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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter McKay approach the submarine HMCS Cornerbrook in Frobisher Bay, off Baffin Island, on Aug. 19, 2009. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter McKay approach the submarine HMCS Cornerbrook in Frobisher Bay, off Baffin Island, on Aug. 19, 2009. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)

Nuclear-sub purchase not on Defence sonar, Tories say Add to ...

The Conservative government is denying reports it plans to buy nuclear submarines to replace the navy’s fleet of four diesel-powered subs, all of which are currently under repair and have been mostly inoperable since they were purchased 13 years ago.

CBC News quoted “high-ranking sources” on Thursday as saying Ottawa is actively considering cutting its losses on the subs, and mothballing some if not all of them. The same report quoted Defence Minister Peter Mackay as saying: “In an ideal world, I know nuclear subs are what's needed under deep water, deep ice.”

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That prompted concerns from New Democrats, who led the daily Question Period in the House of Commons on Friday by asking if nuclear submarines – which come with a price tag of about $3-billion apiece – would be on the Defence Department’s purchasing list.

“What Canadians wanted then and what they want today is certainty,” Opposition House Leader Joe Comartin said. “So can the Conservatives confirm that their government is really ready to go down a multi-billion dollar rabbit hole of nuclear submarines?”

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan replied: “The quick answer to that is no.”

Mr. Comartin, he added, would be advised not to rely unduly “on misleading reports from the CBC.”

The government is investing in the right mix of naval capacity to protect Canada’s sovereignty, Mr. Van Loan said. “I can tell you and reassure the honourable member that there is no plan to replace the diesel-electric fleet purchased by the Liberals.”

The subs were purchased from Britain in 1998 for $750-million but have spent most of the intervening years in repair yards. The bills for fixing them now top $1-billion and all are expected to remain out of service for years to come.

The CBC quoted Mr. MacKay as saying the government is anxious to have its submarine fleet fully operational as soon as possible, providing a “very important capability for the Canadian Forces.”

But asked whether the government might look at other subs, Mr. MacKay said: “Well there was a position taken some time ago to go with diesel-electric.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Van Loan said plans to purchase 65 of next-generation F-35 stealth fighter jets have not changed. The cost of the planes has been projected to range between $16- and $35-billion, including long-term maintenance, and apparently they will not come with the capability to communicate in the Arctic – even though the government says they are being purchased to protect Arctic sovereignty.

“For submarines, it seems like improvisation. For aviation, it’s a decision by the Conservatives to buy the F-35s that are less and less logical,” Mr. Comartin said. “The government is even beginning to realize that. Will the government reconsider the untendered purchase of the F-35s?”

Mr. Van Loan replied that his government is living up to its commitments to giving the military the equipment it needs.

“The current CF-18s are, of course, an aging aircraft that have been around for quite some time,” the Conservative House Leader said. “We are moving forward together with our allies, with the only fifth-generation fighter of its kind, something that offers stealth capability that will protect our Canadian airmen and airwomen so that they will be able to do their job protecting our sovereignty in the safest fashion possible and in the most effective fashion possible.”

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