relevance in times of peace both to the public and to the government.
Countries, like Canada, need to have a navy to guard (or at least manage) their own coasts. The argument has been made that this duty can be performed by a Coast Guard. Unfortunately the differences between the constabulary nature of Coast Guard duties and the war fighting abilities needed to actually control one’s own seas are incompatible.
Countries, like Canada, also need Navies to help maintain the global commons that are the oceans of the world. Much of the wealth that Canada enjoys comes directly or indirectly from the free flow of goods across all the oceans of the world. Our interests lie in maintaining and strengthening the rule of law which supports our prosperity and values. We have to be players to have a voice in these matters; we have to have a navy to advance our own interests.
Submarines are important to a navy. They are among the most powerful of seaborne combatants. Many experts believe that in the event of large scale general naval warfare they are the only warships that will matter, or even be afloat, after a short period of unrestricted warfare. In peacetime their ability to maintain a presence, monitor large areas, and create uncertainty with potential aggressors is unmatched. From a strictly economic point of view they are less expensive (the word cheap seldom applies to any navy vessel) to operate and have low logistic demands. The point here is that Canada should have a navy and real navies have submarines.
If the question is not ‘should Canada have submarines’ then it becomes ‘why doesn’t Canada have submarines?’ The problems faced by the Navy in their attempt to bring all four of the submarines into regular service are fairly well known by this time. Deadlines have been missed, a lot of money has been spent and very little has been gained in terms of effectiveness.
Much has been said about the problems of keeping submariners skills current given the lack of working submarines to train on, and the difficulties of regenerating a submarine force should we lose what little sub-surface capabilities we still possess. Rather less has been said about the Navy’s ability to manage this complex program. As well as worrying about the atrophying skills of our submariners we should consider the possibility that at some point, probably through lack of experience or training, the ability to manage complex programs seems to have been lost. While submarine crews can train with simulators and try to maintain skills it would appear that no similar mechanism exists to maintain the staff and management skills necessary to guide complex, expensive, procurement programs.
Until changes are made at the military-civilian interface where such programs are managed there is no reason to believe that other procurement exercises will go any better, or that we will ever have a Navy with effective submarines.