Canadian submarine force demonstrates global reach

Navy News / June 7, 2018

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily mirror the views and opinions of the Royal Canadian Navy.

WARSHIPS International Fleet Review Special Correspondent Guy Toremans interviews the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy’s submarine force and learns how its boats are a significant strategic maritime security asset. After a turbulent introduction into Canadian service they are now demonstrating an ability to deploy around the world.

The Victoria Class experienced a difficult time when first acquired from the Royal Navy in the late 1990s. The subsequent discovery of leaks, ship valve cracks, and even a dented hull in one boat, was but the start of a litany of problems that maligned the effort to press the ex-RN Upholder Class boats into service for Canada.

On top of that HMCS Chicoutimi suffered a fire during the delivery voyage from the UK in 2004, which killed one of the vessel’s new crew, with the boat towed back to Scotland before eventually being taken across the Atlantic on a heavy-lift vessel.

But all that is now history. Since 2014 the Canadian Submarine Force has achieved stability, reaching its goal of having three of the four conventionally-powered Victoria Class available for operations with the fourth in deep maintenance.

During the recent major NATO Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) Exercise Dynamic Manta in the Mediterranean this magazine managed to obtain the inside perspective from the top man himself, Captain Christopher Robinson, Commander Canadian Submarine Force. He explained that the operating cycle “sees at least one boat operating on or from each coast” and that in his view “the Victoria Class have unparalleled capability to exploit tactical stealth and silence in order to achieve optimum operational and strategic effect in the maritime domain.” Capt Robinson went on: “Canada’s submarine force, as a key strategic asset, has been routinely operating around the globe. Its boats have routinely patrolled along Canada’s three coasts; they have participated in key continental defence and security activities, such as Op Caribbe in addition to deploying internationally.”

HMCS Chicoutimi at the end of 2017 deployed to Asia-Pacific, the first time this has been achieved by a RCN submarine since the 1960s and the first time ever to that part of the world for a Victoria Class boat. “Prior to Chicoutimi’s current one, the longest Victoria Class single deployment was a 101 day North Atlantic patrol by HMCS Windsor in 2015,” Capt Robinson pointed out. “Through these deployments the RCN has demonstrated a capacity to operate the Victoria Class at extended distances, with persistence and deployments happening simultaneously and overlapping.”

HMCS Corner Brook is currently at Victoria Shipyards Co. Ltd in Esquimalt, undergoing an Extended Docking Work Period (EDWP) under the Victoria In-service Support Contract with Babcock Canada Inc. She is due to return to operational service in 2019.

Corner Brook’s EDWP includes replacement of external structures and the sonar bow dome, a combat system upgrades, the ability to fire Mk48 Mod 7AT heavyweight torpedoes, BQQ-10 sonar suite, a modern satellite communications system and communications intercept capabilities.

“HMCS Corner Brook is the second boat to complete this fit,” explained Capt Robinson. “HMCS Windsor was the first. The other two will complete the fit over a series of intermediate work periods coming up. HMCS Victoria is engaged in operational preparations and currently the two high readiness boats are HMCS Windsor and HMCS Chicoutimi.”

HMCS Chicoutimi sailed from Esquimalt in mid-September 2017 to begin her seven-month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region. The RCN will not give exact details about what the submarine has been up to, operating out of Japan, or where exactly she has been active. Although the precise aspects of the Chicoutimi’s mission are shrouded in secrecy, one may suppose that part of the mission package has included the surveillance of vessels at sea, possibly as part of the enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea. “Almost everything we do is classified,” observed Capt Robinson. “What I can say is that HMCS Chicoutimi’s current 197-day deployment was designed as a routine RCN deployment to help signal – as outlined in Canada’s Defence Policy – the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region to Canada while reinforcing Canada’s commitment to the maintenance of regional peace and security.”

In February 2018 the second high-readiness submarine, HMCS Windsor, got underway for an extended visit to the European theatre, bringing another first for the RCN, namely a Victoria Class boat operating in the Mediterranean Sea.

HMCS Windsor may have deployed previously to the European theatre, in 2015/2016, but operated only in Atlantic and northern European waters. On that deployment Windsor was scheduled to take part in a major NATO exercise but was re-tasked on a mission to try to trail a surge of Russian submarines into the North Atlantic. Windsor is now very well equipped for such a mission, as Capt Robinson explained.

“HMCS Windsor was the first of the service’s four Victoria Class boats to be fitted with a Lockheed Martin AN/BQQ-10 (V)7 sonar processing suite,” he said. “This is a variant of the US Navy’s Acoustic Rapid COTS Insertion programme, thus boosting the submarine’s detection and discrimination capability. That fit was completed during the boat’s intermediate work period before sailing on the current deployment. The upgraded sonar enables the crew to pick up contacts at a longer distance and detect the tell-tale sounds of engines, even the noises of bearings, air pumps and hydraulic motors, to determine the classification of a ship, sometimes even the exact vessel.”

The boat has received other very important upgrades, as outlined by the submarine force boss. “HMCS Windsor is also the first of the class to receive the new autopilot system, which supports tasks such as depth-keeping,” he said. “When at periscope depth, one must have enough mast showing above the water to effectively see around, yet not so much that you’re giving away radar detection opportunities.

This is difficult, particularly at low speed. So anything one can do to improve one’s ability to have accurate depth-keeping is tactically relevant.”

Despite all the past travails, the Victoria Class submarines now represent the Royal Canadian Navy’s key contribution to the country’s deployable strategic military assets.

“Our capable long-range, open-ocean submarines are extremely versatile, allowing them to operate [at sea] for periods of up to 45 days,” Capt Robinson pointed out, “and capable of performing various missions. These include: Surveillance of Canada’s coastlines; support to maritime law enforcement and other governmental departments; counter-terrorism; support to Special Operations Forces and constabulary roles in support of Royal Canadian Mounted Police anti-narcotics operations. They can also perform Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ patrols and illegal immigration interdiction operations while they can also handle covert surveillance patrols.”

Asked about further planned upgrades Capt Robinson said that they are to involve the installation of new displays, sonar processing upgrades, control and image displays for search-and-track periscopes and integration with Electronic Support Measure (ESM) systems. Capt Robinson’s prime concern is to ensure the submarines have the highest possible operational readiness and the capacity to carry out their assigned tasks.

“This is quite a challenge,” he observed, “because to attain such a level it is imperative that my personnel have an optimal level of training. We look for very committed people who can cope with the less comfortable standard of life. The hard style of life on board and the personal sacrifices that every submariner has to face each day are critical factors. Anyone wishing to join the submarine force should have a sense of adventure and be highly motivated.”

Canada’s June 2017 defence policy document, entitled ‘Strong, Secure, Engaged’, announced that the Victoria Class submarines will undergo incremental modernization in the mid-2020s, which will ensure their continued effectiveness out to the mid-2030s. This will be accomplished via the Victoria-Class Modernization Project. Work is still being defined but may include: Hull, machinery and electrical (HM&E) maintenance; repair and preservation of the inner and outer hulls; upgrade or replacement alternators and batteries; upgrades to combat data system, hull, flank and towed arrays, communications suite as well as the Electronic Warfare (EW) suite.

By 2035, the four Victoria Class boats will be over 40 years old. As a consequence the RCN is already looking at possible replacements. One of the procurement requests is for (up to 12) new diesel electric submarines. If Canada confirms pursuit of a future submarine programme – yet having no domestic submarine building capability – it will either purchase newer platforms on the international second-hand market or contract with a foreign shipbuilder for the construction of new platforms. It may be that construction involves building some of the modules at Irving Shipyard in Halifax. Likely candidates to design and construct Canada’s future submarine could include Saab Kockums of Sweden, Naval Group (ex-DCNS) of France, Navantia of Spain, Fincantieri of Italy or ThyssenKrupp Marine of Germany.

This article was published in the June 2018 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine. Used with kind permission of the author, magazine Editor and publisher. For more on that publication visit