A WAKEUP CALL FOR CANADA-RETHINKING OUR ARCTIC SSN POLICIES
"This is an opinion piece by the author for forum members only and not to be shared on any other media"
The Canadian Arctic has become a contested and militarized arena where states within the region and beyond are attempting to secure access to lucrative shipping routes and resources. Such an eventuality poses particular challenges to Canada, raising the spectre that Canadian sovereignty in the north has become irrevocably compromised. Canada’s legal title to its Arctic territories is well established, however given the increased interest and activity there, Canada will need to substantially increase its presence in the region to counter what transpires on, below and above our Arctic territories. Recent events dictate that Canada and Canadians must rethink our Arctic policies for our future RCN submarine fleet replacements. There is only one type of air independent propulsion (AIP) that regenerates the atmosphere necessary for prolonged submerged operations: nuclear propulsion. A conventionally powered SSK submarine with AIP technologies, cannot substitute for any nuclear-powered submarine to defend Canada’s maritime security. The logic that a Canadian SSN will be a force-multiplier, meet Canadian maritime requirements and be an ideal solution to assert our sovereignty, has definite merit and must be seriously considered. The Arctic’s environment dictates that only SSN’s have the power to repeatedly surface, through several feet of ice.
Declaring the operation of Canadian SSNs within our Arctic waters along Northwest Passage choke points, indicates to others that Canada has the capability to control and provide a substantial presence in all three of our oceans to exercise authority in its waters within the confines of our own sovereignty. This is a central requirement to any definition of national sovereignty. The issue is not simply a matter of security, but whether Canada has the tools to provide that security. Canada can be judged sovereign, to the degree, in the context of collective defence, we can contribute to our own national security. A nation that contracts out the defence of its territories is not sovereign, but a protectorate. Canadian SSNs will do more than just support Canada’s claims to its Arctic. They will give Canada a truly balanced fleet we have been sorely missing, and pull the RCN back from the abyss.
Since 1987, the Defence White Paper portrayed a Canadian SSN fleet as the ideal weapon system with the majority of the Canadian public at the time, accepting that view. However just two years later, after the White paper was officially declare “dead”, 71% of Canadians were then opposed to the purchase. It has been over thirty years since that decision, so if Canada is to acquire this capability, the Canadian government must do a much better job of informing Canadians that there is nothing to fear from acquiring an SSN powered submarine capability. The NATO alliance has concerns about the security of the Arctic region by aggressive Russian submarine fleet excursions and the security of both the Arctic and Atlantic regions. President Putin’s recent unprovoked invasion of Ukraine with obvious designs to push further out seems to bear this out.
The larger question to answer is: Why are replacement submarines not included in Canada’s National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS)? There are countries that possess submarines about which Canada must be concerned within this modern submarine paradigm. Canada’s allies agree that a credible submarine capability brings with it enhanced flexibility to conduct military operations and the ability to collaborate with other allied states. Acquiring an SSN fleet, will be essential to Canada’s Strong, Secure and Engaged (SSE) Defence policy. Canada must re-examine the capabilities that an SSN submarine brings. The time for that re-examination is now. We must commence the process to acquire an 8-10 SSN fleet for the RCN to accomplish government goals and missions that all Canadians expect. The ability to rapidly deploy its submarine forces at home or abroad for prolonged periods over great distances, has considerable appeal to a country that wishes to renew its NATO presence.
With the rapid rise of China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the resurgence of Russia’s navy in the Arctic and North Atlantic, our NATO partners south of the border are increasingly at risk of being overstretched across the globe. China is clearly on the offensive expanding its influence in the Western Pacific, having already annexed Hong Kong with its eyes set on Taiwan. In response to this aggression, the US navy, has recently conducted massive exercises, surging a third of its nuclear attack submarines into the region. Having also carried out the largest naval exercise ever undertaken in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War involving multiple carrier strike groups, amphibious assault ships, with live-fire exercises. The US navy has also stepped up its tempo of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Nonetheless, America’s Pacific allies feel uneasy about China’s intentions and growing power. Many are concerned that America is no longer capable of unilaterally ensuring the complete security and stability of the region on her own; chief among them Japan, and in particular, Australia. Falling victim to predatory Chinese trade practices, large-scale cyberattacks and political influence, the Canberra government is concerned that the next escalation by China will be its naval prowess. To counter this, Canberra has stepped up its military drills with the US, Japan, and India and held naval exercises with the UK Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group.
The Australian government realizes that the US navy is overstretched across the world and cannot ensure peace and stability in the region by itself. Acknowledging this new reality, Australia has made it clear that it is ready to take full responsibility for its own national defence and significantly help America with regional security. To demonstrate its commitment to this new foreign policy, it will acquire 8-10 more capable “blue-water” Virginia or Astute-class nuclear attack SSN submarines. Canberra knows that in order for its undersea fleet to quickly respond to crises throughout the Indo-Pacific region from its base in Perth, it must have submarines that can travel vast distances with speed, endurance, stealth and have enough weapons space to deliver an increased amount of firepower. The only type of submarine that meets all their requirements is an SSN nuclear-powered submarine with unlimited range and anti-acoustic sound matting. Australia ultimately has chosen to make a nuclear submarine technology transfer deal with the US and UK called AUKUS.
A Wake-up-Call For Canada:
This recent example of Australia stepping up its undersea capabilities to ensure its national sovereignty and give others pause should not only serve as a clear “wake-up-call” for Canada, but also as a model. With a sizeable amount of the Earth’s yet undiscovered oil, gas and mineral resources with a valuable shipping route, the Arctic Ocean has become a hotbed for sea-power competition. While Canada has already made its territorial claims, Russia has also outlined its stake and claimed more than half of the Arctic Ocean as Moscow believes the Eastern Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges are extensions of the Siberian continental shelf. This declaration blatantly disregards Canada’s claims, potentially depriving us of the ability to explore all of its future resources. To enforce its new self-declared “sovereign territory”, which has already begun in Ukraine, Russia has started the rapid construction and deployment of new Yasen-class nuclear attack SSNs and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and has repeatedly sailed its undersea assets within Canada's northern territorial waters. With the recent unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine by Putin, Canada’s geopolitical position in our northern waters has become even more tenuous. China has also seen the advantages of the geo-political situation in Canada’s Arctic to flex its own muscles with their SSN capabilities. To counter this sovereignty threat, Canada has no choice but to deploy our own strategic submarines to the far north to detect, track, monitor and deter aggression. This will require an undersea submarine capability, able to travel vast distances and conduct patrols for long periods of time, with unlimited endurance in the some of the harshest waters in the world. It boils down to one simple question: Can Canada’s current Victoria-class submarines or any other modern conventionally powered AIP submarine effectively patrol the Arctic? The answer, is not now…..not ever. A look at the non-nuclear AIP systems now in service, or under development, show these clear limitations. An AIP propulsion system that can provide power endurance comparable to a nuclear power plant, is just not there. It will take decades more research and developmental technology by Canada, with commensurate investments in infrastructure and training, before any AIP SSK can favorably compare to the prolonged under-ice operations of any SSN. This is time that Canada does not have. SSNs can remain under ice for long periods of time, tell us who else might be operating there, and covertly monitor foreign vessels. They can also serve as a powerful deterrent as they have the ability to surface through the Arctic ice at any time to show their presence. Comparatively, conventional AIP submarines are confined to near ice-edge operations as they must surface frequently to recharge their batteries, impossible to do with thick ice layers of the far north.
Canadians must re-examine their anti-nuclear stance and come to terms with the rapidly changing security environment around the world. Twice before Canada was interested in acquiring an SSN capability but both times were either shunned from that technology transfer or reconsidered because of costs. The geo-political situation however has changed dramatically over the past few years. When pressed on whether Canada was specifically asked to join the AUKUS pact, Prime Minister Trudeau declined to answer but reiterated that Canada (think Liberal government) was not interested in acquiring nuclear submarines now or in the foreseeable future. The United States however may well be more receptive to us joining the AUKUS pact given recent world events. The citizens of Australia have come to terms with this new reality as shown by their surprising nuclear submarine technology deal with the US and UK and…..it is now Canada’s turn. By fulfilling NATO’s defence budget GDP requirements, Canada will be able to build/purchase 8-10 modern under-ice capable SSNs and construct/sustain the nuclear infrastructure required for that fleet. A Canadian SSN fleet will give Canada the ability to station at least three operational SSN boats at any given time on either coast, available for rapid deployments in the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic regions with the remainder of the fleet in either deep maintenance, ramp up/ramp down or training modes. The question then remains: why does this discussion keep being swept aside? It wasn’t until 1960 when the Canadian submarine service was approved, that Canada began to search for a suitable boat for the fledgling service. Initial exploration looked at acquiring six USN Thresher class nuclear submarines, but the price tag was too rich at the time. Another compelling case study leads us back to the 1987 proposal to purchase 10-12 nuclear-propelled Trafalgar class SSNs from the United Kingdom. Another example of the perennial Canadian approach to defence: always a day late and a dollar short. The submarine that replaces the Victoria class must be able to fully operate in all of Canada’s areas of responsibility. This means a need for an open ocean capability for the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans to deny access to potential adversaries. The time for blunt discussions with Canadians about propulsion systems for a submarine that must operate in the world’s most hostile and unforgiving maritime environments is now over. It is a foregone conclusion that there are SSNs operating beneath Canada’s polar ice cap and….. they are not ours. Anti-nuclear advocates have encouraged Canada to look at AIP systems that do not require access to the surface atmosphere to generate power. However, these systems are simply not at the levels of maturity or safety for effective operations required by Canada for prolonged under-ice operations now or in the decades to follow. The greatest advantage that nuclear-powered SSNs have over its diesel-electric AIP cousins is their limitless endurance and ability to remain on station within the life span of their nuclear core. Its reactor can constantly manufacture the air for vessel operation and life support. Its only limitation would be imposed by the habitability of the crew.
As a “force multiplier”, Canadian SSNs can covertly monitor surface and sub-surface assets, fisheries patrols, criminal piracy activities and provide early detection of potential threats. As a “force enabler”, it gives pinpoint directions for over-the-horizon capabilities to friendly forces. As an intelligence vehicle, it can pre-position to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) activities, map the geospatial features in particular, our Arctic operational areas, observe the patterns, doctrine, tactics and capabilities of a potential adversary, and remain totally covert through it all. There are enhanced technologies being integrated and retrofitted into SSNs that give them a variety of futuristic characteristics and capabilities. For instance, some modern allied SSNs are designed with telescoping masts that do not penetrate the pressure hull. While a nuclear-powered SSN is cost-effective to operate, the shore-based facilities, training and supply chain to service them can be “eye-wateringly expensive”. Serious discussions with NATO submarine building states could induce them to allow Canada to piggy-back on existing submarine infrastructure. Another way of addressing maintenance and repair facilities would be to negotiate with allied nations who operate SSNs, and agree to jointly fund these services on Canadian shore-based SSN infrastructure as “common-use” facilities. All participating nations would pay their share of the facilities for their own use.
Canadian SSN Options:
The best sensor weapon is, without question, another submarine. If Canada does not invest in a modern SSN submarine capability, its navy will simply be unable to patrol its three oceans. Nuclear propulsion is ideal for long distances and extended under-ice missions that are unique to Canada. There are four distinct options that Canada must consider when choosing an SSN submarine capability:
Option 1 – Domestic Build: The NSS is committed to the continuous, multi-decade domestic construction of federal vessels. For an SSN submarine fleet, one or more NSS yards could build a “made in Canada” SSN or a Canadianized SSN foreign design. This however would be the least cost-effective option.
Option 2 – Canadianized Military-off-the-shelf (MOTS): There are several established foreign nuclear submarine producers with whom Ottawa could work with to acquire a Canadianized MOTS SSN submarine fleet. This is the most common and cost-conscious approach used by our allies.
Option 3 – Collaborative Build: Canada can work with established nuclear submarine builders to split production between the two countries or enter into a joint financing arrangement. This would entail a complex arrangement involving intellectual property negotiations and costs over a Canadianized design. To avoid a capability gap and possibly lose its submarine force altogether, political and senior bureaucratic decision-makers in Ottawa will have to make a difficult call in the next few years about the kind of SSN submarine capability the RCN needs for the next half-century.
Option 4 – “Lease To Own”: established allied SSN submarines. This may be a viable option given the training and infrastructure that will be required first before acquiring a future Canadian SSN fleet.
The common thread in all of these options is that the Canadian government must first be a full participant in established nuclear technology transfer programs. A requirement that must happen sooner rather than later.
The capability to defend Canada’s sovereignty must be at the heart of the government’s efforts to rebuild a Canadian submarine fleet, reinvest in our national security and send a clear message to the world. Canada must produce a more cohesive Arctic Defence Policy with a more powerful deterrence. Canada can no longer ignore what happens above or below the surface of its three oceans so vital to our national interests any longer. The time has come for Canada to “re-think” its Arctic nuclear SSN policies, quickly begin discussions with NATO allies on nuclear technology transfers and undertake investments required within the next decade to acquire a fleet of 8-10 Canadian SSNs. Canada will then be able to ensure undersea security for its exploration of the Arctic seabed and its rich resources. Whether or not Canada decides to tap into these resources in the future, it is important that it not be decided unilaterally by foreign states. A Canadian SSN submarine capability will help ensure this does not occur and give others pause. More importantly, an SSN fleet will finally allow Canada to aid the United States and NATO alliance in a much more meaningful way, restore its credibility among allies and have the balanced fleet it needs to protect its interests nationally and around the world. The idea that a Canadian SSN fleet will be a force-multiplier for the RCN and an effective tool for safeguarding our sovereignty against foreign aggression is compelling and must be seriously considered by the Canadian government in its search for replacements for our Victoria-class SSKs. This is definitely a “wake-up call” for Canada to silence its critics and become a world partner with all of our allies.
The AUKUS alliance sends an unmistakable message to Ottawa regarding our waning importance. For this to change, Washington needs to see a demonstrable commitment to NORAD and maritime defence by Canada, not at some unspecified date in the future, but now. If not, our bilateral defence relationship with the U.S. will continue to weaken. Canada’s international influence has been declining for years, and the establishment of a new U.S. led security alliance that intentionally excludes Canada is just the latest consequence of this. Other NATO allies have noticed and are adjusting their policies accordingly. As a result, it is doubtful observers in Washington, London or Canberra will shed a tear for Canada’s ever-diminishing international influence.
A credible SSN submarine capability brings with it enhanced flexibility to conduct military operations and collaborate with other states. The most cursory of glances at a globe illustrates the vastness of Canada’s three oceans and a Canadian submarine must be able to operate fully in all of them. It must provide successive Canadian governments with options from which to respond to international crises. Canada needs a navy to be adequate enough to defend Canadian maritime approaches and to deter challenges to security and sovereignty. Having a strategic SSN submarine fleet, will be an essential part of Canada’s Arctic, domestic and foreign policies.
The Canadian government may have sorely misled Canadians into believing that “being back,” as PM Trudeau has said, within the NATO umbrella, means Canada will be participating in UN peacekeeping and peace support missions in a much more meaningful way. Acquiring a strategic SSN submarine fleet, will be essential to this policy. As Canada steps into the unknown, one thing is clear. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shattered the global order. This is a confrontation with an imperial-minded authoritarian leader that is prepared to use military threats/force with information warfare at home or abroad to achieve his “new world order”. Russia has moved irrevocably to centre stage as a major disrupter of world peace, while China, for now, stands off in the wings. Canada must rapidly rethink its international commitments and adequately address its military shortcomings. Canada has been complacent about its international alliances and we have not met NATO targets for military spending. Our NATO and Five Eyes commitments to global threats have been underwhelming to say the least. The Canadian government has “talked a good talk” about NATO and NORAD defence, but has not “walked the walk” doing little to modernize crucial surveillance systems that underpin our security and protecting our own sovereignty. Canada must now commit to forward deployments of CAF units both in the European and Asia Pacific regions as part of enhanced allied collective security missions. This means new investments in infrastructure equipment in the Arctic for far north defence capabilities and surveillance with ground, space-based and Arctic undersea surveillance capabilities.
Shortages of personnel and military hardware are key problems and are exacerbated by an inefficient procurement process. New commitments to speed-up military spending and an expansion of the size of the CAF must be made, including a focus on renewed NATO missions in Europe, the Asia-Pacific and Arctic regions. Key needs include new fighter and ground attack aircraft; a modern long-range SSN submarine fleet; NORAD defence revitalization; armed and unarmed reconnaissance drones; mobile ground-to-air defence systems; an enhanced Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) Strategic Sealift Capability; anti-armour defences and armed icebreakers. There is much that has to be done, so we need an enhanced SSE game plan laid out with a new government military security strategy. An annual defence budget increase of at least 2% of GDP, will give the government the resources needed to acquire SSN submarines sooner rather than later and allow Canada to easily fund each and every one of these acquisition programs. In exchange for that investment, Canada, for the first time in over sixty years, can legitimately assert that our Northern domain is sovereign Canadian waters with Canadian SSNs operating in our Arctic WSM regions. It will send a clear message to others that we have the capability to control and provide a respectable presence in all three of our bordering oceans.
An 8 to 10 SSN submarine fleet replacement of the Victoria-class, with a commensurate increase in submariner strength and infrastructure will then not only be possible, but any of these designs under construction or operational, could easily be acquired and would be a transformative game changer for our country. There will be no negative effects on Canada’s defence needs in the future, or on Canada’s strong social economy. The ability to deploy its submarine forces at home or world-wide from bases in Halifax or Esquimalt, has considerable appeal to a country that wishes to renew its NATO presence. It is time for our government to clearly state their intentions with respect to the policies and future of Canada’s submarine fleet and begin the process of replacing the Victoria-class with a modern, credible, SSN capability. So long as the government of the day remains willing to accept that our nation’s strategic, political and military options will not be unnecessarily reduced by the absence of a credible SSN submarine capability, Canada will never live up to its full potential as a peace supporting and influential global middle power