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SUBMARINE REPORT – Rethinking Nuclear

SUBMARINE REPORT – Rethinking Nuclear

BY RICHARD NGHIEM

HMS Ambush, an Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarine of the Royal Navy, returns to HMNB Clyde, Scotland Credit: Thomas McDonald, MOD

SUBMARINE REPORT 

Rethinking NUCLEAR

 Two decades ago, the idea of Russia initiating the largest conventional land war in Europe since the end of the Second World War and threatening the use of nuclear weapons against NATO was unimaginable. A military conflict between the United States and its allies on one side and China on the other was described by major foreign policy and defence observers as even more unlikely or impossible. Both scenarios, in general, were considered “unthinkable wars.” However, lately it’s become clear that those same experts are now thinking through the “unthinkable.”

INCREASING TENSIONS

With Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasing military aggression towards its neighbours, particularly Taiwan, phrases like “a new Cold War” do not even begin to properly describe the current state of the global security environment. The world is instead potentially on the precipice of a Third World War. Such a possibility that these tensions could escalate into open conflict has people in the security, foreign policy and defence industries imagining how such a conflict might play out, and what Canada’s Armed Forces could and could not do in such a circumstance. It is also within the context of these frightening scenarios that the debate over whether Canada should be upgrading its submarine fleet is playing out.

For decades, the Royal Canadian Navy’s undersea capabilities have been neglected, with a belief that conventional maritime conflict was obsolete as no country could possibly challenge the U.S. Navy. However, in recent years, with the rapid rise of the PLAN and the resurgence of Russia’s navy in the North Atlantic, America’s Silent Service is increasingly at risk of being overstretched across the globe and unable to fully ensure international peace and stability on its own. This is especially the case in the Indo-Pacific and Arctic regions.

With regards to the former, given Beijing’s continued ironclad support of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, its aggressive territorial claims, and the rapid growth of the PLA and its formidable “A2/AD” capabilities, many of Canada’s regional allies now fear that China is confident enough in its ability to deter, and if necessary defeat, any U.S. military intervention and is starting to seriously consider the use of military force to resolve its territorial disputes. Such concerns are by no means unfounded as these countries have already been victims of predatory CCP trade practices, large-scale cyberattacks, political influence operations, and repeated territorial violations. Broadly speaking, the ultimate ‘worst case scenario’ conflict would be President Xi Jinping giving the PLA the order to invade Taiwan and reunite it with the mainland by force as this war would most likely draw in other regional powers, including the United States, Japan, and Australia.

Acknowledging this new strategic reality and the deteriorating security situation in the Indo-Pacific, Australia has, in response, made it clear that it is willing to take full responsibility for its own national defence and help America with regional security. The Royal Australian Navy’s recent purchase of 3 Virginia-class submarines, including 2 directly transferred from the U.S. Navy and one purchased right off the production line, with the option for 2 more as an interim capability, as a part of AUKUS, is a clear demonstration of this commitment. With these new undersea assets, Canberra will soon possess a more survivable navy, capable of effectively fighting within China’s A2/AD environment. Australia, more importantly, will be able to help protect vital shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, ensure security and stability in all of Oceania, and provide a credible naval expeditionary force to assist the US in a potential South China Sea or Taiwan conflict.

HMCS Corner Brook on arctic patrol during OP Nanook Credit: Cplc Blake Rodgers, Combat Camera

AUKUS – A CALL TO ACTION  

This example of Australia significantly investing in 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 Ottawa, but also as a model. Similar to “the Land Down Under”, Canada is a resource-rich 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, with the main adversary being Moscow.

Despite the heavy toll Russia’s invasion into Ukraine has had on its army, conventional air force, and special forces, its ballistic missile submarines and strategic bomber force remain intact, largely unaffected by the war. The Kremlin’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet, much of it based at its Murmansk naval base near Norway in the Arctic, still presents a formidable threat, consisting of the latest Yasen-class cruise missile submarines (SSGNs) and Borei-classSSBNs, designed to carry 16 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

With President Putin desperate for any strategic gains that he can claim as ‘victories’ to offset his disastrous campaign in Ukraine, he has chosen to further expand and strengthen Russia’s position in the Far North. And with his submarine fleet still intact, he can achieve this goal. This region has long been of significant interest to him as it is not only currently home to many of Moscow’s largest sources of revenue, its oil and gas megaprojects, but also the strategic Northern Sea Route which the Kremlin views as a major future trade route between Asia and Europe. The Arctic is also a staging ground for power projection, especially into the North Atlantic Ocean via the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap and across the Arctic Circle.

Consequently, as a part of its recent efforts to solidify its position in the region, Russia has significantly escalated its long-range bomber missions over the Arctic toward North American airspace and repeatedly operated its Yasen-class SSGNs and Borei-class nuclear missile subs within Canada’s territorial waters. This show of force has demonstrated Moscow’s formidable ability to launch a successful nuclear ‘first strike’ against major population centres in Canada and the United States as well as its capability to threaten the Northwest Passage which Canada views as its own sovereign territory.

Putin’s efforts, however, have not been limited to power projection and strengthening the Kremlin’s ‘first-strike’ and ‘second-strike’ capabilities. To further close off the Arctic as Russia’s private domain, he has recently passed a new law requiring 90-day notification for any military vessel transiting the Northern Sea Route, legislated that no more than one warship be allowed in these waters at any given time, and that any submarine be required to surface and show its flag along the route. He also has doubled down on Russia’s territorial claim to more than half of the Arctic Ocean, citing that the Eastern Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges are an extension of the Siberian continental shelf. This declaration blatantly disregards Canada’s territorial claims, potentially depriving it of the ability to extract all of its unrealized resources in the future to boost its economy. Besides safeguarding Russia’s own claims, Putin has also brought China into the fold as a major geopolitical player in the Arctic as he has used the region as a bargaining chip to strengthen Russian-Chinese relations. This is evident given the two countries ‘coastguards’ signing of an Arctic cooperation memorandum in Murmansk. Beijing’s price for providing Russia with support over Ukraine seems to be naval access to Russian bases in the region.

Taking into account all of these strategic developments, Ottawa has no choice but to continue to counter these shows of force and violations of its sovereignty and deploy its own submarines to its northern territories to detect, track, and monitor Russia’s SSNs. However, while echoing this sentiment, General Wayne Eyre, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has, in recent days, admitted to MPs that the CAF, as currently equipped, is incapable of monitoring all submarine and icebreaker activity in the region. Consequently, in order to achieve this goal the military will need a much larger, capable undersea fleet to provide year-round surveillance and credible defence capabilities.

CONTESTED WATERS

Plainly speaking, the unfortunate reality of the situation is that even though Canada’s official coastline and territorial waters extend deep into the Arctic Ocean, its territorial claims in the region are, in reality, contested waters as Canada has limited visibility in terms of who’s actually up there. This conclusion is fully supported by the 2022 report by the Auditor-General of Canada and the Senate Arctic Committee which both conclude that Ottawa lacks a complete picture of who is entering or traversing Arctic waters and warn of significant gaps in Canada’s ability to detect foreign or domestic ships in the region. These serious shortcomings have been exposed several times in recent months with dozens of Chinese buoys being discovered inside the Nation’s northern territorial waters. Such maritime assets most likely were being used to monitor U.S. nuclear submarine traffic in the region, and for mapping seabeds and ice thickness as Beijing is eyeing future northern shipping routes, trying to exploit the Arctic seabed’s significant resource deposits, and is focused on keeping tabs on American military activities.

Given these facts and current situation on the ground in the Far North, the main question facing Canadian policymakers now, as a result, is: can the RCN’s current Victoria-class submarines effectively defend the Arctic against these threats? The answer is a resounding no. Even if these subs were overhauled to nearly perfect condition, the Arctic’s inhibitive under-ice environment would completely eliminate their effectiveness as they lack the necessary endurance, range, and ability to safely surface through thick layers of ice to be of any credible deterrent value. Consequently, it is clear that for Canada to be a serious naval power in the 21st century, it must focus more on the undersea domain. From facing the Chinese “A2/AD” challenge in the Indo-Pacific which has severely degraded the survivability and utility of surface warships to unforgiving operating environments like the Arctic, the Navy must possess more high endurance and highly advanced submarines to remain an effective fighting force.

The RCN, to their credit, has recognized the growing importance of undersea platforms to the future battlefield and called for the purchase of up to 12 new conventionally powered attack submarines to replace its aging Victoria-class SSKs. The specific number of 12 subsis quite ideal, albeit unrealistic due to personnel shortage issues. That said, a fleet of 12 submarines would allow for Canada to have 4 submarines for each of its oceans at all times with one always deployed forward with its allies, one patrolling its coastline, one in port during the rest phase of the deployment cycle, and one in deep maintenance.

Korea’s Dosan Ahn Chang-ho-class SSPs Credit: ROK Ministry of National Defense

KOREAN KSS-III SUBMARINES

In response to this request by the Navy, it has been rumored that during a recent meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed the two countries’ longstanding cooperation in national defence, including Canada’s submarine replacement program. Against this backdrop, Canadian military officials reportedly toured the shipyards of Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and HD Hyundai Heavy Industries in Geoje and Ulsan respectively. This visit unquestionably has raised some eyebrows as these two shipbuilders jointly developed and manufactured the South Korean Navy’s KSS-III submarines.These subs, also called Dosan Ahn Chang-ho-classSSPs, have a displacement of 3,000 tons and are the first air independent propulsion – equipped submarines designed to carry and launch SLBMs (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles). Given General Wayne Eyre’s familiarity with this particular weapons system and strong advocacy for the Navy’s submarine replacement program, there is high hope in Seoul and speculation in Ottawa that DND will indeed choose these subs to be the future backbone of the RCN’s undersea force. Sucha deal for these SSPs, if signed, would likely be worth only $60 billion CAD over the entire service life span of the fleet.

However, while KSS-III submarines have low procurement, operating, and maintenance costs, they do not meet all of Canada’s defence needs, particularly the ability to effectively operate in the harsh Arctic environment as aforementioned. With a top speed of only 20 knots per hour, an endurance period of only 20 days despite being powered by an AIP system, and no ice surfacing capability, Dosan Ahn Chang-ho-classSSPs are at most only capable of near ice-edge operations.

THE NUCLEAR OPTION

Australia’s recent acquisition of at least 3 Virginia class submarines and possibly 2 more as part of AUKUS, however, is a signal to Canada that there may be another option. This sale between the U.S. and Australia is extremely rare. The United States has only done this once before, back in 1959, with the United Kingdom. To make matters more intriguing, these underwater platforms are exactly the kind that the RCN needs.

Overall, 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 conduct patrols under the ice for long periods of time, tell us who else might be operating there, and closely monitor foreign, potentially hostile contacts. These undersea assets also serve as a powerful deterrent to “potential adversaries or trespassers” as they have the ability to surface through the Arctic ice to indicate their presence and if necessary fire long range cruise missiles to enforce Canada’s sovereignty. Comparatively, SSKs and SSPs are confined to near ice-edge operations as they must surface frequently to recharge their batteries and lack the endurance to execute long term operations. While there is significant research and development being done to improve conventional submarines’ performance in these areas to be able to successfully carry out under-ice missions, this will take years if not decades, time that Canada does not have.

Nonetheless, Senate Committee experts and anti-nuclear factions within the federal government will continue to assert that Canada does not need to buy SSNs because another ‘new’ emerging technology – air-independent propulsion – could allow diesel-electric submarines to operate under Arctic ice. This popular claim is completely false as nuclear-powered designs still dominate in submergence times, speed, range and deep-ocean performance. The maximum endurance time of the average AIP-powered sub is roughly around 20 days while SSNs can operate continuously underwater for months at a time.

RE-EXAMINING CANADA’S ANTI-NUCLEAR STANCE

Ultimately, given this information, Canadians must seriously re-examine their anti-nuclear stance and acknowledge that given the rapidly changing security environment around the world, the country can no longer afford to be a free rider when it comes to its national defence and its responsibilities to NATO and its Asian allies. There also must be a serious national debate about Canada’s long held nonsensical view of nuclear submarines as an ‘off limits’ taboo subject. With many nuclear power plants currently operating near major populationcentres in Ontario and New Brunswick and the public, for the most part, unconcerned about their use, one must ask the rhetorical question of what is it that makes nuclear attack submarines so much more ‘dangerous’ than these power plants and acknowledge that SSNs do not pose any additional danger.

Overcoming this psychological hurdle is crucial, given the deteriorating global security environment and the increasing likelihood of a potential Third World War. Citizens of Australia have recently come to grips with this new reality as shown by their massive nuclear submarine deal with the U.S. and UK and it is now Canada’s turn. By just fulfilling NATO’s defence budget percent requirements, it will be able to purchase 7-8 modern under-ice capable SSNs.

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 RCN submarines operating along choke points in the region and send a message to Russia and China that it has the capability to defend all three of its bordering oceans. Canada will also be able to ensure undersea security for its exploration of the Arctic seabed and acquisition of its rich resources. More importantly though, a SSN fleet will finally allow the RCN to aid the NATO alliance in a meaningful way, restore its credibility among its allies, and have the truly balanced fleet it needs to protect Canada’s interests around the world and execute any future missions that Canadians may expect of it. Such operations can range from participating in NATO ASW exercises in the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea to strengthening homeland defence in the Far North to contributing to the kinetic defence of Taiwan against a PLA invasion. Overall, the claim that a Canadian nuclear submarine fleet would be a force-multiplier for the RCN and an effective force for safeguarding our sovereignty is a compelling one and should be taken into serious consideration by the Navy in its search for replacements for its current antiquated Victoria-class SSKs.

If Canadians ultimately support this pitch and desire such a naval force, the Department of National Defence should follow Australia’s lead and immediately initiate talks with the United States about acquiring 7-8 Virginia-class Block V attack boats as these SSNs, while enormously expensive with a unit cost of nearly $4 billion, are indisputably the best in the world and far superior to Korea’s KSS-III submarines. More importantly, they fully meet all of Canada’s defence needs.

VIRGINIA-CLASS SSN

Powered by 210 MW S9G nuclear reactors which do not require refuelling for their entire 30 year-plus lifespans, Virginia-class SSNs will not only provide operational and logistical advantages for the RCN, but also enable it to patrol the entire breadth of Canada’s Arctic seas for months at a time, not days like in the case of AIP powered subs. These attack boats are also capable of surfacing through ice 9 feet thick as they have been equipped with hardened sails similar to those of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced Seawolf-class attack submarines. Furthermore, they are among the quietest subs in the world. With their sound-wave breaking anechoic rubber tile coatings, cavitation-reducing pump-jet propulsion systems, and propellor shrouds, Virginia-class SSNs are able to travel at more than 25 knots underwater, for up to three months, without being detected. This acoustic superiority in the undersea battle space is further complemented by the Virginia-class’ numerous advanced underwater sensors. These include a powerful bow-mounted spherical active and passive sonar array, 6 wide aperture sonar arrays on each side of the sub, 2 high frequency active sonars mounted in the sail and bow which enable enhanced under-ice navigation, two high frequency sonars on both sides of the sail, and two towed low and high frequency sonar arrays. All of these sonars and sonar arrays allow for complete, comprehensive 360 degree undersea coverage. The Virginia-class is also superior in its surveillance capabilities and electronic warfare. It is equipped with a photonics mast, high-resolution cameras, infra-red sensors, infra-red laser rangefinders, and an electronic warfare mast for detecting and identifying radar and communication signals being emitted from foreign ships, aircraft, and submarines, operating in the vast Arctic. Lastly, in terms of power projection, Block V Virginia-class attack boats are unmatched. They will be armed with 65 long range land- and maritime-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles, Mk-48 heavyweight torpedoes, UGM-84 Harpoon II+ anti-ship missiles along with high energy laser systems. Collectively, these weapons are capable of striking everything from strategic land targets thousands of miles away to SSNs or SSBNs under the deep ice of the Arctic to major surface combatants or low flying ASW aircraft. Virginia-class subs are also capable of deploying dozens of special operations soldiers ashore, in Canada’s case, JTF2 operators, to maintain a land presence in the Far North.

Nonetheless, while these undersea platforms are indeed impressive, such a procurement proposal will undoubtedly be subject to severe criticism from many actors and interest groups. Defence analysts will first point out that the RCN has no experience operating or maintaining nuclear subs while others will probably highlight the high cost of nuclear infrastructure support and numerous supply chain problems. However, with the United States conveniently bordering Canada, these concerns can be easily addressed via quick joint training and cheap maintenance outsourcing without the need for Canada to build its own indigenous nuclear port infrastructure.

CANADA’S DEFENCE INDUSTRY

Canadian defence companies might protest any consideration of the acquisition of a SSN fleet along with the outsourcing of submarine sustainment contracts as such moves would not generate any new jobs or projects in Canada. This argument couldn’t be further from the truth. Canadian workers and Canada’s defence industry, as of right now, have a tremendous opportunity. In recent years, major U.S. shipbuilders have consistently warned Congress that the two biggest issues facing shipyards are attracting and retaining a quality workforce and limited maintenance capacity. The solutions to these problems could very well lay in additional welders, mechanists, shipbuilders, and electricians from Canada as well as the outsourcing of some maintenance contracts to companies like Babcock Canada for acoustic tile replacements. As a result, in addition to the full and fair price purchase of the 7-8 SSNs, Ottawa’s contribution may also include significant numbers of additional Canadian workers at American shipyards across the country, assisting their U.S. counterparts in the construction of Virginia-class attack boats.

This opens the possibility for a ‘joint submarine enterprise’ which pursues a division of labour that benefits industry in both nations and helps produce same-design submarines on time. Defence companies in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and British Columbia could potentially adopt an ‘F-35 joint strike fighter approach’ of supplying components, subassemblies or even modules into America’s production lines and shipyards. Such an endeavour would enable Canadian industry to be involved in the construction and maintenance of a fleet of more than 60 attack boats, rather than just the 12 desired by the RCN, gain more contracts, and expedite the acquisition of 7-8 potential Virginia-class SSNs for the Navy’s undersea fleet. This approach also benefits the U.S. by expanding its own effective production capabilities and shortening maintenance backlogs at its shipyards.

While such an approach has many potential advantages for both countries, American policymakers may still be uncomfortable with such an enterprise as facilitating Australia’s desire for U.S. Virginia class attack submarines and now Canada’s may be too much of a risk for the already over-tasked Silent Service that is in need of more hulls of its own. In such a scenario, an alternative option for Canada would be the UK’s Astute-classSSN as the production line for these subs is ending soon, with the Royal Navy having already acquired most of its fleet. By choosing this platform, Canada can keep the production line going and receive new submarines as soon as possible as BAE Systems Submarines do not have any other customers.

ASTUTE-CLASS SSN

Powered by Rolls-Royce PWR2 (Core H) reactors which have a 25-year lifespan before needing to be refuelled, UK Astute-class attack boats, like the Virginia-class, have tremendous endurance. They are also covered with tens of thousands of state-of-the-art acoustic tiles to dampen noise and are equipped with a very quiet pump-jet propulsion system. This allows them to glide through the ocean undetected at speeds even faster than those of its American counterpart. This acoustic superiority is further reinforced by the Astute-class submarines’ arrays of hydrophones along its flanks and advanced Thales Underwater Systems Sonars which can reportedly detect objects from nearly 3,000 nautical miles away, or roughly the entire distance of the Atlantic Ocean. In terms of firepower, Astute-class SSNs have six torpedo tubes and a lethal arsenal of 38 long range Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles and newly upgraded Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes. And similar to the Virginia-class, they can also deploy special operation forces ashore in littoral areas. However, there are two weaknesses in this undersea platform which should concern Arctic countries like Canada. While Astute-class submarines have the ability to surface through ice caps, they are unable to penetrate through more than 2 feet of ice without risking damage to their conning towers. As a result, these attack boats may not always be able to surface to show their presence in an act of deterrence or fire its long-range missiles. Astute-class subs’ service life spans are also shorter than that of the Virginia-class’ due to their different nuclear reactors.

Consequently, despite its immense cost, the Virginia-class is definitely worth the investment and should be Ottawa’s first choice for its submarine replacement program. The United States has arguably been building the finest ocean-going SSNs in the world since the 1950s, and with Congress lifting its ban on exporting subs to foreign countries, Canada should follow Australia’s lead and immediately seize this rare opportunity.

LOOKING AHEAD

Taken all together, while these suggested procurements, investments, and forward posture changes would greatly enhance and reinforce the Nation’s control over its territorial waters in the Arctic, they ultimately must have the approval of the Prime Minister and the Canadian people. Unfortunately, though, at least with the current government, the need to modernize the RCN’s undersea fleet and safeguard the Nation’s Arctic sovereignty against increasing Russian and Chinese expansion do not seem to be very high priorities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in particular, has explicitly expressed that Canada would never meet NATO’s defence spending requirement of 2%. Furthermore, he has flatly rejected any notion of a new SSN fleet and only committed to further extending the service lives the RCN’s current 4 Victoria-class subs to last until the late 2030s. This continued neglect of the Navy’s submarine fleet will consequently degrade the nation’s ability to not only defend its sovereignty, but also conduct military operations around the world, and fulfill its obligations to NATO, NORAD, and the UN.

Ultimately, until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau realizes this, there is no question that Canada’s national security and territorial integrity will continue to be challenged and compromised by both Russia and China as the global race to achieve superiority over the Arctic intensifies. Lastly, while its previous attempt at acquiring nuclear submarines partially failed over American reluctance to share nuclear propulsion know-how, Washington’s recent AUKUS defence pact with Canberra has completely negated that excuse. This deal marks a significant shift in U.S. policy and indicates a willingness on Washington’s part to invest in partners that are willing to pull their weight in international affairs. Consequently, the question for Ottawa and Canada as a nation, right now, is, are we willing to do our part? Sadly, the answer to that question appears to be ‘no’ for the foreseeable future.

Richard Nghiem is a Regular CDR Contributor

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