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One of Canada's new Victoria class submarines , HMCS Windsor, is docked at the CFB Halifax Dockyard. (Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail)
One of Canada's new Victoria class submarines , HMCS Windsor, is docked at the CFB Halifax Dockyard. (Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail)

Two subs will be fully operating by late 2012, top sailor pledges Add to ...

In the face of hard questions from the Harper government about Canada’s problem-plagued submarines, the navy’s top sailor is pledging fully operating boats will be on the East and West Coasts by the second half of 2012.

This would be a breakthrough of sorts for the subs that Canada bought from Britain in 1998 – which for more than a decade have fallen exceedingly short of expectations.

“That will give us, for the first time, what we’ve always wanted to achieve … high readiness submarines operating on both coasts,” Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison said in an interview.

“We are now at the end of a long beginning,” the top sailor said.

As it tries to decide where to chop in an era of restraint, sources say the Conservative government has been pressing the Canadian Forces on when its troubled submarine program will turn the corner.

Vice-Adm. Maddison said the HMCS Chicoutimi will finally reach what he calls a “steady state” by 2013, when a third sub comes out of maintenance and can function as a “swing boat” to be moved where needed.

The subs were bought from Britain in 1998 for $750-million, but have spent many intervening years in repair yards. The bill for fixing them has been estimated at more than $1-billion.

The naval commander on Friday acknowledged Canadians’ “frustration and impatience” about the subs’ record so far, saying there’s “no more frustrated a person than I.”

He said the navy overpromised on deadlines and underestimated the challenges of getting the subs ready for operation in Canada. For instance, he noted, the military had to scramble to find parts suppliers for the Victoria-Class submarines.

One of the boats, HMCS Chicoutimi, caught fire on its maiden voyage to Canada from Britain, killing one sailor and injuring others. It’s due to come out of the repair shop in 2013.

There’s been speculation the Harper government might axe the diesel-electric subs altogether, but Vice-Adm. Maddison said he doesn’t envision Ottawa dropping the boats from its defence plans.

“I don’t see any messages coming from Canadians or from the government of Canada that would suggest the Canada First defence strategy will go in any direction that does not include a robust undersea submarine-enabled capability for the Canadian Forces.”

The naval commander said HMCS Victoria will be in full readiness on the West Coast in early 2012, including all weapons, and certified to fire the Mark 48 heavyweight torpedo. About six months after that, he said, HMCS Windsor should reach the same level of capability on the East Coast.

Vice-Adm. Maddison said shuttering the sub program would create a gaping hole in Canada’s ability to maintain an undersea presence.

“If we lose the Victoria Class, then I would be really concerned about how we would able to regenerate a submarine capability in Canada,” he said.

He said his 300 submariners have learned unique skills that require real-life practice to keep up. “It’s more akin to flying the [space]shuttle than driving a warship.”

Vice-Adm. Maddison said the subs have logged more than 900 days at sea since being bought, including operations in the Arctic and in southern waters tracking drug traffickers.

The top sailor predicts there will be greater demand for the navy in the future.

“Looking at the proliferation of submarines around the world, there’s about 450 subs out there right now, [in]well over 45 nations,” he said. “Ocean politics are becoming more and more intense.”

With a decade, Canada will have to start making plans for new subs. The current boats, which incur up to $300-million a year in operating and maintenance costs, reach the end of their lifespan by 2030.

Hugh Segal, a Conservative senator and a major supporter of the navy, said Canada should keep an eye out for submarine bargains.

“Should fleet reductions in other contemporary allied navies produce opportunities in operational submarines that were price competitive, I would hope the government and navy would keep an open mind,” he said.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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