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Reviving Canada’s Submarine Force

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For more than 75 years, the United States Navy has been the undisputed master of the seas. But with the rapid rise of the PLAN, the resurgence of Russia’s navy in the North Atlantic, and the persisting issue of Iranian aggression in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, America is increasingly at risk of being overstretched across the globe. The Pacific Ocean, long known as an “American pond”, is particularly in a worrisome state. From solidifying its territorial claim to the entire South China Sea, with militarized artificial islands and an aggressive maritime militia, to conducting military incursions into the airspace and Economic Exclusive Zones of nearby ASEAN countries as well as Japan, China is clearly on the offensive and trying to expand its influence into the Western Pacific. Not to mention, China, having already annexed Hong Kong, now has its eyes set on Taiwan and has carried out numerous realistic full scale amphibious assault exercises near the island.


However, America has by no means just stood by idly. In response to China’s aggression, the US navy, this year, conducted a massive snap exercise, surging a third of its nuclear attack submarines into the Western Pacific within a matter of days. It also carried out the largest exercise ever undertaken in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War which involved multiple aircraft carrier strike groups, dozens of amphibious assault ships, and live-fire ship sinking exercises. In addition, the US navy has significantly stepped up its tempo of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea as well as the Taiwan Strait.

Nonetheless, America’s Pacific allies still feel uneasy about China’s intentions and growing power. More importantly, many of them are concerned that America is no longer capable of unilaterally ensuring the complete security and stability of the region. Chief among them are Japan and Australia. But between the two nations, Australia is far more anxious. Falling victim to predatory Chinese trade practices, large-scale cyberattacks, and political influence operations, Canberra is increasingly wary of China. And with a significantly smaller and less advanced naval fleet compared to Japan’s plus China’s growing naval reach, the federal government in Canberra is extremely worried that the next escalation may be in the military realm. To counter this threat, it has stepped up its military drills with the QUAD which includes the US, Japan, and India and held naval exercises with the UK Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group, making its maiden voyage throughout the region.

But, regardless of all of these exercises and drills, the Australian Ministry of Defence knows that the QUAD is not a formal collective defence alliance like NATO. Nor is it a real official alliance committed to containing China. Outside of the United States, and resolve of America, the Australian government knows that the US navy is overstretched across the world and cannot ensure peace and stability in the region all by itself, like it used to.

Acknowledging this new reality, Australia has made it clear that it is willing to take full responsibility for its own national defence and help America with regional security. To demonstrate its commitment to its new foreign policy and the QUAD, it recently canceled its $66 billion defence deal with France for 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines in favour of 8-10 more capable ‘blue-water’ Virginia– or Astute-class nuclear attack submarines. Canberra knows that in order for its undersea fleet to be able to quickly respond to crises throughout the Indo-Pacific region from its sole base in Perth and deter China, it must have submarines that can travel vast distances with speed and stealth and have enough weapons space to deliver an overwhelming amount of firepower. They must also have great endurance and long patrol times underwater. The only type of submarine that unequivocally meets all these expectations is an SSN as it has unlimited range and anti-acoustic sound matting. An SSN is a nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarine. SSN is the US Navy hull classification symbol for such vessels; the SS denotes a submarine, and the N denotes nuclear power. The designation SSN is used for interoperability throughout NATO. America’s nuclear Virginia class submarines can deploy for 6 months at a time and patrol vast swaths of ocean, undetected, without surfacing once during its time at sea. On the other hand, France’s Barracuda diesel-electric submarines have less noise reduction, decreased range, and need to surface frequently to recharge their batteries, making it vulnerable and highly detectable to advanced navies like the PLAN. This is why Australia ultimately chose to make a nuclear submarine deal with the US and UK.


This recent example of Australia significantly stepping up its undersea capabilities to ensure its national sovereignty and deter China in the Indo-Pacific region should not only serve as a clear call to action for Canada, but also as a model. Similar to “the Land Down Under”, Canada is a nation, bordered by vast oceans, that is increasingly being threatened by an encroaching great power. With 25% of Earth’s undiscovered oil, gas and mineral resources and a new valuable shipping route near Canada’s Arctic, the Arctic Ocean has become a hotbed for great power competition. While Canada has already made its territorial claims, Russia has also outlined its stake and claimed more than half of the ocean as Moscow believes that the Eastern Lomonosov Ridge and Mendeleyev Ridge are an extension of the Siberian continental shelf. This declaration blatantly disregards Canada’s claims, potentially depriving it of the ability to extract all of its unrealized resources in the future to boost its economy. To enforce its new self declared ‘sovereign territory’ in the region, Russia has begun the rapid construction and deployment of new Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and repeatedly sailed its undersea assets within Canada’s northern territorial waters. These new naval vessels pose a significant threat to the stability and security of the Arctic as they can destroy any maritime or land target within the entire region. More importantly, they allow Russia to control the strategic Northern Sea route and potentially threaten the Northwest Passage which Canada views as its own sovereign territory.



To counter this aggression and violation of its sovereignty, Canada has no choice but to deploy its own submarines to its northern territories to detect, track, and monitor Russia’s SSNs. However, this will require an undersea fleet, 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 therefore boils down to one simple question: Can Canada’s current Victoria-class submarines or any other current conventionally powered modern diesel-electric submarine effectively defend the Arctic? The answer, as of right now, is no. Even if Canada’s aging Victoria-class subs were overhauled to nearly perfect condition or the Department of National Defence bought brand new diesel-electric submarines, the Arctic’s inhibitive under-ice environment would completely eliminate their effectiveness as they lack the necessary endurance, speed, and ability to safely surface through thick layers of ice.

In general, very few naval vessels can effectively operate in the harsh, unforgiving, and vast expanse of the Far North, and of those, only one can truly thrive and properly enforce Canadian sovereignty: SSNs. Nuclear attack submarines can remain under the ice for long periods of time, tell us who else might be operating there, and closely monitor foreign submarines. They can also serve as a powerful deterrent as they have the ability to surface through the Arctic ice to show their presence. Comparatively, conventional diesel-electric submarines are confined to near ice-edge operations as they must surface frequently to recharge their batteries which is impossible with the thick ice layers of the Arctic. While there is some research and development being done to allow conventional submarines to be able operate under ice, this will take years if not decades, time that Canada does not have.


Ultimately, with the rapid expansion of China’s navy and the resurgence of Russia’s, Canadians must seriously re-examine its anti-nuclear stance and come to terms with the rapidly changing security environment around the world. A new Cold War is upon us, and Canadians must be willing to increase defence spending to at least 2% of GDP. Recently, citizens of Australia have come to grips with this new reality as shown by their massive nuclear submarine deal with the US and UK and it is now Canada’s turn. By just fulfilling NATO’s defence budget percent requirements, it will be able to purchase 8-10 modern under-ice capable SSNs and construct and sustain the nuclear infrastructure required for that fleet.

In exchange for that investment, Canada, for the first time in nearly thirty years, can legitimately assert that the Northwest Passage is sovereign Canadian waters with Canadian SSNs operating along choke points in the region. It can send a message to Russia and China that it has the capability to control and provide a respectable presence in all three of its bordering oceans. Canada will also be able to ensure undersea security for its exploration of the Arctic seabed and acquire its rich resources. More importantly, the Navy’s SSN fleet will finally allow Canada to aid the NATO alliance in a meaningful way, restore its credibility among allies, and have the truly balanced fleet it needs to protect its interests around the world. Overall, the claim that a Canadian SSN fleet would be a force-multiplier for the RCN and an effective force for safeguarding our sovereignty against Russian undersea aggression is a compelling one and should be taken into serious consideration by the Navy in its search for replacements for its current Victoria-class SSKs.


Richard Nghiem is a Regular CDR Contributor

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