CANADA

The battle of the subs

MARC CLARK December 7 1987
CANADA

The battle of the subs

MARC CLARK December 7 1987

The battle of the subs

It was a bravura display of salesmanship. Determined to win a contract to sell an $8-billion fleet of nuclear submarines to Canada, French salesmen opened their pocketbooks last week to persuade Canadian officials that France makes better subs than its British competitors. All week long, limousines hired by SNA Canada Inc., the company created by the French to handle the potential contract, shuttled Canadian military officers from a hotel in Dartmouth, N.S., to the nearby air and naval base at Shearwater for a tour of the Saphir, a 245-foot Rubisclass submarine. At the hotel, where they rented an entire floor, the French held a three-day round of receptions— one of which featured a sculpture of the Rubis made of lard. They

even printed glossy posters of the submarine to be carried by local newspapers.

The centrepiece of the French campaign was a six-hour trip on the Saphir arranged for Defence Minister Perrin Beatty, who had sailed on Britain’s nuclear competitor, the HMS Torbay, just a month earlier. When he came ashore after his trip,

Beatty gave no clue about what he thought of the French proposal.

“They’re great sales-

men,” he said, “but then so are the British.” Still, the French blitz left no doubt that competition is heating up for the richest defence contract in Canadian history. Declared an official with an Ottawa-based military electronics firm: “Aside from the dollars, there’s tremendous prestige at stake here. It’s going to get down and dirty.” But the nuclear submarine project still has a long way to go. Beatty’s proposal to buy 10 to 12 such vessels over the next 25 years has been hotly debated since June, when he made it a key part of the Conservative government’s new defence policy. Government insiders said that several of Beatty’s colleagues, including Finance Minister Michael Wilson and Health Minister Jake Epp, continue to express concern

around the cabinet table about the price, which some military analysts said could rise above $11 billion —slightly more than the entire Canadian defence budget for 1987-1988.

Beatty must also face the possibility that the U.S. Congress may overrule any Canadian bid to buy British subs. In 1958 Britain agreed not to export its nuclear submarine technology without Washington’s approval, after the United States trans-

ferred to Britain the technology for the pressurized-water reactors that have powered all subsequent British nuclear submarines. The U.S. departments of defence and energy authorized the British in October to discuss all details of their nuclear power plants with Canada. But the U.S. naval attaché in Ottawa, Capt. Robert F. Hofford, told a defence contractors’ conference in Ottawa in mid-November that some U.S. officials are questioning Ottawa’s plan to use the Canadian subs to patrol Arctic waters and assert Canadian sovereignty, particularly in the disputed waters of the Northwest Passage. The United States maintains that the passage is an international waterway.

Still, Beatty said that he is confident the project will proceed. The U.S. administration, he said, “has made it clear that it will co-operate in any way.” In any case, Beatty said, it would make little sense for Congress to attempt to block a purchase of British nuclear submarines because Canada could simply turn to the French.

Beatty also dismissed reports that the cabinet will not support the project. Said the minister: “It was cabinet policy in June, and it remains so today.” And he rejected suggestions by some military analysts that the $8-billion price tag—$5 billion for submarines and $3 billion for support, including shore bases and training—is unrealistically low. Still, doubts remain. Said John Barrett, deputy director of the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament in Ottawa: “The history of large defence projects is that they tend to come in over budget—and the larger the project, the more true that is.”

For their part, military officers last week pored over data gathered on sea trials of the Saphir and the HMS Torbay. According to an aide to Beatty, they were impressed by the performance of the French ship. But military analysts agree that Britain’s larger Trafalgar-class subs are faster, quieter, better armed and carry better sonar and other electronic sensors. The French ships have one advantage: price. At $350 million to $400 million each, they are about $100 million cheaper than their British competitors.

Beatty is expected to recommend next spring which submarine Canada should buy. But his decision will by no means end the debate over the nuclear submarine option. Both federal opposition parties are opposed to buying the subs, and the first contracts will be let only in 1990—well after the next general election.

MARC CLARK

RALPH SURETTE