Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Turning to Submarines

HMCS Victoria

Back in the 60's the Royal Canadian Navy fielded a small number of reasonably capable submarines, the Oberon-class boats we bought from the UK.   We had five of these subs.   Introduced in 1965 they were decommissioned in the late 90's, a commendable service life.

As the Oberon boats were being phased out Canada went shopping for replacements and, voila, the Royal Navy happened to have four "nearly new" Upholder-class subs it was looking to unload.   These subs had been mothballed after just four years of somewhat chequered service.

During construction of the first boats it was recognized that the weapon-discharge system design did contain flaws. The torpedo tube slide valve controlling operation of the torpedo tube doors could have, under certain system failure conditions, allowed the opening of the inner door while the outer door was open. The flaw was quickly fixed in the first three boats and the modifications included in the fourth boat while still under construction.

Miscalculations were made in the design of the main-motor control circuitry. During the sea trials of Upholder, when performing the specified trial for an emergency reversal ("crash back"), a flash-over incident occurred, which resulted in the complete loss of all power and propulsion. On investigation, this was traced to a fault in the design of the control circuitry insulation, resulting in a battery short circuit current of more than 60,000 amperes.

The diesels were originally designed for use in railway locomotives, and were not intended to be rapidly stopped and started. Shutting them down after snorkelling led to many failures. Similarly, the motor-generators were operated at full power for longer than expected, and consumed brushes and filters rapidly (the brush problems were not specific to the Upholders, and were a widespread issue on all UK RN vessels at that time).

Canada bought these boats in 1998 only to find them chock full of gremlins.  Fourteen years later the Canadian navy hopes to have one of them operational this year.  It's now thirty years or more since those submarines became operational with the Royal Navy.   Thirty years in submarine years is just about a full lifetime.

So not only are Canada's subs about to enter service as geriatrics, they're no longer state of the art in the engine room where it really counts.   The propulsion units of these diesel/electric subs are a somewhat advanced version of what submarines have used since WWI.   That is so yesterday.

A big disadvantage to conventional, or non-nuclear, subs has been that they could use their diesel power only while surfaced or while running just below the surface using a snorkel.   One way or another they needed a source of air to run at full power.   Nuclear  boats were air independent and could chug along in the ocean depths for months at a time.

Conventional subs bridged the gap recently with the introduction of air-independent propulsion engines.   The latest German submarines of the 212 class use fuel cell technology that allows them to cruise fully submerged for weeks.   This gives them an endurance capability vastly greater than our vintage subs and somewhat similar to nuclear submarines without the noise penalty of nuclear power units.

Why does this matter, especially to Canada?  For the first time in our nation's history we're probably going to have a genuine need for a submarine capability, that's why.   The Arctic Ocean is going to become ice free.   That means Canada's northern waters are destined to become a major shipping route.   It also means the Arctic Ocean will see something akin to a gold rush in the pursuit of seabed resources from oil and gas to mineral wealth.   That in turn will fuel tensions over unresolved territorial disputes.   That will also lead to new and expanded military presences in the far north.

There will be no shortage of legal, diplomatic, commercial and military muscle-flexing in the decades ahead.   Right or wrong, like it or not, Canada will need to establish and maintain a credible presence to uphold our sovereignty and protect against encroachment.  You snooze, you lose.  It's that simple.

Submarines, especially of a type our potential rivals cannot readily detect, are essential for defending Canada's north.   That means we need modern boats that are capable of silent, extended patrolling underwater.

Let's face it, if Harper gets his way and Canada does wind up saddled with a few dozen single-engine, limited range, minimal payload F-35s, we can pretty much kiss goodbye any meaningful ability to defend the vast north from the air.  We will need something to pick up the slack.

Which brings us back to Canada's not-ready-for-primetime Victoria class subs.  It is possible to retrofit those boats with air-independent propulsion systems but is it feasible given their age, remaining usable life, ongoing reliability questions and the substantial cost?  Anyone who has owned an old car knows that sometimes you have to cut your losses and get a new car.

It's time for the Canadian government to admit that the Victoria boats were yet another disastrous mistake brought to us by the dimwits that populate our National Defence headquarters.  It's probably time to stop throwing good money after bad.  It's probably time to go shopping for new boats.   This time we might even be able to get new for cheap.   Greece has several new boats on order from the Germans and it's looking like Greece is a bit short on Euros to pay for them.   Could be a deal there.


Dave said...

Don't mind me but I need to clear some things up.

We only had 3 operational O-boats: Okanagan, Ojibwa and Onondaga. The Olympus was a jetty training boat that never sailed.

Nukes are noisy. Period. So are air independent diesels.

For all the faults in the Upholders, they are quiet when dived and one of the least detectable submarines in the world.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi Dave. I stand corrected on the O boats. The Osiris never left the UK and was a hangar queen of sorts.

Yes the Victoria boats are quiet but are they really suitable for extended patrolling in Canadian Arctic waters? And what about their age?

Anyong said...

Solution....when people in this country want to make their living in politics and certain people will be made the Minister of the Armed Forces, they ought to be required to spend three years in the Armed Forces.

The Mound of Sound said...

It'd never work, Anyong. As DefMin they'd be greasing the palms of the brass to assure an easy ride later while in uniform.

However if you mean we should only permit those with military experience to serve as DefMin, that's often even worse. Look at Harper's first DefMin, safely-retired General O'Connor. From career officer to defence lobbyist to DefMin and he was a disaster.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Dave. Not all air-independent propulsion technologies are noisy. The hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell system on the new German 212-class boats is extremely quiet because the fuel cells have no moving parts. That's why the 212 is widely acknowledged as the quietest sub operating. The 212's fuel cells enable it to operate submerged for weeks.

Dave said...

One of the big expenses on taking over the Upholders was the control and weapons upgrades, so they would still be effective boats. Hull age is going to be the catch.

As to the question of Arctic patrol ... yes, they can do it but they need another piece of equipment. And, to get anything close to effective patrol you would need all four operating at once working the ice edge. That will never happen.

Anyong - The worst MNDs in Canada have been former serving officers/ratings. They're not supposed to be "combat" types. They're supposed to formulate policy and provide resources.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hull age is a real catch, Dave, which is why I'm thinking going for the newer, stealthy Thyssen Marine 212-class boats would be better. Not only are they the quietest boats on the water but their hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell system gives them substantial submerged range. A lot of modern navies are opting for the 212. Germany, Italy, Greece, South Korea and Israel have them. Italy and South Korea were even able to licence build their own 212s.

I can't think of anything better suited to patrolling Canada's northern waters. With its submerged endurance the 212 would be able to handle seasonal ice conditions.

As you've pointed out, four boats probably wouldn't be adequate but we could buy/build one 212 for about the price of just two F-35s.

If we're only going to use the 35s for Libyan-style coalition air wars, cut that order back to 40 airframes and use the savings to deploy an even dozen 212s.

BTW the Swedish Gotland sub that uses the noisier Stirling engine was down in San Diego a few years ago. The Americans leased it for a year or two for testing during which they learned it was highly capable of sinking US subs undetected and could readily penetrate carrier battle group defences to sink fleet carriers.

A year or two ago a Chinese attack sub managed to get within 5-miles of a US carrier in the vicinity of its Hanaan Island base. The Americans only realized it was there when it surfaced in the middle of the carrier battle group. Oopsie.