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Canada’s Critical Submarine Requirements
The crew members from Her Majesty's Canadian Ship (HMCS) CHICOUTIMI work on deck as they slip from the jetty at Her Majesty's Naval Base (HMNB) Clyde in Faslane, Scotland. The submarine will be tugged to the EIDE TRANSPORTER, a semi-submersible self-propelled transport vessel. Photo : Cpl Robert Bottrill
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Canada’s Critical Submarine Requirements 

Today nearly 90% of all traded goods are carried across the world’s oceans, over 11 billion tons a year or roughly 1.5 tons for every person on the planet. The world’s shipping lanes are the arteries of an integrated global economy connecting the world like at no other time in history. In Canada, our economy, prosperity, and very way of life are inextricably tied to the sea.

We are rightly proud of Canada’s role in helping to shape today’s world and the role we play in continuing to protect those achievements while building towards a better future. However, the freedom and prosperity enjoyed today is not guaranteed tomorrow.

Each and every day, the men and women of Canada’s Armed Forces protect Canada and promote peace and stability the world over. Our navy, working alongside allies and partners around the world, helps protect and preserve the free, unencumbered use of the sea. Submarines are critical to this effort. Their stealth, persistence, and lethality, bring capabilities and strategic options to a government that no other platform can. When it comes to safeguarding the arteries of our integrated global economy, submarines are the ultimate guarantor.  

Master Sailor Guillaume Rivard, a Sonar Operator aboard HMCS CALGARY, compiles and analyzes acoustic information from shipborne sensors during simulated anti-submarine warfare while sailing in the Coral Sea during Exercise Talisman Sabre as part of Operation PROJECTION, July 20, 2021. Photo: Corporal Lynette Ai Dang, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship CALGARY

As recent as 5 or 6 years ago, this Mahanian appeal for submarines would likely have sufficed. A direct appeal to our prosperity, a hat tip to the influence of sea power on economics, and repetition of many historical arguments given to support or defend submarine acquisition.  But, the world has changed. While these arguments remain perfectly valid and indeed, still important reasons for investing in submarines, they do little to convey the complexity of today’s security environment. This approach stops short of discussing new, real and ‘unique-to-Canada’ threats. It stops short of fully describing the revitalized and increasingly important role for submarines in a globe made smaller by longer range conventional weapons, a defence problem made more difficult by an over the pole threat AS WELL AS a from the sea threat.

In recent years the growing complexity of the global security situation and the emergence of new, real, and ‘unique-to-Canada’ threats has given submarines and their unique combination of capabilities new relevance. In today’s tremendously complex security environment, for Canada to actively participate in its own defence, it must be able to contribute integrated, interoperable, and interchangeable with our American allies along all three coasts, above, on, and beneath the ocean’s surface. 

North America’s most difficult threats, those form the sea, those meant to circumvent NORAD’s northward facing history, are managed best by submarines. The return to a bygone era of strategic competition between superpowers is a competition where Canada is a neighbour, an ally, a geographic buffer, and given integrated infrastructure with the US, is seen by adversaries as a valid military target. This modern great power competition is a competition where victory looks like the status quo and where the pernicious effect of defeat will fundamentally change our way of life.

Since the 16th of February 1815 when the United States Senate ratified the treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, Canada’s forces have only fought abroad. In the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Afghanistan and a myriad of peacekeeping operations, our ability to get from Canada to where we were needed was never in question. Shifts in geopolitics and advanced in precision, long-range weapon technology mean Canada can no longer rely on expeditionary forces to contain hostilities in far off lands. Over the past two decades, while we executed that exact strategy, concentrating on the capabilities, training, and tactics we needed to fight in failed and failing states, competitors invested, trained, and advanced their military capabilities. We remained focused on forward operations – the way we always have. They focused on undermining our previously uncontested ability to move within, and deploy from, North America. Advanced technology, substantive investment, and well-meaning treaties like Open Skies allowed competitors to target our most critical infrastructure. Canada and the United States are no longer sanctuaries, we are not immune to conventional attack – competitors have solved deterrence by geography. With that, our ability to conduct operations far from home is no longer a guarantee, our ability to keep Canada safe solely by fighting abroad is gone. Canada’s ability to deploy forces beyond our own borders can and will be contested by Russia or China with weapons systems that have already been used operationally and to devastating effect in Syria and Ukraine. 

Paradoxically, the threat to Canadian soil comes as no surprise, and a complete surprise, to the average Canadian. Since August 29, 1949, when the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear bomb, Canadians have lived under the dark cloud of nuclear annihilation. However, it was known that a nuclear attack on North America would be met in kind. Mutually Assured Destruction kept a fragile peace. What has changed is that the country is now vulnerable to attacks below the nuclear threshold – from over the pole as well as from ships and submarines in the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans. The threat axis is all around.

An attack on North America is no longer a desperate, suicidal act but rather a valid strategy designed to erode public will, fracture alliances, undermine power projection capability and create economic chaos. This is a widely publicized component of Russia’s strategic thought. 

To remain a relevant ally and partner, to continue to prosper from economic relationships, the foundation of which is our shared responsibility for North American security, Canada must modernize its defences, including a robust RCN – on the surface and below. We must protect our ability to operate when and where we choose. Competitors and their current and emerging military capabilities have pushed Canada’s national psyche towards the base of Maslow’s hierarchy. Where we once worried about international esteem and exporting values, we must now turn to the basic needs of safety and security.

As a result, Canada and the United States have embarked on a long overdue effort to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) a critical and necessary part of our shared defence. However, while absolutely necessary, the ability of competitors to strike from any point on the compass means that a robust north-looking defence network will not, in and of itself, be sufficient. Without a technologically advanced, highly capable navy, including a leading-edge submarine fleet, Canada risks creating a 21st century Maginot Line, including its false sense of security.

The submarine force which Canada needs must be based on, and evaluated by, the three core submarine capabilities: stealth, persistence, and lethality. After safety, nothing is more important to a submarine than stealth. Given the relatively slow and limited duration of diesel submarine sprint ability, not being detected – stealth – is survivability. Stealth not only includes quiet propulsion systems, but also quiet ancillary machinery, effective control systems and autopilots to keep depth in all types of weather to minimize control surface transients. More important is the ability to do this at periscope depth. To avoid broaching or exposing ‘too much’ mast and providing a non-acoustic detection opportunity to waiting radars or watching eyes. World leading sensors and prediction tools are critical to understand the acoustic and electro-magnetic environments, minimal radar cross sections for all masts, periscopes that can make sense of the surrounding environment quickly, by day and night, and electrical generation, distribution and storage capabilities that minimize the requirement to run generators and risk all types of counter-detection. Stealth starts on the drawing board but is only fully realized when a well-designed, well-built, and well-maintained submarine is in the hands of a well-trained crew. Canada’s next submarine must have the stealth characteristics that provide acoustic advantage against the world’s quietest submarines. This includes the sustained investment needed for through-life acoustic husbandry and an increasingly operational mindset of submarine maintainers.  

Persistence is equally vital. Submarines must surveil large areas of ocean and observe visually, electronically, or acoustically while remaining undetected. Where aircraft can loiter for hours, a ship for days, submarines can loiter and observe – alone and undetected – for weeks on end. When no one knows you are there, they don’t mask their behaviour – you see truth. Submarines carry the fuel, rations, spare parts, and technical competencies needed for extended, unsupported missions.

UIHer Majesty’s Canadian Submarine VICTORIA sails in the vicinity of Esquimalt Harbour while wearing a poppy on its sail in Esquimalt, British Columbia on 5 November 2021. Photo: S1 Kendric Grasby, Canadian Armed Forces Photo

Projecting this capability forward creates its own considerations. For Canadian submarines, almost everywhere is far, even domestic areas of operation. As an example: Halifax to Faslane is about 2,400 nm.  Honolulu is about the same distance from Victoria. Halifax to Resolute Bay is 300 nm further than both of these far more hospitable destinations. What used to be considered lengthy foreign deployments will be, for Arctic capable submarines, routine domestic operations. Any future submarine program with Arctic aspirations must build submarines with the range to get to the Arctic, operate for a reasonable period of time, and return home. To put that in perspective, at a ‘not-very-covert’ transit speed of 7.5 knots it would take 30 days just in transit time for a trip from Halifax to Resolute Bay and back. Alternatively, any RCN Arctic facility could – perhaps should – have the ability to support submarines – an approach that would open the doors to a wider range of design options and likely lower overall program cost.

A submarine’s lethal capability is unmatched by anything else at sea. A single heavyweight torpedo can destroy a ship or enemy submarine. In an age of small navies, small fleets and tight defence budgets, the risk presented by a single submarine’s absence from imagery can change how governments choose to employ maritime force. One need only consider the retreat of the Argentinian navy to its territorial waters after HMS Conqueror sunk the cruiser Belgrano during the Falklands War. As Admiral Sandy Woodward, a former submariner, noted in his book 100 Days:

What no one knew then was that Christopher Wreford-Brown’s [CO of HMS Conqueror) old Mark-8 torpedoes, appropriately as old in design as the Belgrano herself, had sent the navy of Argentina home for good. Unwittingly we had achieved at least half of what we had set out to do from those days at Ascension: we had made the Argentinians send out their fleet and a single sinking by a British SSN had then defeated it. We would never see any of their big warships again.[1]

The combination of stealth, persistence, and lethality are just as attractive – if not more so – to our competitors. Submarines were a persistent focus of the Soviet Navy. Former Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union and Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, Admiral Sergey Gorshkov noted in his book The Sea Power of The State that submarine construction “made possible in a very short time to increase sharply the strike possibilities of our fleet, to form a considerable counter-balance to the main forces of the fleet of our enemy.”[2]  

Today, like 40 years ago, submarines carry an incredible anti-surface and anti-submarine punch. What has changed in the intervening years is the pairing of cruise missile technology with submarine persistence and stealth, creating a new dimension to submarine lethality. No longer are a submarine’s conventional weapons limited to destroying ships and other submarines – critical infrastructure, economic centers, transportation nodes, and a host of other targets ashore are all potential targets for a cruise missile armed submarine.

The most modern Russian cruise missile armed submarines are the Severodvinsk-class.

In 2019, Pentagon officials told the news program “60 Minutes” that the Severodvinsk, with its advanced quieting technology, had sailed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2018 and remained undetected for weeks at a time. A modified Severodvinsk entered service last year and is even quieter. A Business Insider article from 2021 interviewed both the Commander of the 2nd Fleet and the Commander of US Naval Submarine Forces on the threat posed by today’s Russian submarines. Commander Second Fleet, VAdm Andrew Lewis commented, “our ships can no longer expect to operate in a safe haven on the East Coast or merely cross the Atlantic unhindered.”[3] VAdm Daryl Caudle, Commander US Submarine Forces expressed a similar concern stating: “It is pretty well known now that our homeland is no longer a sanctuary, so we have to be prepared here to conduct high-end combat operations in local waters.”[4]

If the RCN is going to be able to participate in future conflict, it must be prepared for ASW action in the approaches to Halifax, the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and the Canadian Arctic. No other platform is better suited to detect, track, classify and engage a submarine than another submarine. If the RCN is to be a relevant future force, it must have submarines. 

A future submarine force is needed not just to facilitate access to the high seas for the RCN, not just to conduct traditional submarine missions, but rather, a future Canadian submarine will be part of the very fabric of a continental defence network, needed to protect Canadians and Canada’s sovereign territory against missile strikes from the sea. As General Glenn VanHerck, Commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM stated in his March 8th written testimony to the House Armed Services Committee:

“Russia has fielded the first two of their nine planned Severodvinsk-class guided missile submarines, which are designed to deploy undetected within cruise missile range of our coastlines to threaten critical infrastructure during an escalating crisis. This challenge will be compounded in the next few years as the Russian Navy adds the Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile to the Severodvinsk’s arsenal”[5]

Competitors understand the importance of submarines and how these can be paired with emerging missile technology to keep Canada, the United States and, indeed, NATO out of regional conflicts. As Canada reinvests in the navy for the threats of the future, the nation would do well to invest in the asymmetric capabilities that will keep competitors away from its shores. To this end, submarines remain the best platform to execute the entirety of the ASW kill-chain. 

A few years ago, I was privileged to attend a yearlong international program at the United States Naval War College. Our professors consistently hammered home the value of leaning on the great masters. While the writings of Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett and others seem dated to many, they have a way of bringing clarity to the most challenging military problems. Oddly enough, the writings of a Prussian Army General seem exceedingly appropriate to a Canadian submarine acquisition, and to the Canadian national psyche – especially in dangerous times such as today.  In the opening paragraphs of the opening chapter of the opening book of On War, Clausewitz remarked:

Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat without too much bloodshed and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst. The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of intellect. If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand.”[6]

Since early, Canada has witnessed the world return to the brutality of war. We have seen competitors stop at nothing to achieve their aims. In this new world, the nation must provide its soldiers, sailors, and aviators with the tools they need to prevail in the brutality of war. As the United State’s first president said during his first address to both Houses of Congress “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”[7] Today’s world is too dangerous not to be well prepared.

In a Mahanian context, submarines remain the ultimate guarantor of trade, the protector of the great global commons. In today’s security environment where adversaries hold our power generation and distribution capabilities transportation hubs, economic centres, force projection capabilities, and other critical infrastructure is at risk every day. Submarines are both our greatest deterrent and our last line of defence. They are the best, if not only, way to defend against a devastating adversary submarine capability that, without submarines of our own, may only be unmasked when they launch their highly capable weapons systems into the heart of North America. 

Canada’s next defence policy must rapidly adjust to a world that is armed with the most sophisticated weapons yet, at the same time, a world that has reverted to the aggressive behaviors and failed diplomacy of years gone by. As Canada writes its new defence policy, it is essential to commit the funding and resources needed to rapidly rebuild its defences to keep Canadians safe. These investments must include the tools necessary to not only understand what is happening above, on, and beneath our maritime approaches but the ability to act decisively. This only comes with a continued submarine capability.


Reprinted with permission, Starshell, Summer 2022, Issue 95, Naval Association of Canada

Jamie Clarke, a native of Sarnia Ontario, is a retired RCN Commodore, the grandson of a First World War Army Officer and a third generation Canadian Armed Forces member. During his 34 and half years in the RCN, he saw service during the first Gulf War, specialized in navigation and eventually saw the light and volunteered for the Submarine Service.

In the fall of 2003, Jamie became the first Canadian and only second foreign student on the United States Navy’s Submarine Perspective Commanding Officer’s course. In the fall of 2004, he became the first Canadian to attend the Norwegian Submarine Command Course after which, he was fortunate to enjoy an extended, split command tour that saw him command both VICTORIA and CORNER BROOK. His other commands include the Halifax Class frigate ST. JOHN’s, the Fourth Maritime Operations Group, and the Canadian Submarine Force. His final posting in the RCN was as the Deputy Director of Strategy, Policy and Plans at NORAD Headquarters in Colorado Springs.   

A 2008 graduate of the Canadian Forces College and a 2018 graduate of the United States Naval War College’s international Naval Command College, Jamie also holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario where he majored in mathematics and Master’s degrees from the University of New Brunswick (engineering) and the Royal Military College of Canada (Defence Studies). 

Jamie retired from the Canadian Armed Forces in July of 2021 and joined Lockheed Martin the following month.


[1] J. Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander. pg. 228.

[2] S. G. Gorshkov, The Sea Power of the State. pg. 190

[3] B. Brimelow, Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet just got the first of a new class of submarines that has the US Navy worried (Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet just got the first of a new class of submarines that has the US Navy worried (businessinsider.nl),) accessed 28 June 2022

[4] Ibid

[5] G. VanHerck, Statement of General Glen D. VanHerck, United States Air Force, Commander United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defence Command before The Senate Armed Services Committee 24 March 2022 (USNORTHCOM and NORAD 2022 Posture Statement FINAL (SASC).pdf (senate.gov)) pg., 6,7 accessed 28 June 2022

[6] C. Von Clausewitz, On War. pg. 83

[7] G. Washington, First Annual Address to both Houses of Congress, Friday January 08, 1790. First Annual Address, to both Houses of Congress – Friday, January 08, 1790 · George Washington’s Mount Vernon accessed 28 June 2022.

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