Canada's Submarine Motivations
Feb 29, 2012

Canada's Submarine Motivations

Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, Canada's top navy guy, has remarked that Canada will begin the process of vetting new submarine purchases in three or four years. This raises anew questions about the purpose of Canada maintaining a submarine fleet.

After passing through much of the nineties without submarine capabilities, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien purchased four aging diesel-electric submarine from the UK. The result was an embarrassing public relations fiasco for the Royal Canadian Navy. Billions of dollars in cost overruns, an on-board fire, a crash onto the Pacific floor, a shockingly low operations rate, and ultimately - fifteen years after originally signing the lease-to-own documents - not a single day of combat ready operations from any of the four submarines. The worst is behind us for these lemons, we are assured, and operational duties are expected to continue until 2030.

With the prospect of starting to acquire replacement submarines within only a few years, the question of precisely why we need submarines demands a robust and cogent answer. Here is Maddison's comments:

"In terms of surveillance of our ocean approaches and the protection of our own sovereignty, I would consider a submarine capability critical and so to lose that for a G8 nation, a NATO country like Canada, a country that continues to lead internationally, and aspires to lead more, I would consider that a critical loss."

A middle power like Canada aims to have legitimacy and influence through engagement in the elite multilateral institutions like the G8 and NATO, where it has more prominence than in the larger UN body (note Canada's failure to secure a Security Council seat). The impetus behind purchasing shiny new submarines and F35's is not one of a reasoned analysis of domestic security needs, it is about projecting strength and capabilities so is to increase the middle power's prominence on a world stage that ranks itself primarily by military power. The higher the perception of military capacities, the more influence and relevance that Canada gets in decisions in these elite multilateral bodies.

Normally, justification for military spending is couched in terms of domestic security needs. As in, a certain capability will defend the country from some set of outlined potential threats. Analysts are left to speculate as to the real reasons based on how flimsy the ostensible defense ones are (such as the alleged defense needs of the F35 fighter jet). What is so interesting about Maddison's remarks is how plainly he prioritizes not domestic security needs, but to maintain relevance and leadership in international organizations.

Arctic Sovereignty:One of the hooks that has been used extensively to justify the F35 fighter jets has been to reference the need to promote and extend Arctic sovereignty. This is folly. Canada presently faces precisely zero military threats to itself along its northern boarder (or any boarder) and any notion that the F35's are for domestic defense is nonsense. Yes, there are land claims issues in the oil rich Arctic ocean which will be settled through international mediation, but these will not (and should not) be settled by a show of expensive saber rattling of military hardware.

A similar Arctic justification has been used regarding the submarines which can be seen as attempts to project military power in the Arctic. Plans were made to attempt retrofits to an air-independent propulsion system that would allow prolonged under-ice trips but these were scuttled due to costs and infeasibility. Russia used mini-subs deployed from surface ships to plant a Russian flag on the ocean floor at the north pole, a fact that was by Canada.

The Arctic has genuine needs in the military domain (such as search and rescue, troop and supply access vehicles to assist with emergencies, ice breakers and surveillance capabilities). None of these are best serviced by either F35 fighter jets or submarines. The misappropriation of funds to the more shiny and showy toys is doubly bad when seen in the context of taking away from these other legitimate and sorely needed capabilities.

Wikileaks and Iraq:
For Canadians, one of the most interesting revelations from the Wikileaks cable releases was one about Iraq that really underlined the relationship between middle powers like Canada and a great power like the US. While Jean Chrétien was publicly denouncing the Iraq war for its like of UN support and - backed by popular opinion of the Canadian public - opted out of the war, we see that privately the Canadian government was willing to offer extensive third party support for the war in terms of warships, planes, logistical supplies in the like, provided it was done "discretely" - that is, without public knowledge and, indeed, in direct contrast to the message told to the public.
From a Wikileaks cable: "While for domestic reasons…the GOC (Government of Canada) has decided not to join in a U.S. coalition of the willing…they are prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins.”
This offer was largely rebuffed by the Americans. The US didn't need any token assistance from Canada under the radar, they wanted vocal public support for the war so as to boost their legitimacy. Canada, on the other hand, was eager to try and play along and have some token influence and relevance, just as long as it didn't have to admit it to its own people it was engaged in the Iraq war. Submarines are perhaps the epitome of a military capacity that can be conducted in secret without much public oversight; it is hardly a stretch to imagine them being used in a similar way.

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