Interview with Capt(N) Keith Coffen, Director Maritime Equipment Program Management (Submarines)

Canada is partnering with industry to keep its Victoria-class submarines operational into the mid-2030s. These submarines are used by the Royal Canadian Navy in various roles in conducting surveillance, supporting maritime law-enforcement in areas like investigating narcotics trafficking, smuggling and polluting cases, and other domestic and international operations. The Victoria-class submarines are well-equipped and are capable of patrolling over vast areas. 

Recently, Vanguard had the opportunity to speak with Capt(N) Keith Coffen about the Victoria-class submarines. Capt(N) Coffen has been involved with the Victoria-class submarines at almost every step of the way, including service as part of the Submarine Capability Life Extension project detachment in the U.K., service in Fleet Maintenance Facility CAPE SCOTT as PM for Victoria-class Canadianization, service in the United States as Canada’s first liaison officer to the US Navy’s Program Executive Officer – Submarines and Team Submarine, and service in NDHQ’s Materiel Group in a wide array of submarine sustainment roles.  

As a native Newfoundlander, Keith Coffen was commissioned as an officer of the Canadian Armed Forces in 1995. Trained as a Naval Combat Systems Engineer, he served at sea in HMCS Regina and Huron before volunteering for submarine service. He completed his submarine qualification in 2000 aboard HMCS Onondaga and later served as the Combat Systems Engineering Officer on HMCS Windsor from 2004 to 2006.

In non-submarine roles, he served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Engineering Operations in Maritime Forces Atlantic HQ, and briefly as Chief of Staff for the Canadian Surface Combatant project.

Today, Capt(N) Coffen serves in NDHQ’s Materiel Group as Director Maritime Equipment Program Management (Submarines), the office with primary responsibility for submarine platform and equipment sustainment in Canada. 

Given that the Victoria-class submarines have been in service with the RCN for 20 years, what do you see as the challenges ahead to keep them operationally relevant in the second half of its in-service life? 

The Victoria-class was an extremely cost-effective acquisition for Canada, but I know I will not surprise anyone if I note that the sustainment of this fleet in Canada has been a challenge. So for me, the foundation of ensuring that the class is operationally relevant in what you refer to as the second half of its in-service life is to ensure that we can continue to sustain it and keep it operationally available. Along these lines, there are three distinct challenges that I will highlight.    

First is the supply chain. As most of your readers will be aware, the Victoria-class began its life as the Royal Navy’s Upholder-class and were built in the United Kingdom (U.K.) between 1986 and 1992. They were originally envisioned to be a class of 12 or more conventional submarines, but the build program was truncated to four, and then the conventional submarine capability in its entirety was divested by the U.K. Ministry of Defence as part of their Strategic Review process in the early 1990s. Canada’s 1998 decision to acquire the Victoria-class as a replacement for the aging Oberon-class was advantageous from an acquisition point of view in that we acquired the submarines at a fraction of the cost of a new build program. However, the supply chain has proven to be more difficult to manage than I think anyone would have reasonably foreseen at the time. Where there were more than 20 Oberon-class submarines in operation with five different navies, there are only four Victoria-class submarines in operation, and Canada is the only user. The difference in scale is important since the economics of providing support to an ‘orphan’ class of submarines differ substantially from the economics of providing support to a relatively common and widely-used class of submarines. While there is some commonality between the diesel-electric Victoria-class and the U.K. Vanguard-andTrafalgar-class nuclear submarines, there are many items unique to the Victoria-class where Canada is the only user. Additionally, while some of the original U.K. industrial support base remains available to supply and refurbish parts for legacy systems, a significant fraction has moved on to other work, gone out of business, or can deliver services to the Victoria-class but at prices and with schedules that reflect the complexity of interrupting their routine business to do so. This means that, in many cases, legacy system spares take longer and cost more to source and/or service than had ever been the case in the Oberon era, and the effect is to influence costs higher and availability lower.

Secondly, the Canadian capacity to maintain the Victoria-class is limited. The submarines were not built in Canada, and while technical data was transferred to Canada and training was provided under the terms of the Upholderpurchase agreement, experience is much harder to transfer. Except for a few brave British souls who migrated to Canada largely as a consequence of the Victoria-class acquisition, most of our maintenance know-how for the Victoria-class is homegrown – resident in our shipboard maintainers, in the RCN Fleet Maintenance Facilities, and in the Victoria In-service Support Contract (VISSC) Prime contractor, Babcock Canada. We do have the ability to reach back to the UK for technical assistance, but the reality is that the people who knew the Upholder-class in British service are for the most part retired, and many of the companies that contributed to the build program have moved on. Canada is thus largely on its own when it comes to maintenance of the Victoria-class, and our maintenance workforce is both limited in number and armed only with the experience of maintenance done in Canada since the submarines arrived here. This tends to drive maintenance cost and schedule performance, especially in an environment where getting it wrong could result in the loss of a submarine and its crew at sea. 

The third and final challenge relates to the age of the submarines. At the time that Canada’s Oberon-class submarines were withdrawn from service, they were only a few years older than the Victoria-class is now. Despite their age, however, the Victoria-class submarines are in relatively good condition having benefitted from a moderate usage profile to date and an excellent standard of care from our various maintenance service providers. This provides a reasonable foundation upon which to base a decision to continue to safely operate the Victoria-class for years to come while ensuring that we invest appropriately in their upkeep. That said, corrosion, fatigue, and wear will continue as the age of the Victoria-class advances, and can be expected to manifest from time-to-time in ways that are difficult to predict with certainty. Also, we can expect that the degree of obsolescence in legacy systems will increase, further exacerbating supply chain difficulty. So a decision to continue to operate the Victoria-class notwithstanding its advancing age entails some risk that we might experience a failure that proves to be impractical or uneconomical to repair, either of which could alter any plans we may develop around how we will eventually phase the class out of service. 

Our primary means of addressing these challenges is in partnership with the Canadian industry. In the first several years of the Victoria-class, our primary partnership was with British Aerospace (Canada) Ltd., under the aegis of the Engineering and Supply Management Contract (ESMC). Since 2008, we have been partnered with Babcock Canada (formerly the Canadian Submarine Management Group) under the aegis of the VISSC. The ESMC provided and the VISSC continues to provide access to a strong cadre of submarine-experienced engineers and technologists as well as to supply chain specialists who can assist with managing the technical data packages for each submarine, tackle issues around supply chain integrity and obsolescence, and manage integration risks for new equipment in partnership with DND personnel. Also, the VISSC included a 3rd line maintenance component, consistent with the overall DND approach to contract out deep maintenance periods for warships. Additional to the VISSC, there are a number of smaller system-level support arrangements with companies in Canada and worldwide, either direct with DND, through Government to Government agreements, or through Babcock Canada as the VISSC Prime contractor. Our contracting arrangements in general serve to sustain Canada’s submarine capability while promoting Canadian economic growth and development and while sustaining highly skilled Canadian jobs both directly and through the Government of Canada’s Industrial Technological Benefits program.

What impact does Strong, Secure, Engaged has on these challenges?

Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) articulated a requirement to modernize and operate the Victoria-class into the mid-2030s. As I indicated above, I believe there is a reasonable foundation upon which to base a decision to safely operate the Victoria-class for years to come, and our present planning for the future of the Victoria-class is both informed by and aligned with this Defence policy objective.  

To achieve the SSE objective, two essential lines of effort are required. The first line of effort is around ensuring that we extend our sustainment arrangements, meaning primarily that we need to replace the VISSC with a successor. The VISSC successor, which we refer to as VISSC II for simplicity, will be the cornerstone of the effort to ensure the Victoria-class remains available for operations until the mid-2030s. Of note, Canada will be stepping through the process of defining requirements and expectations for the new in-service support arrangement with all pre-qualified potential bidders for VISSC II. We anticipate that the VISSC II development process will include various rounds of consultation with the pre-qualified bidders as we move forward.   

The second line of effort is around ensuring that the Victoria-class remains operationally relevant into the mid-2030s, meaning primarily that we need to define and implement the Victoria-class Modernization (VCM) project. VCM will ensure that the submarines are not just operational, but also operationally relevant into the mid-2030s against a variety of evolving threats. The overall plan for VCM is to move its major projects into the Definition phase this year and next.     

After a two-year hiatus from operations that was preceded by an intensive global deployment of two submarines, are you happy with the current maintenance cycle or do you anticipate further changes as the submarines get older?

In 2017, the maintenance program plan underpinning Victoria-class sustainment was shifted from a ‘6+2’ plan (6 years of operations (including scheduled maintenance opportunities), + 2 years for an Extended Docking Work Period (EDWP)) to a ‘9+3’ plan (9 years of operations, + 3 years for an EDWP). There were several drivers for this, but a key one related to our experience with the first three EDWPs completed in Canada (one at each RCN Fleet Maintenance Facility, one under VISSC), which demonstrated fairly conclusively that the two-year EDWP objective was not one we would likely be able to realize, mostly because we do not have the capacity to execute the required maintenance in such a short time. After significant internal discussion, the three-year EDWP objective was chosen as a stretch goal, even noting that our fastest EDWP up to that point was closer to five years in duration. That said, within the overarching maintenance program plan that supports the SSE objective to maintain the Victoria-class and operate it until the mid-2030s, success means holding the line as much as is practicable on the three-year EDWP target. It also means holding a hard line on safety while being prepared to make trade-space decisions around other priorities in the context of limited human and financial resources.

Are you seeing supply chain issues in sourcing equipment spares for the submarines? If so, how can the Canadian industry help?

As I noted above, the supply chain is a key issue for us as we look to the future of the Victoria-class. We have issues, but in partnership with industry, we have been able to address the most critical ones, up to and including taking action to replace systems that have become too difficult to support. If you recall the very first thing we did with the Victoria-class when it arrived in Canada was to “Canadianize” it. While Canadianization was intended primarily to integrate the Mk 48 torpedo, modernize other capabilities, and make some modest changes and upgrades to habitability, a corollary benefit was that older and difficult-to-support legacy equipment was replaced with modern and supportable equipment. We have continued similar work in a piecemeal fashion ever since, and have significantly improved the capability of the submarine while reducing its obsolescence. A particular Canadian success story is the Victoria-class Autopilot system, where we replaced the legacy system with a Canadian one designed by L3 Harris. VCM will have similar corollary benefits, and we also have a number of smaller obsolescence initiatives in varying states of maturity that may result in engagements with Canadian industry going forward.

The Victoria-class Modernization has introduced 24 projects of varying sizes that are designed to increase the capability of these submarines. How is this programme unfolding and has the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on schedule?

VCM is in Options Analysis and continues to progress notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic. While there have been some delays, our stakeholders and partners in the Public Service and in Industry have demonstrated a remarkable degree of resiliency in being able to continue to advance VCM even in this altered paradigm with vital elements of the team working almost exclusively from home. At this stage, we anticipate that the first two VCM major projects, Periscope and Flank Array replacement, will enter Definition phase later this year. In parallel, 10 smaller VCM projects, mostly habitability improvements, should move to Implementation. The remaining major projects should move to Definition Phase in 2021. 

What are your concerns with regards to the VCM programme, vis-à-vis timing, and scheduled Extended Docking Work Periods and how can industry help? 

Proper project management requires considerable and detailed work in order to move projects through their approval gates in a timely fashion, and yet we are working in the context of a relatively fixed future for the class which translates into fewer opportunities to install VCM equipment than we might like. Also, depending on when we can install equipment in each submarine, VCM equipment may not be used for as long as we might like before the submarine is withdrawn from service. As VCM projects move to Implementation, we will look to Industry to be fairly aggressive with the delivery of technical data packages from which integration specifications can be developed, and with system deliveries, noting that delays will cost us installation opportunities.

What do you wish to see from industry as to useable (and affordable) technology initiatives, particularly those regarding power generation and storage? (We are not suggesting that the Air Independent Power (AIP) system be retrofitted).

Again, continuity of the supply chain is key. As the business landscape continues to change, we’ve just emerged from a relatively significant supply chain disruption related to our main batteries and we are in the midst of others. We fully expect to encounter similar situations over the next decade and a half, but I am confident that Canadian ingenuity will prevail, whether that means working with partners in Canada to find new foreign sources of supply or developing fully ‘made in Canada’ solutions.   

Specific to VCM, there are three projects that relate to the area of interest you’ve identified here: Battery Health Monitoring, Improved Power Storage Density, and Energy Efficiency Improvements (Reduced Power Consumption). For the first project, we are in the market for a battery surveillance system that will provide relatively complete performance data on each cell without having to put a sailor in the battery tanks regularly to collect it. For the second, we are tracking developments in the application of Lithium-ion and Nickel-Zinc battery technologies to submarine applications, and provided there is a feasible solution for the Victoria-class available in the next few years, we may acquire a replacement for our existing Lead-acid batteries.   Finally, under the Energy Efficiency Improvements project, we are interested in fairly diverse aspects of energy efficiency such as fairness of form, more efficient electrical transformers, and potentially the use of LED lighting in place of fluorescent or incandescent fixtures.    

Are there are any other projects that you foresee coming in under the VCM umbrella?

We tend to see VCM as a relatively fixed group of projects, and do not forecast further additions. However, if something comes up that really should be taken on, we would examine whether to expand the scope of VCM or simply initiate another project outside the scope of VCM. Opportunities are narrowing, however, as we implement VCM, one of our constraints is that VCM acquisitions need to be integrated into the submarine along with the deliverables from a number of pre-VCM projects or any others that become necessary as a consequence of our continued obsolescence management efforts. This is not necessarily easy to do, since as I’ve noted previously, time is against us from the point of view of taking on more equipment change projects in the Victoria-class.    

How do you see Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) being integrated into Victoria-class submarine operations?

UUVs are an exciting technology area with a great deal of development happening worldwide, including significant development here in Canada. At this stage, however, we do not envision a UUV operating from the Victoria-class submarine. We may eventually operate an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) from the Victoria-class, and in fact there is a specific VCM project that aims to provide a submarine-launched UAV capability to the submarine force.

And finally, what’s the status of the submarine rescue systems, such as the Submarine Escape and Rescue Capability (SERC), and what opportunities are there for the Canadian industry?

Our most pressing concern over the past several years has been the Submarine Escape Immersion Equipment (SEIE) suits. SEIE suits serve as a sort of ‘last resort’ option for surviving crew members to egress from a disabled submarine trapped at depth, with pressurized submersible rescue vehicles as the preferred option. While we have had supply chain difficulties with the suits in the past, we have a contract with Survitec Canada for the acquisition of 600 new SEIE Mk 11 suits, and we look forward to taking delivery in the near future. Moving forward, there will be intermittent requirements to resupply our O2 generation and CO2 scrubbing stores, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (as well as a submarine-launched EPIRB variant), Expendable Communication Buoys, and distress pyrotechnic stores as well as one more foreseeable requirement to acquire SEIE suits.