The Answer is… Yes!
Now before I get into this topic, let me hedge everything that follows with this statement: Nothing in the article is meant to be a takedown of the men and women who serve within the Royal Canadian Navy. Every day, they do the best job they can do with the equipment they have and the mission they are given. They are a dedicated, competent, and admirable group of people. And I daresay, that in researching this post, I found out that despite all of its troubles, Canada’s current fleet of four Victoria-class submarines are frontline-worthy boats that do their adopted country full credit.
Okay, with this precursor out of the way, let’s start with this article with three contrasting news pieces.
And finally, Exhibit C: Is a Nuclear Submarine Really the Right Choice for Australia?
Readers, the titles of these articles tell much of what you need to know about Canada’s sorry history as it pertains to submarines. While our national media lauds our navy’s ability to put three of its four boats out to sea at one time, Britain is asking us if we want help minding our backyard, while a country that has thirteen million fewer souls than us has just agreed to buy 8 nuclear-powered submarines and signed onto what could be the most important defence agreement of the past sixty years.
It does not have to be this way. If Canada wanted to be a serious country, it would be doing what Australia is doing. It would be looking ten, twenty, even thirty years into the future and would be making plans to ensure it had a credible submarine force that will make a major contribution toward Canada becoming a country that can meaningfully affect its own foreign, domestic, and defence policy decisions.
So why does Canada need submarines? When something is going to cost the taxpayer billions of dollars, it’s a legit question.
Well, as a Canadian and author who has an interest in defence and foreign policy matters, I’m going to break it down for you. Now in stating what follows, I have only my own knowledge/research to arrive at the following opinions or statements as I see them. I’m no expert, but I’m also not clueless on the subject either.
So here are the major considerations as I see them:
- Independence of foreign policy
Independence of Foreign Policy
There’s a lot to unpack with this topic. I’ll do my best to keep it brief.
The world now has hundreds of capable submarines lurking in its oceans and while only a few states have boats that are truly ocean-faring, it just so happens that at least two of these nations are the western world’s most powerful foes. For anyone who knows even a bit about submarines, it takes little imagination to forecast the havoc and economic cost that could be wreaked by just one submarine off the coast of BC or Nova Scotia.
Let’s consider the following scenario. It’s 2033 and the United States has continued its precipitous decline as a world power while China has continued to grow in stature. China, after taking back Taiwan has turned its attention beyond its immediate waters and is bullying countries throughout the Pacific rim. It has a navy that while not as technologically advanced as the Americans, nevertheless rivals the United States Navy (USN) because it has numbers. A Cold War redux drives the politics of the day and on several occasions, the US and her regional allies have almost come to blows with the Chinese.
And then let us say that whatever the reasons, a conflict does break out and that China dispatches one or more of its capable nuclear subs to North America’s west coast. And whether or not Canada is actively engaged in the conflict between the Americans and the Chinese, these Chinese subs begin to menace shipping off the coast of BC. Keep in mind that we are after all the United States’ largest trading partner and its largest foreign supplier of energy.
This scenario is not far-fetched and it only takes one sub to cause havoc well beyond its singular number. The force-multiplying effect of the modern submarine is in fact what makes them so valuable to the countries that operate them. I would further note that a nuclear submarine can stay on station affecting its mission for as long as it needs to with the only limitations being food and weapons.
So there we are in the future – there is at least one foreign sub prowling off the BC coast, and our territorial waters and the ships who ply them are under threat. What do we do? Not the USN – they’re busy and it’s our part of the ocean). What does Canada do?
Well, in the absence of a submarine fleet, we would send forth some number of our frigates (Halifax-class or Type-26s) with orders to send the Chinese boat(s) packing.
I would like to think that if we sent four surface ships and one or two of our subs at the Chinese boat, we’d carry the day. But as I understand it there are two very common sayings in the naval community when it comes to submarines: a) in naval warfare, there are targets and there are submarines; and b) the best defence against a submarine is another submarine.
But in sending out these vessels to take back our waters, the Chinese and their hypothetical incursion have achieved their mission: the entirety of the Royal Canadian Navy’s west coast fleet is engaged in defending Canada’s territorial waters and maintaining our sovereignty. What our navy wouldn’t be doing in this scenario, is going further afield to help our allies and/or carrying out our own independent foreign policy objectives. If you think Canada’s leadership in world affairs matters, then this is a big win for our competitors.
And this is the first critical point of my argument. China does not need to sink any Canadian merchant ships or mine the sea lanes going into Vancouver. It doesn’t have to do anything so crazy. It just has to give our small navy a reason not to sail out of Canadian waters. With one or two subs, China can render Canada’s foreign policy options in the Pacific to less than what it is now – which is to send a ship or two to the Pacific to show the flag and the firing off of the occasional strongly worded email.
Canadians expect better than this, as do our allies and friends.
While this may be a controversial point, it is my view that our history and our geography give us a special obligation to help our closest friends. No one is going to invade Canada. It is all but a physical impossibility and the presence of the United States is our ultimate trump card (no pun intended). This is not the case for Great Britain and Australia. This was our policy in WWI and WWII, and it may be said it is our policy now, but at this time and a no point in the next five years could we carry this policy position out in any meaningful way.
With every respect to our military members, every arm of the Canadian Armed Forces is too small, and/or our equipment is too old, and/or we are missing key capabilities. And crucial to this post, where it pertains to our navy, this isn’t going to change in the next ten to fifteen years if Canada sticks to its current path, namely Strong, Secure, Engaged.
Over the past hundred years or so, Canada’s democracy, its economic triumph, and its way of life have been guaranteed by the security apparatus that exists in other parts of the world. In large measure, Canada is who it is because other western democracies have done hard things to manage and confront tyrannical/authoritarian entities in far-off places. Canadians, because of geography, can afford to smugly ignore this fact, but it true. It is as true today as it was back in 1942.
In the future, a modest (nevermind robust) submarine force enables Canada to greatly increase its foreign policy options. Just as the nuclear submarine is a force multiplier for China that allows it to menace Canada from thousands of miles away, the modern diesel submarine is the answer to neutralize this threat. Canada does not need nuclear subs. It does not need the twelve diesel subs the Australians just cancelled (for $66 billion!). It just needs a force that is large enough to defend our own territorial waters and to support whatever naval expeditionary force we would send to support our allies.
Right now, if things got real in the Pacific, Canada might be able to send two to three ships to the Pacific for a period of six months. This could be extended for perhaps another six months. Maybe. This is a symbolic effort now, but in ten years as our Halifax-class frigates and aforementioned subs are well beyond the end of their service lives we will not even a symbolic contribution.
Here’s the bottom line for this first point. Modern and effective submarines give Canada the ability to protect is own waters AND project its naval assets beyond Canada’s territorial waters in such a way that any naval contribution will be seen as meaningful and helpful to its allies.
More importantly, such a projection of force enables Canada to carry weight at whatever tables it is sitting at before, during and after whatever conflict happens in the Pacific or anywhere else in the world.
As it stands right now, it is fair to say we are not sitting at any of these tables. As I see it, we’re not even in the room.
The previous section touched on the notion of credibility, but the issue is important enough that it deserves its own section. As any first year poli sci student will tell you, credibility in international politics is both earned and highly valuable.
Let us flag a recent example of a country that has recently built up its credibility in the Pacific region. In the summer and fall of 2021, the United Kingdom sailed a Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea, where it, in cooperation with several other countries, conducted exercises to “support for the freedom of navigation passage through vital trading routes and our [the UKs] commitment to an international system of norms that benefits all countries.”
By way of contrast, Canada contributed a single frigate to join this UK-led South China Seas exercise.
To be credible is to be taken seriously. Let’s look at another example of a credible country in the realm of foreign affairs. Australia is a country of nearly 26 million people (Canada is 38 million), it spends 2.1 percent of its GDP on defence ($31B USD vs Canada’s $21B USD), it fields 8 aging but still very capable Collins-class submarines (we have four – sometimes), as an interim measure, it purchased 24 Super Hornets to backfill its air force while it waits for the delivery of the 5th Gen F-35 multi-role fighter (Canada is now flying Aussie F-18 hand me downs), in the recent Toyko Olympics, Australia won 46 medals (Canada won 20) and in the past four world cups of soccer (2006 to 2018) Australia has qualified (Canada last world cup qualification was back in 1986).
[What’s with the Olympics and the World Cup, you ask? I provide both points as a proxy to suggest that Australia as compared to Canada, is a more serious country in matters that extend past the realm of tanks and guns. Several other examples could be provided. And, don’t come back on me that we’re a hockey world power. We compete against maybe six other countries that are as hockey-centric as we are. That’s a one in six chance to dominate a sport. Basically, every three to four years we’re guaranteed to be the best in the world at something. This is hardly worth bragging about].
Now enter in AUKUS. Is it any wonder why Canada was not aware of, was not considered for, and is unlikely to be invited to join the most consequential political-military alliance since the creation of NATO?
Readers, we sent a single frigate to what could arguably be the most important naval exercise in the Pacific region in the past five years, we are flying tired and borrowed fighter jets from the 1980s, and depending on the year, we have zero to four used subs.
My point is this. Australia was invited to join this AUKUS agreement/alliance or whatever it is to become because its decisions and actions are meaningful and serious. Australia’s purchase of the 12 French Barracuda diesel submarines and the weight that its government carries in London and Washington led to AUKUS. There is so much more that Canada needs to do in addition to purchasing new submarines if it is going to be treated as a serious nation, but this is one highly visible and very important signal to its allies and its potential enemies that we should be taken seriously.
It bears repeating. Canada does not need nuclear submarines. Nor does it need to be the number that Australia ordered from the French (12 boats at a cost of $66B). As outlined above, Canada needs enough submarines such that it can effectively defend its territorial waters and provide an underwater capacity to any expeditionary force it sends to another part of the world.
Because it’s fun and to make this point, let’s walk through a fictional scenario to suss out the cost of what any submarine purchase would mean for Canada.
In 2024, on Canada’s west coast, you have the following capabilities:
- 5 Halifax-class frigates
- 2 Victoria-class submarines
- 1 civilian-converted supply ship is available, but it’s generally on the east coast.
As you can see, it’s not a big force. In the Chinese sub scenario outlined above, what number of vessels have to stay in Canada to ensure our waters remain safe? Certainly both of the subs and at least three of the frigates.
Let’s jump forward twelve years and let us assume we have made decisions that address many of the concerns I have outlined above, including a program to purchase new submarines.
In 2033, on Canada’s west coast, you have the following capabilities:
- 7 Type 26-class frigates
- 2 Halifax-class frigates (soon to be retired)
- 4 Type Type 212CD submarines
- 1 Berlin-class replenishment ship
Of this force, what could be sent abroad to help our allies who are under a greater threat than us from our Chinese foes?
Let’s say we can send three of our Type-26 frigates, the replenishment ship, and two of the subs for a total force six ships. I would add this includes five helicopters. That leaves six frigates and two subs to defend the west coast.
Now this force doesn’t rival Britain’s Carrier Strike Group, but in my mind, it is the minimum force that would allow Canada to make a meaningful impact on whatever events were taking place in the Pacific. And we should add that the Type-26 is one hell of a capable ship.
If we have four subs on Canada’s west coast, it means we have three to four on the east coast. So, let us say we have purchased seven new submarines. There are several platforms to choose from that would fit Canada’s defence needs. For several reasons, I’ve chosen the German-designed/built Type 212CD.
From what I could find online, this sub costs an estimated $1.2B (USD), but for reasons of inflation and currency conversion, let’s say each one is a about $1.8B Canadian per sub.
For seven subs, we’re talking a purchase price tag of $12.6 billion. And then of course, we have the ongoing maintenance and updating costs. Over twenty years, let’s say it’s a third of the purchase price, so let’s add another $4B to the total purchase.
So, the total cost for Canada to purchase seven Type 212CD is $16.2 billion. This estimate does not include the operational costs for things such as salaries, fuel, weapons, etc. These costs are not insignificant, but I won’t bring them into my calculation.
If we stick to what it would take to purchase and then maintain these vessels over 20 years, we’re talking an annual cost of $810 million dollars per year. In 2026-2027, Canada’s defence budget is projected to be $32B. Adding the annual cost of purchasing and maintaining 7 submarines, would require Canada’s defence buget to be increased by a paltry 2.6 percent. If you then add in the operating costs, we increase it to 3 percent – about another $1 billion per year in defence spending.
An important point of this analysis. Under no circumstances would we build these boats in Canada. We will have our hands full with the Type-26s. Canada simply does not have the capacity to take this kind of project on. Like our current Victoria-class subs, we’ll get the economic benefit of maintaining these vessels once they’ve been delivered. Building warships is hard. Building submarines is even harder.
Assuming these numbers are ball park, purchasing seven new, modern submarines is entirely feasible for a country that is the size of Canada.
So there you have it. My thoughts on Canada and submarines. The world is and will remain a dangerous place for many years to come. Canada can and must play a role in defending democracy and our values in meaningful ways that are commensurate with the weight we carry as a G-7 country/economy.
As outlined, submarines are an essential part of this effort. Having enough of these vessels operating after the retirement of our four Victoria-class boats is critical and should be a top priority for the Canadian government regardless of party.
Canada does not need nuclear subs, and it does not have to spend $66 billion dollars on diesel boats. There are much more cost-effective and proven alternatives on the market that would meet Canada’s defence needs. Think the Gripen or Super Hornet of submarines. There are several to chose from and doing so, we can take a huge step forward toward ensuring Canada has foreign policy independence and credibility in the eyes of its allies and competitors.
Thoughts, comments? Let me know in the comments or write to me directly at: email@example.com. As always, I’d love to hear your feedback.
Thanks for reading,
Ryan (of R.A. Flannagan Writing)
The R.A. Flannagan Writing blog is written by R.A. Flannagan, the author of Take Whiteman: A CANZUK at War Novel, Book 1.
Ryan’s blog is grab bag but tends to focus on defence-related topics, topical items that set off the curmudgeon in Ryan, and updates on his writing projects. If you’re interested in getting regular updates from R.A. Flannagan Writing, whether for Ryan’s writing or blog posts, please sign up here: https://raflannagan.ca/join-ras-newsletter/
Ryan Flannagan is the author of Take Whiteman, A CANZUK at War novel. Visit Ryan’s website: www.raflannagan.ca to learn more about Ryan and his writing.