On Wednesday, April24, 1991, Canada’s top naval officer, Vice Admiral Charles Thomas, resigned from his post as Vice Chief of Defense Staff. His resignation was accepted by Chief of Staff, General John de Chastelain, who said “I find it particularly unfortunate that you choose this moment … to make this unhappy gesture.” Although this incident, as you can well understand, shook up the Canadian Armed Forces, it did not come entirely unexpected.
The view most Canadians hold is that with the changing global political situation, strong armed forces are no longer a necessity. Indeed, the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the re-unification of Germany spell good news for citizens all over the world.
The correlation between Admiral Thomas’ resignation, this global stability trend, and a submarine related issue is not readily clear. There is more to this issue than a difference in opinion between a top military officer and a government department. The root of this problem goes deeper than just a few budget cuts. Since Canada has developed a burdensome national debt, as have practically all other western nations, the onus is on the government to balance its budget and reduce this debt.
This, however, can be done only by drastic cuts in the various ways the government spends its revenues, one aspect being the Armed Forces. As Canadian military leaders now reformulate the tasks, force strengths, equipment levels and various programs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the present strength, or a smaller force where updating is feasible and possible. Under these terms, although not yet official, the Canadian Army stands to lose the most It is likely some domestic army bases will close, as well as cuts to staffing, if not outright closure, of the overseas bases in Germany. Although it appears that the Navy will not be faced with direct cuts as such, it does look like some planned acquisitions will either be postponed or canceled altogether. There is speculation that three of the twelve patrol frigates that have been planned or ordered to replace older, outdated destroyers, may not be built.
When we look at the Canadian Submarine Force, however, the picture is even bleaker. The current re-structuring plans would shelve proposals for the replacement of Canada’s ageing OBERON class submarines. At present, Canada has three operational subs on its fleet roster: HMCS OJIBWA, ONONDAGA and OKANAGAN. These subs were commissioned between 1965 and 1968, and are to be decommissioned in 1993, 1996 and 1997 respectively, after about thirty years of service. The 1987 white paper on Canadian Defense proposed a grand total of ten to twelve nuclear powered attack submarines, costing at least $8 billion, to replace these three old subs. This force was to give the Canadian Navy the power and freedom to patrol in Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic waters, and enforce Canadian sovereignty in these areas. The 1989 Federal budget, however, torpedoed the planned purchase of these subs, citing budget constraints and a lessening of east-west tensions. Since the 1989 budget there has not been another white paper, nor has there been an official review of the Canadian Armed Forces or its roles.
At this moment, though, the future of the Canadian Navy’s submarine arm is uncertain. At best, if plans to replace the subs with off the shelf diesel ..electric designs is announced within the next few months, the Navy will have a continuation of its submarine branch. As this is highly unlikely, both as far as time of the announcement and type of design required, the Navy will have a gap of several years between scrapping its old subs and acquisition of new ones. This will have serious consequences for the navy, for as Captain Jay Plante of the 1st Canadian Submarine Squadron in Halifax stated “If there is a gap, then you lose submarine expertise. How do you maintain the expertise to man the boats’!” The worst scenario, however, is what Admiral Thomas envisions will happen. He charged that Canada plans to scrap its three subs, and simply not find replacements for them.
Unfortunately, if this prediction comes through, it would not be the first time in Canadian history that there is a discontinuation in the submarine arm of the Navy. In fact, many times during the past eighty years that Canada has had its own naval forces, the submarine branch has been in the position of onagain, off-again.
The Royal Canadian Navy was officially established on November 9, 1910. Previously, Canadian interests were protected by ships of the British Royal Navy, until it was mutually decided Canada should look after its own defenses. Canada’s first involvement with submarines was July 29, 1914, shortly before the start of World War I.
The first two submarines in the Naval inventory were CC-1 and CC-2. These submarines were built in Seattle for the Chilean Navy. The deal fell through, however, and these subs were for sale. With the threat of a world war looming close on the horizon, the premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard McBride, purchased the submarines. He felt that the West Coast was not well protected by the Canadian Navy in case of hostilities, and the boats were secretly transferred to Esquimalt Naval Base. On August 6, 1914, the purchase was approved by the federal government, and the submarines, originaJly named IQUIQUE and ANTOFAGASTA, were commissioned as the CC-1 and CC-2. The subs resembled the British C” class, hence their CC designation.
After three years of training off the BC coast, conducting torpedo attacks and aiding destroyers in ASW practice, the subs were ordered to the European theater of operations. On June 21, 1917, the two subs with their support ship, HMCS SHEAR WATER, set out for Halifax. They were the first warships ever to travel through the Panama Canal flying the White Ensign. When they arrived on the East Coast, much in need of repair, maintenance and engine overhauls, it was determined they were unfit for further duty, let alone cross the Atlantic Ocean, and remained in Halifax until they were scrapped in 1920.
During World War I, ten British “H” class submarines were built at Quincy, Massachusetts. As hostilities ceased, two of these subs were rerouted to Bermuda, and presented to the RCN in February, 1919. They were commissioned at Halifax in June of that year as CH (Canadian “H” class)-14 and CH-15. With the election of a Liberal government in December 1921, however, and the subsequent re-evaluation of Naval requirements, these subs were paid off in the summer of 1922, and sold for scrap five years later.
Then came a period of time that the Canadian Navy did not employ any submarines. The four above mentioned submersibles, all roughly 300-350 tons, with a crew of 20-25, did not receive a fair chance to prove their worth for various reasons. One was that Canada did not have any submarine expertise among its ranks; instructors and advisors had to be brought in from Britain. Also, these submarines were only employed for a few years each, with no planned follow-up construction or purchases, in which changes could be incorporated. So every time new submarines were acquired, the Canadian submarine branch had to be re-organized, and new officers and men needed to be found to staff boats and support positions. With the decommissioning of the two H” class subs in 1920 came a temporary halt to the sub service again. Please note that Canada was the ONLY major navy which did NOT have any submarines in service during the Second World War.
The next two submarines employed in the service of the Canadian Navy came from a rather unlikely source. They were the U-190 and the U·889, both of the IX-C type, built in Bremen in 1942 and 1944 respectively. These boats surrendered to Canadian ships at sea May 12 and 13, 1945, a few days after the war was officially over. On January 12, 1946, after extensive testing and evaluations, U-889 was turned over to the USN. She was sunk by the USN in torpedo tests off New England the following year. U-190 was also used for evaluation and ASW training until she was paid off July 24, 1947. On October 21 of that same year, she was sunk by Canadian naval aircraft at the exact location U-190 sank her last victim, HMCS ESQUIMALT in April of 1945.
Both during and after the war the Royal Navy provided submarines for ASW training in the Canadian Navy. As the number of anti-submarine ships in the fleet increased, it was felt that a submarine should be stationed at Esquimalt for use on the West Coast. USS BURRFISH (SS-312), (fifth in the BALAO class) was borrowed from the U.S. Navy, and commissioned in the RCN January 12, 1961, as HMCS GRll.SE. She served for about eight years, and was then returned to the USN.
Just before HMCS GRILSE was returned from the fleet, another sub was borrowed from the USN. The USS ARGONAUT was modified to GUPPY configuration in 1952, was purchased from the U.S. for $150,000 and commissioned December 2, 1968, as Canada’s eighth submarine, HMCS RAINBOW. After a distinguished and long career, she was taken from active duty December 31, 1974. During her career, she made over 10,000 dives.
Presently there are three active OBERON class submarines on the fleet roster. They were all built at H. M. Chatham Dockyard, UK, between 1962 and 1966. At that time they were the quietest subs available, and now, after almost thirty years of service, they are stiU rated among the quietest. These subs have six torpedo tubes in the bow, while the two stem tubes were removed during the SOUP (Submarine Operational Update Program) in the late eighties. This included a complete overhaul of the interior, updated sensors and an upgrade from obsolete Mk-8 free-running torpedoes and Mk-37 initial wireguided torpedoes to a 21 in. Mk-48 mod3 torpedo capability. As everyone is well aware, though, a life extension can only prolong the operational life for a certain period of time, and these subs will reach the absolute end of their operational life soon. Furthermore, with a top surface speed of 17 knots, and only 12 knots submerged, and very limited armament options, these subs are not up to the modem-day high speed chases and extended endurance patrols.
The latest addition to the Canadian fleet is also an OBERON class sub: it is the former HMS OLYMPUS. On September 18, 1989, she was commissioned in the RCN as HMCS/HTS OLYMPUS, in the capacity of harbor training school-vessel. She was originally commissioned in the British Royal Navy in July of 1962. She has no operational capabilities, and is only used for floating classrooms and diving instruction platform.
This summary spells out the history of the twelve submarines that Canada has had or still has in the fleet. When we compare this to the 700 or so submarines the U.S. Navy has had in commission since it developed its Submarine Service, it is quite insignificant. Now, with slashed budgets, staffing levels that are lower than in the last decade or so, and an ever changing political and economical scene, military officials on both sides of the 49th parallel are faced with the same prospects. In the case of the U.S. Navy, these prospects mean (among many other things), a cutback in the number of OHIO class TRIDENT submarines, and with the new USS SEA WOLF (SSN21) finally ordered, a cut in acquisition from three a year. In the case of the Canadian Navy this means a future in which anything can happen, including the phasing out of the Canadian Submarine Service in its entirety.
It is, however, a very frustrating picture that we see here in Canada. At a time when many smaller nations are making the move from expensive, labor intensive surface ships to operationally considered equally capable submarines (refer to several South American and Asian countries), Canada may be moving away from that option. To complicate matters even further, it may mean the downscaling of an already undersized fleet.
What exactly the future will hold as far as any Canadian Submarine Acquisition Plans are concerned, only time will tell. We may know in a few months, if the government acts quickly to replace the old OBERONs. It may be a year or two (and we will see a federal election in that time also) before any decisions are made. And these decisions may not necessarily bring on a new design or new purchase for the Navy. Unless we can get the Canadian government to act now, this will mean the Canadian Submarine Force will lapse for yet another period of time.