THE SUBMARINE FIASCO

Peter C. Newman October 25 2004

THE SUBMARINE FIASCO

Peter C. Newman October 25 2004

THE SUBMARINE FIASCO

Peter C. Newman

A tragic death raises the issue: do we really need these boats?

They held a funeral for Lieut. Chris Saunders in Halifax last week, eight days after the 32year-old submariner collapsed from smoke inhalation during a fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi. There were tears at the emotional eulogies, vows that his sons, one of them two years old, the other an infant of two months, would grow up knowing who their father had been. “We make a promise, ” said navy chaplain John Finlayson, “that we will remember Chris and tell stories of their father. We will have happy moments and funny moments and will tell how he died, as a hero, doing what he loved. ”

Elsewhere, there was anger. In Ottawa, the opposition hammered away at the Liberals and their defence policies, accusing the

government of endangering Canada’s military personnel by buying equipment on the cheap. And even as Ottawa docked Chicoutimi and its three sister boats—all of them used, and acquired by Canada from Britain in a controversial 1998 deal—more reports emerged of the stricken sub’s troubled past. A 1988 strike resulted in a two-year construction delay, and a rush—some say too great—to get the vessel finished. Five incidents of serious electrical and water leakage problems in the early 1990s led the British vessel, then named HMS Upholder, to be dubbed HMS Gremlin or Jinx Sub. Late last week, Department of National Defence spokesmen said they still didn’t know what exactly had caused the blaze aboard the Chicoutimi. But crew members said the

submarine had been on the surface in high seas with two tower hatches open when a high wave sent water running down into the control room and captain’s cabin—likely resulting in an electrical fire.

THE RECENT TRAGEDY aboard HMCS Chicoutimi has raised some ugly issues about buying used submarines from fast-talking allies, however friendly. But the more fundamental question is this: at a time when we can’t afford to field armed forces that can defend themselves or their country, why are we spending billions to buy attack boats that can’t stay safely under water?

Buying the four Victoria-class submarines from Great Britain is a colossal waste of

sparse defence dollars, and the navy should lease them to the West Edmonton Mall before they bankrupt the federal treasury. (I remember how upset the admirals were when I revealed in this space that the artificial pond at the Ghermezian brothers’ giant shopping centre had a larger submarine fleet than the Canadian navy did.) Then, we had three Oberon-class submarines that were vaguely described as possessing 1960s technology, though the British HMS Oberon was launched on July 18,1959, and was very much a 1950s product, partly modelled on German U-boats.

At this point, I should declare my interest. Unlike every other subject that I have written about, I have not formed these opinions in a neutral vacuum. I have written on naval matters less as a journalist than as someone who proudly served 40 years in Canada’s naval reserves, rising from ordinary seaman to captain’s rank. I also put in two terms as head of the Maritime Defence Association of Canada, once the navy’s leading professional organization. This hasn’t turned me into a flak on the navy’s behalf, but it has given me reason for advocating

preservation of the navy’s good name. I feel that I must speak out on this issue: wasting money on fixing up a useless submarine fleet strikes me as just plain daft.

At a time when our armed forces are deployed almost entirely on peacekeeping missions, these newly acquired boats stick out as being very un-Canadian. No matter

WHY should we spend good money after bad to get these pesky underwater contraptions into operational mode?

what the admirals say, they are designed as offensive weapons, to be used in a war that we won’t start or have to fight again. If we ever get them working, the next step will be to arm these underwater sieves with stateof the-art MK 48 heavyweight torpedoes, the sort that are carried aboard the nuclearpowered subs which form the U.S. navy’s most powerful deterrent. These torpedoes can home in on their targets at speeds of

up to 55 knots, hitting ships up to 38 km distant. Who is going to be in the Canadian skipper’s sights as he aims his periscope at the enemy? Exactly. I can’t imagine, and neither can our admirals.

Why we should spend good money after bad to get these pesky underwater contraptions into operational mode completely escapes me. It must be because our admirals are determined to fight the Second World War all over again. One can hardly blame them. Canada could then boast the world’s third-largest navy. Our warships sank 27 of Hitler’s U-boats and 42 surface ships. As well, the fleet shepherded 25,000 merchant ship crossings between North America and Europe in convoys that Winston Churchill hailed as having been decisive in winning the war.

But that was then, and this is now. Canada is facing no maritime threat, not even from the worst behaved of the rogue states that George W. Bush described as the axis of evil. Unless I missed something, the grim wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being fought on land. Perhaps there is a Taliban fleet lurking somewhere in the Indian Ocean waiting

to take us on. And perhaps the real reason Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction went AWOL is because they’re aboard his submarines, set to sail up the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes, where they will lob missiles onto Bay Street and downtown Chicago. But I doubt it. So why do we need submarines designed to hurl our own weapons of mass destruction against unimaginable enemies?

We don’t.

The official navy line is that even with death-dealing armaments, our submarines are the peaceful defenders of our sovereignty and fishing grounds. That doesn’t make much sense. Conventional submarines, working full out and remaining maintenance free, can maintain sovereignty suivcys over an area of 125,000 sq. km in 50 days, the maximum time they can stay at sea. Maritime patrol aircraft (our modernized CP-140 Auroras) can survey 300,000 sq. km every 10 hours.

In the early ’90s, I carefully monitored the activities of the now-defunct fleet of Oberon subs that preceded the current boats. Here their record is grossly exaggerated, because there is only one example of fisheries protection cited over those years. I call it

the Battle of Georges Bank. American fishermen kept using that Canadian fishing zone until one morning when the HMCS Ojibwa, carrying an official from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans surveyed the poaching fleet. (“Hey Jimmy, look at that Big Mother! We better get outa here...”) Reportedly by 1995 only one came back. More

CANADA faces no

maritime threat, not even from the worst of the rogue states George W. Bush calls the axis of evil

contentious was the submariners’ role during the 1995 Turbot War, when HMCS Okanagan is supposed to have surfaced near a Spanish fishing trawler on the Grand Banks and scared it away. This never happened, though the Department of National Defence actually documented the alleged incident. “The worst-case scenario postulated that Spanish warships might become involved. In these kinds of analyses, the value of a modest submarine service was indisputable. The risk posed by our submarines

to an extended Spanish military supply line would have denied them from considering a large-scale military undertaking in Canadian waters. In' fact, it deterred military option in the first place.” (And I thought that daily tots of naval rum were passé.)

The real reason we have submarines, though defence headquarters wifi never confirm it, is for target practice by the Americans. Since any submarines manned by Third World rogue states would be conventional, and the U.S. navy has no non-nuclear subs for training their anti-submarine surface ships, the Yanks need our subs to practise on. That’s the rationale for having submarines, and it doesn’t impress me very much, considering that the cost of the porous British subs has gone from $750 million to $900 million and their annual operating costs have become 25 per cent higher than originally promised.

We can’t afford to spend what’s left of our naval reputation and funding on silly projects like this, which add nothing but embarrassment (now tinged with tragedy) to the so-called silent service. ITU

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. . pnewman@macleans.ca