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Alexander Howlett is an independent researcher with a background in history and war studies, and a co-author of a forthcoming Canadian Public Administration Journal article on the causes of the Canadian Surface Combatant procurement failure.

On Jul. 14, the Royal Canadian Navy announced it was “launching its long-anticipated push to replace Canada’s beleaguered submarine fleet.” This is an interesting development, considering the “groundwork” for replacing the country’s four Victoria-class submarines – themselves a stopgap that took six to 10 years to deliver after their purchase was first proposed in 1994 – was supposedly laid almost a decade ago.

The political controversy surrounding the purchase of those four Victoria-class subs has led to a lack of movement on submarine procurement – compounded by the reality that Canada has never had a domestic submarine industry that would directly benefit from such a program. As a result, and as the Navy’s own documents have predicted, the Victoria-class submarines will still be in service into the mid-2030s – well past their best-before date.

But submarines matter, if our own governments are to be believed. And that’s especially true if Canada wants to back up its rhetoric over the increasingly heated topic of Arctic sovereignty, an arena where Russia and China are rapidly expanding their influence.

Canada’s first defence white paper – issued by Lester B. Pearson’s government in 1964 – identified submarines with Arctic operations and established that they needed to be nuclear-powered so they could function in those perilous waters. Brian Mulroney’s government promised to build a fleet of Canada-class nuclear attack submarines specifically for Arctic operations – stating in 1989 that “there is simply no other way for Canada to defend its Arctic approaches” – but, unsurprisingly, abandoned the program when its true political-economic costs became apparent.

The 2017 Defence White Paper issued by the current government further affirmed the importance of submarines as a core component of a balanced fleet, highlighting their vital contribution to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. And yet, no effort has been made to deliver on submarine replacements.

Indeed, since the political temperature can reveal a lot about whether necessary military infrastructure will actually be approved, it is a grim sign that Ottawa remains mired in the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) program. Due to decades of delay and inflation through the Chrétien, Martin, Harper and now Trudeau years, the CSC program is pegged by the PBO to cost Canadians $82.1-billion for 15 multi-role ships to replace the country’s Iroquois-class destroyers and Halifax-class frigates. So far, 20 years of effort and billions in sunk costs have delivered exactly zero hulls.

Australia’s Navy shows us what happens when submarine replacement policy drifts over the long term. That country’s $47-billion effort to procure 12 made-in-France Attack-class submarines has been stalled by cost overruns and controversy, with the result that further life extension and modernization of Australia’s current submarines will need to happen. Avoiding that outcome in Canada will require buy-in from political leaders.

But today’s torpor didn’t just stem from poor management practices, as is often alleged. Rather, it’s a sign of the systemic disconnect between how the Navy conceives of its mission (its fundamental doctrine) and what the government is willing to pay for, both in terms of economic and political capital.

Why is it so difficult for the Navy to convince governments, Liberal or Conservative, to replace the submarine fleet? Successive governments have promised to deliver on Canada’s Arctic sovereignty but are unwilling to pay the political and economic costs of actually doing so by building or buying nuclear boats. And if Canada does not take this issue seriously, as happened during the Cold War, the United States will simply go ahead and do it. As Canadian defence scientist Robert Sutherland wrote in 1964: “One cannot be a member of a military alliance and at the same time avoid some share of responsibility for its strategic policies.”

On the other hand, the more politically expedient option – purchasing second-hand diesel-electric submarines from abroad – will guarantee decades of dockyard time and a perpetually obsolescent capability. With Canadian Armed Forces recapitalization trapped in 10- to 20-year inflationary cycles, the loss of capability will coincide, and will be compounded by, increasing costs. Conservative governments will continue to overpromise and underdeliver, and Liberal governments will continue to oversee program inflation and paralyzing delays – until the Canadian public understands what is at stake and why the money should or shouldn’t be spent.

The Navy claims that Canada is a “maritime nation,” but without public engagement there will never be an understanding of why, or how, massive sums of taxpayer money should be invested in strategic defence – and nothing will alter the well-worn political cycles that have long plagued the country’s ambitions.

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