If Canada is to live up to its self-professed middle-power standing and take its foreign and defence policy seriously, the time for renewing its submarine capability is now, writes Jeffrey F. Collins for the Toronto Star.
By Jeffrey F. Collins, October 4, 2021
In a country where foreign and defence policy issues rarely become voting matters, the 2021 federal election was a lesson in stark contrasts.
Domestically, there were practically no debates or meaningful discussions on Canada’s role in the world, yet externally the late summer campaign was bookended by two geopolitical shocks: the hasty U.S. withdrawal from a 20-year war in Afghanistan, and the creation of a new Australia-United Kingdom-U.S. (AUKUS) alignment to challenge China in the Indo-Pacific.
Reflecting its diminished status as a credible global player, in both cases Canada was given little notice of U.S. intentions. But despite Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan, it is the AUKUS deal that reveals more about existing and coming security threats to international stability — and the military capabilities Ottawa needs to start investing in.
At the heart of AUKUS is the transfer between the three countries of sophisticated military technology and know-how in cyber warfare, artificial intelligence and undersea naval capabilities. Of these, the most important and technically complex is arguably the arrangement for Australia to build at least eight nuclear-powered attack submarines using American technology (with British assistance). In doing so, Australia will join a very select club of just seven countries with nuclear-powered submarines, becoming the only member without nuclear weapons.
The eventual costs for this trade are difficult to pin down, but already Australia has had to rip up an estimated 90 billion Australian dollar deal with France for a dozen diesel-electric submarines, creating a diplomatic row in the process. The country has also committed $6 billion to upgrading its six existing diesel-electric submarines to avoid an undersea capability gap between the retirement of the older submarines and the arrival of the nuclear boats. But make no mistake, the Australian desire for advanced submarines is no mere coincidence.
Faced with both a trade war with China and an aggressive naval buildup by the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Indo-Pacific, Australia is opting for an enlarged submarine capability to tighten its American alliance, secure its waterways and check Beijing’s ambitions.
With Canada’s own four 34-year-old Victoria-class submarines set to be retired by 2042, Canadians should take note of our Commonwealth cousin’s moves. Canada’s submarines have a much-maligned public reputation, but in reality these vessels play a critical role in ensuring that the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) remains a “blue water navy” capable of defending the rules-based international order at sea, at home and abroad.
Constituting a quarter of the RCN’s advanced war-fighting capability, Canada’s submarines perform a complex array of tasks unlike any other asset in the Canadian Armed Forces: intelligence-gathering missions, deterring foreign navies, building and strengthening alliances, monitoring Canada’s sovereign waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), supporting troops ashore, and gaining national prestige. They also represent the RCN’s best anti-submarine warfare capability, though even still, they will be 50 years old by the end of the next decade.
Fortunately, the federal government’s July 2021 decision to start a “Canadian submarine patrol project” could not come at a better time.
A vast, resource-rich Canadian maritime domain built around the world’s longest coastline and fifth-largest EEZ; growing Russian military activity in the Arctic and North Atlantic; the buildup of China’s navy and militia fleet in the South and East China Seas mixed with uncertain Arctic aspirations; a boom in submarine acquisitions throughout the Indo-Pacific, which remains a region of growing Canadian economic interest; and the proliferation of anti-access/area denial weapons systems like anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles are all reiterating the necessity of having a crewed undersea capability. Not even underwater drones will dilute the importance of owning and operating submarines.
The decision on a future submarine capability will not be easy or cheap. Ottawa will have to decide on whether to build domestically, buy an “off-the-shelf” overseas vessel customized to Canadian requirements, or collaborate with an established partner on joint production. A call on nuclear-powered versus non-nuclear powered will also have to be made, a choice fraught with the legacies of previous failed nuclear submarine purchase attempts.
Yet with a history of prolonged defence procurements, there is precious little time left. If Canada is to live up to its self-professed middle-power standing and take its foreign and defence policy seriously, the time for renewing its submarine capability is now.
Jeffrey F. Collins is author of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute paper “Deadline 2036,” and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.