Archive for the Canada Category

Canadian Military Procurement, Part 1: SUBMARINES

Posted in Canada on May 7, 2013 by maccaulay

As some of you may or may not know (I didn’t know until a few days after it happened), Canada’s troubled diesel submarine fleet took another hit this week when HMCS Victoria,┬ánewly out of refit, was downed with a faulty diesel generator. Also in the news of Canadian defense procurement is their possible finalization of a Search-and-Rescue aircraft to replace their aging fleet of C-130s and DHC-8s. So I’ve decided to do a multi-part series on Canadian defense procurement, it’s history, and it’s problems. We’ll start with the submarines, and by all means I apologize for any spittle that flies out of the screen and onto your keyboard. I’m going to try to put this in chronological order, as well as I can from memory. Because there’s a LOT of stuff to remember with these things.

The Canadians were looking to buy new subs in the mid-90s. We approached them to sell some Los Angeles-class SSNs, but the Canadians declined: they had to deal with USN submarines in the Northwest Passage as well as Soviet ones and didn’t feel like operating stuff that we already knew all the ins and outs of. So the British offered them SSNs (the Conqueror class, I think) in the 1990s, but we shot that down because the reactors were developed with American technology and we wanted to sell them our Los Angeles boats. The French came up and said they’d take their diesel powered Rubis-class and modify it to use a nuclear reactor, turning an SSK into an SSN. The Canadian government (and the Canadian Navy) loved it: SSNs allowed much longer loiter time under the ice, and let the RCN expand it’s patrol zone into the Northwest Passage to patrol against other subs. And it’s here, ladies and gentlemen, that our story takes a drastic turn for the suck. See, some folks (who I’m sure were well-meaning) decided that there was NO WAY IN HELL the Canadian Navy was going to operate nuclear powered submarines. “They’re unsafe,” they said! “We’re anti-nuclear energy! …unless it’s selling a CANDU reactor to China!” And so, instead of buying SSNs that could patrol under the ice but would be powered by nuclear generators, the Canadian Navy went with SSKs that would be powered by clean, safe…gas. They ended up buying 4 used boats of the Upholder class SSKs from the Royal Navy that were being decommissioned as opposed to being upgraded for further service. When they were brought into Canadian service the class named was changed to Victoria. They were immediately found to have substandard welds on the interior piping, requiring extensive work (on the Canadian dime) before they could even be accepted for service.

And now, about 30 years and almost 3 billion dollars later…

HMCS Chicoutimi was handed over to Canadian service in 2004, and promptly caught on fire on it’s way back to Canada. They had to declare an emergency in the vicinity of Iceland, and some of the crew was evacuated out because of smoke inhalation. They’re still paying medical bills to most of the folks who were on board when it happened.

HMCS Corner Brook hit the sea floor and dented it’s pressure hull, which means it might be completely incapable of ever going to see again.

HMCS Windsor, as we can see, has a faulty diesel generator. Which is amazing because it just went through a 200 million dollar refit. And that’s lowballing the numbers: I’ve read as high as 220 million. The refit itself was supposed to be done two years ago, and they just got it into the water last year.

HMCS Victoria…what can we say about the Victoria that hasn’t already been said by hundreds of technicians across the breadth of the Canadian coasts? During it’s refit after being transferred to Canadian service, some engineers were getting ready to do work on it. As it costs a lot to run the diesel generators and the batteries were drained for the trip, they hooked up a regular DC (direct current) generator to some of the panels in order to power them for regular checks. That was apparently the wrong move, because the electronics on the sub were so old they weren’t wired for direct current, and started frying themselves.

And that brings me to a big part of the problem that keeps coming up when the Canadian government waffles on procurement: half of the hurdles they have to jump and half the money they have to spend doesn’t come from development. It’s the inverse: they have to spend money buying antique parts that no one else uses because their equipment is so old.

Before the RCN modernized it’s frigates for Libyan duty, they were still buying tubes from a Russian company for some of the displays because it was the only company left that still made them.

They spend so much time waffling, they end up spending more trying to save money than they would if they actually just made a prompt decision and stuck with it.