Canada faces myriad pressing defence priorities, some long-standing and some only emerging in a newly dangerous world.
The defence of North America surely tops that list, as is staying (or, more fairly, becoming) a full participant in NATO. Asserting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, particularly as climate change makes northern waters more navigable, is increasingly important. The Liberal government’s new Indo-Pacific strategy implies a broader defence posture.
And then there is the generational challenge posed by Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its growing militarism.
Through those diverse defence priorities runs a common thread: submarines. A modern and expanded fleet would give Canada the ability to project naval power, to protect its waters and to navigate those wide-ranging challenges.
Right now, Canada’s secondhand submarine fleet is badly outdated – construction on our oldest Victoria-class boat began nearly 40 years ago – and hampered by maintenance issues. And there are just four subs, about half the size of the fleet needed for a country with three oceans to patrol.
Even if Canada ramps up military spending significantly to meet its NATO commitment, this country will still face sharp fiscal constraints. Given those limits, the strategic versatility of submarines should put them at the top of Ottawa’s shopping list as it updates defence policy in the coming months.
Submarines are, above all, stealthy. They are difficult to detect. That difficulty creates uncertainty in the mind of an adversary; uncertainty creates deterrence. And deterrence can keep a potential conflict from turning into war.
Some argue that satellites, terrestrial listening stations and other passive monitoring are all that is needed to gather intelligence on the movement of any potential enemy’s vessels.
But such measures cannot begin to match the deterrence factor of submarine stealth. Plus, the stealth capability of submarines means that they can venture into areas where missile defences would preclude surface ships or aircraft.
And submarines are unique in one critical respect: They can observe the actions of potential adversaries – without anyone knowing they are being observed.
Submarines can linger, for weeks or even months, in the case of nuclear subs. That persistence increases uncertainty in the mind of any adversary. And in peacetime, submarines could monitor fishing and other activities in the Arctic, undetected, for long stretches of time.
Of course, submarines are ultimately combat weapons. A modern Canadian submarine fleet would play an invaluable role in keeping supply lines open to Japan, deterring hostile action in the Arctic and working alongside allied fleets in the North Atlantic.
The strategic case for submarines is overwhelming, as is evidenced by Australia’s announcement earlier this month to acquire a nuclear submarine fleet in co-operation with the United States and Britain.
Canada’s exclusion from that arrangement is troubling, but not because this country needs nuclear-propelled boats. The disturbing possibility is that our closest allies have come to the conclusion that we are not serious about contributing to our mutual defence.
Canada need not follow in Australia’s footsteps in acquiring nuclear submarines, in part because such a move would inevitably result in protracted hand-wringing over the use of nuclear technology by the military. More practically, nuclear submarines would be significantly more costly and more complex, entailing the training of nuclear specialists.
Even conventional subs will be a stretch. Defence analyst David Perry estimates that the all-in acquisition cost of a conventional submarine is close to $8-billion. (That figure does not include the annual cost of actually operating the craft.) Eight submarines would cost north of $64-billion to acquire.
Subs will also take years to launch. Ottawa needs to bend every effort to reducing delivery times. That will mean buying off the shelf rather than bogging down the procurement process with bespoke requirements. It will require the government to accept that submarines will not be built in Canada. Most of all, streamlined delivery needs prompt decisions.
Ottawa should make it clear that we indeed remain committed to the principles of NATO, and to the responsibilities that come with it. A clear and achievable plan to launch a modern submarine fleet would send a forceful message both to our allies, and to the growing list of potential adversaries.