March 12, 2015: Strategy Page
For the first time ever all four of Canada’s Victoria class diesel-electric submarines are operational. Thus seventeen years after purchasing four slightly-used British diesel-electric submarines Canada has finally got all of them in shape to go to war. That’s progress, especially when you consider that in early 2014 only one of the four Victoria class subs could go to sea and actually fire a torpedo. At that point it was hoped that by 2016 two more would be ready as well. That goal was achieved early but now one of the four subs is about to undergo two years of scheduled upgrades and maintenance. The Victoria class subs will have to be retired (because of old age) by the late 2020s. Canada is still searching for a practical way to replace the Victorias.
What Canada has learned from all this is that submarines are expensive boats to build and maintain, even if they are secondhand. Some of the Victoria delays were because of accidents. Thus in 2014, ten years after a fire at sea, the HMCS Chicoutimi began returning to service, sort of. Chicoutimi could only make shallow dives initially and tests were required to make sure the new torpedo handling equipment was working properly. The repairs for the 2004 fire cost $125 million and the fire occurred a month after Chicoutimi entered Canadian service. But now Chicoutimi is really, really ready for service.
The Victoria Saga all began in the 1990s, when Canada wanted to replace its 1960s era diesel-electric subs. This did not seem possible, because the cost of new boats would have been about half a billion dollars each which was more than Canada could afford. Britain, however, had four slightly used Upholder class diesel-electric subs that it was willing to part with for $210 million each. That was nearly half what it cost Britain to build these boats in the late 1980s. The Upholders entered British service between 1990 and 1993 and were mothballed shortly thereafter when it decided to go with an all-nuclear submarine fleet.
So the deal was made in 1998, with delivery of the Upholders to begin in 2000. Canada decommissioned its older Oberons in 2000, then discovered that the British Upholders needed more work (fixing flaws, installing Canadian equipment) than anticipated before they could enter service as the Victoria class. It wasn't until 2004 that the subs were ready and that year Chicoutimi was damaged by fire while at sea. Chicoutimi was supposed to be back in service by 2006 but the repair job was more extensive than first realized and there were other problems found as the repairs proceeded. Thus the initial $20 million repair job just got more and more expensive.
By 2004 the Upholders were transformed into the Victoria class and were much more modern and capable than the older Oberons. The Victorias are 2,160 tons (displacement on the surface) boats with a crew of 46 and six torpedo tubes (and 18 Mk 48 torpedoes.) The electronics on the Victorias are state of the art and a primary reason for buying these boats in the first place. The subs are used to patrol Canada's extensive coastline. The passive sonars on these subs make it possible to detect surface ships over a great distance. But not having any subs on active duty, ready for combat, for most of the decade after the Chicoutimi became a major issue in Canada.
The problem is that the subs were bought without a thorough enough examination. It was later found that most major systems had problems and defects that had to be fixed (at considerable time and expense). Thus these boats have spent most of their time, for decade, undergoing repairs or upgrades. The final fix was be to get the torpedo tubes working, something that was only completed in the last two years. In any event, a Canadian sub has never fired a torpedo in combat, mainly because the Canadian Navy did not get subs until the 1960s. Lots of Canadian surface ships have fired torpedoes in combat, but the last time that happened was in 1945.
Canada has the longest coastline (202,080 kilometers) in the world, more than three times longer than that of the nation (Indonesia) with the next longest (57,716 kilometers) coastline. Worse, most of the Canadian coastline is in arctic or subarctic waters. So far the Victorias have performed well in all parts of this long coastline, but there are only four of them.