Friday, September 09, 2016

And Then What?

Not Much Good Sitting in Drydock

A boat is sometimes described as a hole in the water into which you pour money. If that applies to any boat it's surely the Royal Canadian Navy's deeply-troubled Upholder-class submarines.

They were junk when their original owner, Britain's Royal Navy, mothballed them just a few years after they came into service. They were junk while they floated at British docks waiting for some sucker to come along with a cheque. They were junk when the Chretien government decided to go cheap and dirty and pick them up for the Canadian Navy. They've been junk ever since.

Designed in the 70's, they were finally approved in the early 80's and came into service from the late 80's to the early 90's. They were declared surplus and "paid off" in the early 90's.

In 1998, Canada announced it would buy the Royal Navy's cast offs. Four boats for $750-million but, like all boats, that was just for starters. Mishaps and mechanical failures have plagued these boats, requiring some of them to be taken out of service for years at a stretch. That's when the dockyard bills started pouring in.

Details of the less than impressive service careers of our U-boat fleet are available via Wiki.

Now the federal government has a decision to make. These boats are in "end of life" mode. Submarines come with a "best before" date and that means they should be scrapped beginning in 2020.

RCN brass, with a straight face, say Canada must have a submarine capability.

“As Canadians, I think we want to know who’s operating on, above and below our water from a sovereignty perspective,” [Vice Admiral Ron] Lloyd said. “The one strategic asset that allows you to understand what’s operating below the water is a submarine. Nothing else can replace that.”

But, to be effective, the submarine has to be in the water, not undergoing heavy repairs or refit in drydock. From Admiral Lloyd's "sovereignty perspective" these boats have left Canada blind to what is operating below our waters.

The question now becomes do we sink another 1.5-3 billion dollars in upgrades to extend the life of these underwhelming U-boats? 

Type 212

The current price of a brand spanking new, state of the art, German-built Type 212 submarine is about $550-million Canadian. These are a proven design. Even the Israelis use them. They also come with 21st century capabilities including Air-Independent Propulsion that allows a non-nuclear submarine to operate submerged for weeks at a stretch.


Or there's Australia's choice, the French Scorpene sub. It seems they're a little more costly than the Type 212 but we might be able to piggyback on the Aussie's deal. There's also the Japanese, Soryu-class subs that the Americans regard very highly.

Most of us have had the experience at looking at a beloved, old car and realizing that you just can't justify pouring money into it any longer for endless repairs. However, when the cost of repairing old equals or exceeds the cost of buying new, it should be a no-brainer.


UU4077 said...

The RCN should scrap the Upholder Class and buy the German Type 212. The costs alone would justify such a move, never mind the vastly improved technology and the reduced complement required to run the thing (almost half).

The Mound of Sound said...

That's my take also, UU4077.

Owen Gray said...

There's a simple truth at the centre of this, Mound. You can't equip the navy on the cheap.

Anonymous said...

Maybe not the Scorpene class


crf said...

"The one strategic asset that allows you to understand what’s operating below the water is a submarine. Nothing else can replace that." -- Vice Admiral Ron Lloyd

That's an odd sales job by our Vice Admiral. Most of the time your typical submarine isn't diving deeply. And the ocean is huge: are we satisfied knowing nothing about an area when the sub isn't there? Seems like it.

Submarines might be good for sneaking up to monitor ships, among other things. They are somewhat useful things. But if Canada really wants to understand what's going on below the water line, they need a buoy network, numerous autonomous submarines and surface vessels, and a greatly expanded military-use, fault tolerant Neptune-like network everywhere on our coasts.

Having an effective sub-surface defense network might be more expensive than buying submarines. It might even incorporate subs with Humans inside. But if the plan is just "buy subs to replace the dingy buckets we have now" then that's not much better than a placebo treatment for coastal defense.

The Mound of Sound said...

You're right, Owen. It is a massive expense and, right now, Canada does not seem inclined to grand projects. Harper talked a good game but he also presided over the steady decline of defence spending to under 1% GDP. Justin doesn't seem to have much more appetite for this form of spending than his predecessor.

The Mound of Sound said...

TB, yes some Scorpene documents were leaked/stolen. Not sure how compromised the design is. Australia seems intent on proceeding.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Chris. In looking at the specs I was surprised to see the 212 had a crush depth of over 2,000 feet. That's impressive.

Still we're stuck with the reality that, new boats or old, we'll probably never field more than four to six. That's damned few for a nation with the world's longest coastline.

Despite what the Vice Admiral claims, I think we're really after subs to play our part in NATO sea power.

Anonymous said...

The submarine argument is somewhat like the F35 argument.
I ask; who do we go to war against?
WE have an indefensible coastline.
We have an undisclosed foreign policy!


Steve said...

Yep its more tribute for the Empire. We could patrol our shorelines with replicas of the bluenose and modern drone stealth torpedos. If our mission was not plausable deny ablity . Our job is to sneak players ashore where the big nuke subs cant go.

Francesco said...

Australia didn't choose the Scorpene class but the Barracuda class, which is still undergoing sea trials. The french version is nuclear but they will be redesigned with diesel electric propulsion for the Australian Navy.