It’s been a long road for the Royal Canadian Navy’s submarine fleet, but the service believes the boats have turned the corner in their journey to full operational status.
Canada purchased the four submarines second-hand from Britain and took delivery of the boats between 2000 and 2004. It renamed the former Royal Navy’s Upholder class as Canada’s Victoria class.
The submarine program, which has already cost around $900 million, has had a rocky start, dealing with maintenance issues that, over the years, have limited the availability of the boats for operations.
High-pressure welds had to be replaced and cracks were found in some of the valves on the four subs. Steel piping also needed to be replaced because the boats were put into storage in the United Kingdom with water in their fuel tanks. A fire damaged HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004, and killed one officer. HMCS Corner Brook struck bottom off the west coast of Vancouver Island in 2011.
In addition, there have been delays in installing Canadian equipment, such as the weapons fire control and communications gear. “The introduction of the Victoria Class has been fraught with many issues and faced a number of setbacks,” a May 2009 briefing note produced by the Navy acknowledged.
But that is changing, according to the RCN.
“We have three submarines operational in the water,” explained RCN spokesman Lt.-Commander Alain Blondin. “Our priority is to show value for money.” He noted that HMCS Victoria took part in RIMPAC exercises in summer 2014 off Hawaii.
Victoria was used as an adversary in a wide variety of exercises at RIMPAC, including sub-versus-sub as well as various anti-submarine warfare scenarios, Blondin said.
HMCS Windsor was back at sea in December 2014. HMCS Chicoutimi was also at sea in December 2014, undergoing equipment trials and crew training to prepare for operational employment. HMCS Corner Brook will enter its ‘Extended Docking Work Period’ in the coming months. By the end of 2014, the RCN achieved its desired operational steady-state of having three submarines at sea, with the fourth in deep maintenance, Blondin noted.
Overall, HMCS Windsor, Victoria, and Chicoutimi spent approximately a total of 260 days at sea in 2014.
In September 2014, the crew of HMCS Victoria received the Operational Service Medal at CFB Esquimalt for their successful participation in Operation CARIBBE in 2013.
HMCS Windsor was docked to allow for replacement of one of its generators. While the submarine was docked, the RCN took advantage of the opportunity to accelerate the previously planned installation of some upgrades, including a state-of-the-art bow sonar system that wasn’t originally scheduled to go in for another two years, Blondin explained.
“The new sonar system will bring the entire sonar suite of the Victoria class forward — from 1980s technology into the 21st century — in order to continue to act on behalf of Canada in the face of emerging maritime threats,” he said.
Martin Shadwick, a strategic studies professor at York University in Toronto, said if the RCN’s predictions that the submarine fleet has turned the corner are right, then the timing couldn’t be any better.
“It’s vital now more than ever since with the downsizing of the surface fleet, the Navy needs all vessels it can put to sea,” Shadwick said.
He was referring to the number of Halifax-class frigates that are expected to be docked as they undergo modernization, as well as the RCN’s decision in 2014 to retire two of its destroyers and its two re-supply ships.
The Victoria class, with their ability to remain undetected, provide a force multiplier that the RCN needs now, he added. The RCN views submarines as the ultimate stealth platform, able to operate in areas where sea and air control is not assured, and to gain access to areas denied to other forces.
Blondin credited companies involved in the submarine program for playing a role in returning the vessels to operational status, in particular HMCS Chicoutimi.
“The successful completion of Chicoutimi’s return to operations has not only been enabled by the skills and talent of Canada’s submarine community, but also by the relationships forged with industry,” he noted. “These partnerships enabled the establishment of new supply chains for these subs, and the integrated logistics to sustain these complex weapons systems.”
Industry has already received recent work on the submarines and some firms are continuing to win contracts.
The main contract for the submarines is, of course, the one held by Babcock Canada. Estimated to be worth $1.5 billion over 15 years, the Victoria-class submarine In-Service Support Contract involves the company providing a wide range of services to the RCN. Those include program and project management, material and logistic support, systems engineering, configuration management and records support, maintenance and extended docking work period support, and information and knowledge management. Babcock Canada Inc. operates in three locations in Canada: Ottawa, Victoria, and Halifax.
The RCN noted that in June 2013, the Canadian government exercised the first five-year extension option of the maintenance support contract with Babcock, worth $531 million. In addition, in November 2012, Northrop Grumman Corporation was selected by Canada to provide in-service support for the MK-49 inertial navigation systems and navigation data distribution systems fielded aboard both the RCN’s surface ships and Victoria-class submarines. The $12.1 million contract includes material spares and software maintenance for the next five years.
The MK-49 inertial navigation system, based on Northrop Grumman’s unique ring-laser gyro technology, provides highly-accurate position, attitude, velocity, and heading inputs to the ships’ navigation and fire-control systems to help ensure stabilized weapons initialization under all sea conditions, the company noted. The navigation data distribution system integrates data inputs and outputs provided by the MK-49 inertial navigation system and other navigation sensors.
In February 2013, the Canadian government also awarded a contract to Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems Inc., of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, for work on the submarines. That $6.9 million contract covers maintenance work on the towed-array sonars on the Victoria class. The work will continue until 2016.
In June of that same year, Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems (UEMS) announced it had received a contract from Canada to manufacture four Submarine Towed Array Sonar System (SubTASS) arrays for the Victoria-class boats.
The SubTASS arrays were developed by UEMS and are manufactured in its facilities in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. UEMS’ SubTASS arrays are an essential component of the Victoria-class sensor suite and allow the submarines to covertly detect and track surface and sub-surface contacts, the firm noted.
In March of 2014, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of Richmond, BC announced that it had signed a contract valued at over $16 million to provide in-service support for training and maintenance of the Victoria-class trainers. Those trainers, located at CFB Halifax, are used to instruct personnel on operating and maintaining Victoria-class submarines. The contract is for a four-year duration, with options for an additional two years.
MDA has been providing in-service training and maintenance support on the Victoria-class trainers since 2009, the company noted.
Still, it is not simply smooth sailing for the submarine fleet. In his 2014-2017 business plan, RCN Commander Vice Admiral Mark Norman warned that the costs to operate and maintain the submarine fleet are increasing, forcing the Navy to request more funding to keep the vessels at sea.
The RCN needs an additional $19 million for the sub fleet’s operating and maintenance costs for the period up to spring of 2016, the service’s new business plan noted.
Ongoing government-ordered cuts have “severely reduced the RCN’s ability to mitigate the steadily increasing costs of the Submarine operating and maintenance,” the plan pointed out. But the Navy is committed to the submarines and has no intention to sideline the boats, a RCN officer noted. In fact, the service has, over the years, redirected funding from other areas to pay for the upkeep of the boats.
The business plan indicated that continued funding for the submarines would become difficult as Halifax-class frigates, which were being modernized, return to sea. “As the surface ships are returned to operations the ability of the RCN to mitigate the increasing operations and maintenance costs of the Victoria-class subs, as they progress to a steady state operating tempo of an average of 140 Sea Days per submarine is greatly diminished,” the document noted.
The Navy also hopes to increase numbers of qualified submariners by boosting the availability of training on-board the boats, the plan outlined. In addition, the RCN is also planning additional upgrades for the submarine fleet that will be of interest to industry.
Options analysis for upgrading the existing Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system in Victoria-class submarines will begin in 2017.
The project will optimize Victoria-class submarines’ existing systems and sub-systems until end-of-life for the boats, according to the 2014 Defence Acquisition Guide. This will include removal of the Seasearch II and replace it with a modern system. “The project will provide time-critical, tactically-relevant warning of threat emissions by early detection and classification that will contribute to early Indications and Warning of surface vessels,” the DAG noted.
The project will also provide interception, identification, platform correlation, analysis, and direction finding of electronic emissions so as to provide the maximum effectiveness in ELINT/ESM surveillance, the document added. The project solution will be integrated into a single operator workstation.
Preliminary cost estimates are listed in the DAG as between $20 million to $49 million. Movement on this project is projected to start in 2021 when a request for proposals is expected. Final delivery of the systems will be completed by 2025.
On an even longer time frame is the project to upgrade the tactical command and control system for both surface ships and the subs. The changes brought in by the new Maritime Tactical Command and Control (MTC2) will provide software to perform maritime tactical command and control amongst Canadian naval platforms and between platforms and their superior and subordinate Commanders and interchange C2 information seamlessly with allied navies of the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, according to the DAG. MTC2 will provide necessary hardware upgrades to the Naval Information Systems (NAVIS) to support the new software demands.
Preliminary cost estimates for the project are between $20 million to $49 million. Options analysis will be underway in 2015, but it will be a lengthy process. The request for proposals isn’t expected until after 2021, with a contract award by 2025. Deliveries will take place between 2026 and 2035.
The main question for the future, however, centres on when the RCN will replace the Victoria-class submarines.
Shadwick noted that a submarine replacement was never included in the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, a document that covers the next 20 to 30 years. “That doesn’t bode well,” he points out.
In 2011 and 2012 there was much speculation in Ottawa that the Navy was laying the groundwork for the purchase of new subs. There were reports in October 2011 that the Harper government was considering the purchase of nuclear-powered submarines because of concerns the Victoria-class were costing too much and lacked capabilities needed for the future RCN. Those claims were quickly shot down by then Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan, who noted “there is no plan to replace the diesel-electric fleet.”
In February 2012, then-Navy Commander Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison told the Senate defence committee that he envisioned initiating discussions about a next-generation submarine by 2015 or 2016. He noted that maintaining a submarine capability was critical for the future. Replacement of the Victoria class, if approved, would take place in the late 2020s, he suggested.
That was enough to spark interest among some firms. In 2012, a German trade delegation to Canada, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, had senior executives from ThyssenKrupp Marine. Media reports at the time noted the connection between the interest in buying new submarines and ThyssenKrupp’s Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft (or HDW), which has built a number of classes of subs.
But RCN Commander Vice Admiral Mark Norman has told Esprit de Corps that he has no plans for a submarine replacement at this point. The focus of the Navy has been, and will continue to be, on improving submarine operations, he noted. That doesn’t mean, however, that the RCN is not planning a life-extension program for the Victoria class.
In 2015 it will begin its options analysis for what has to be done to extend the predicted end-of-service life of the submarines, which is set at around the mid-2020s.
“The Submarine Equipment Life Extension (SELEX) Project will maintain the safety and serviceability of the “Float” components of the Victoria class,” the RCN has noted in the DAG. “It will maintain and, where appropriate, improve operational capabilities in both the ‘Move’ and ‘Fight’ components of the Victoria class.”
A detailed scoping study has already been completed and the recommendations of that will be used to define what is needed for the SELEX Project. Preliminary estimates put the cost of this project at more than $1.5 billion. Request for proposals and contract award would take place between 2021 and 2025. Work would begin in 2026 with deliveries of the upgraded submarines completed by 2035, according to the DAG.