In the days following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8 2014, many were surprised at the degree of difficulty experienced by the search team. Despite international cooperation and the use of multiple, redundant modern technologies for tracking the vessels that traverse our skies and oceans, little headway was made in locating any trace of the plane or in determining the cause of the tragedy. For many the disappearance became a mystery largely because it went against everything we had been taught to believe about our increasingly interconnected world. In fact, such events are only possible in the few regions around the globe where gaps exist in radar coverage and communications networks. These regions are shrinking every day. In this day and age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to disappear.

For those whose stock-in-trade is invisibility, this means it is time to evolve. In fact, this increasing interconnectedness is one of the factors driving the development of the old cat and mouse game of Underwater Warfare (UWW). In 1998, before the government of Canada agreed to purchase four Upholder-class submarines from the Royal Navy, it seemed to many observers that Canada was getting out of that game entirely. Even after the deal was struck, it was several years and several costly upgrades later that the first of the newly branded Victoria-class submarines entered active service in 2003. To date, it has not been smooth sailing. Fears abound regarding the safety of the vessels, stemming from a deadly fire on board the HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004 and an incident in 2012 during which the HMCS Corner Brook struck the ocean floor. The controversy has been compounded by the knowledge that the formerly British submarines were commissioned in the 1980s and will likely need replacing in the mid to late 2020s. But how are they performing now?

Though currently in what the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) refers to as Extended Docking Work Period (EDWP), the HMCS Corner Brook deployed in 2008 and again in 2011 as part of Op CARIBBE, earning the crew the first operational service medals awarded for service in Victoria-class submarines. The HMCS Victoria itself followed suit in 2014. Working with the United States in joint exercises, Canadian submarines have received praise for their contributions as simulated enemy vessels. Though not as sleek or as swift as their nuclear cousins, the diesel-electric boats are quieter and more manoeuvrable, providing excellent coverage in the shallow coastal waters known as the littoral zone. In fact, according to Phil Webster, a retired naval Captain and former Commanding Officer of conventional submarines, a towed array DDH and the RCN East Coast mine warfare and submarine forces, the RCN has recently upgraded the sensors on board the vessels to bring them in line with state of the art modern standards. Instead of monostatic sonar devices where the signal is both sent and received from the same point, the modern BQQ-10 bow sonar combined with the submarine towed array (SUBTASS) act as a bi-static system. However, for Canada to truly play a part in the future of Underwater Warfare, this is only the beginning.

Though UWW has always been collaborative, the extent and speed of that collaboration is increasing. According to Rick Gerbrecht, the President of ATLAS ELEKTRONIK Canada, sensors on board surface ships, submarines and aircraft are increasingly becoming part of a broader network including unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), extended endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and land-based facilities. This means that modern low frequency sonar is increasingly being used in multi-static configurations. The increased detection ranges of low frequency sonar enable a wider area to be actively monitored. Additionally, any platforms equipped with passive sensing equipment can make use of the active low frequency sonar pulses emitted by allied surface ships and aircraft equipped with dipping sonar to detect targets while they themselves remain undetected. For Canada, the recent sensor upgrade to the CP 140 Aurora fleet and the replacement of the aging Sea King with the Cyclone maritime helicopter is a good start, but according to Webster, the CANTASS towed sonar array and the SQR 510 medium frequency sonar system onboard the Halifax-class frigates are also scheduled for an upgrade. In a networked world, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Much has been made of the strategic benefits in being a card carrying member of the “sub club.” In this day and age, gaining privileged access to intelligence reports and other shared data is becoming increasingly important. Even public data is beginning to be of interest. In August 2014, Matthew Braga wrote an article for The Atlantic about NEPTUNE, an underwater observatory operated by Ocean Networks Canada in the North-East Pacific. NEPTUNE consists of a network of sensors, cameras and hydrophones designed to monitor ocean activity. In the interest of scientific advancement and academic openness, the raw data captured by the various recording devices is published online. In addition to whale songs and signs of seismic and volcanic activity, NEPTUNE’s hydrophones also occasionally capture the telltale sounds of Canadian and American submarines attempting to negotiate the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As a result, the RCN sometimes diverts the data collected by these sensors to a military server for processing prior to distribution. This is done often enough and at random enough intervals that the diversion of data itself does not divulge the presence of naval exercises. NEPTUNE is just one such experiment, but dozens more exist and they are joined by others every day.

Military intelligence operators in secure facilities are expected to combine the data collected from sensors such as these with that from a range of military and public sources to paint an accurate picture of situational awareness in real time. With this information being provided back to commanders both ashore and afloat, the possibility of true anti-submarine warfare (AWS) coverage in a naval theatre of operations is becoming a reality. Likewise, missing out on shared intelligence could leave the RCN and the Royal Canadian Air Force mired in the twentieth century despite paying top dollar for twenty-first century equipment.

The HMCS Victoria’s recent use of the Mk48 heavy weight torpedo at the international Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises in 2012 marked a first for its class and was touted as a success by the RCN. However, the cost overruns encountered while modifying the Victoria-class vessels to accommodate the Mk48 illustrate all too well the danger typical of half-measures. Originally intended as a means of cutting costs by avoiding having to purchase the British Spearfish torpedo, the modifications encountered difficulties and ended up costing as much as the new armaments themselves would have, in addition to limiting any future use of other types of weaponry such as the Harpoon anti-ship missile.

There are currently a number of other developments on the UWW front worth watching. Modern maritime patrol aircraft and ASW helicopters are being equipped with more advanced high performance sonobuoys. These buoys can be networked with the sensors on board surface ships, maintaining their usefulness long after the aircraft that deployed them have left the area. As mentioned, UUVs and UAVs are also becoming more common as part of persistent surveillance and detection grids. Even shore-based facilities, particularly in key chokepoints like the Strait of Juan de Fuca, have a role to play in the growing network of UWW.

UWW is, more than anything, a group effort. If the Canadian military is to successfully carry out the task of patrolling the world’s longest coastline, it will need investment by the Government of Canada in all of these technologies. Failing that, the RCAF and RCN must, at minimum, remain interoperable with the equipment used by their American counterparts. The benefits of a growing sensor network cannot be realized without the ability and the permission to tap into that network.

Neglecting a key military capability until it is suddenly required can come at enormous cost. The Canadian Armed Forces learned this sometimes harsh lesson with the belated acquisition of the Leopard 2 Main Battle Tank in 2007. The logistical struggle involved in reviving and maintaining a timeworn capability can be both complicated and expensive, but so too is scrapping a capability wholesale after spending the money to retrofit it. No one wants to see a repeat of the fate of the HMCS Bonaventure.

Once the Halifax-class mid-life retrofit is complete, the frigates will join the RCN’s newly upgraded Victoria-class submarines and the RCAF’s Aurora and Cyclone fleets as part of a world class UWW package. However, it won’t be long before the submarines themselves will need replacement. If we wait until circumstances demand action, history suggests we will be forced to pay double. In the case of the future of underwater warfare, one thing is clear: The old Canadian military pastime of making due with worn technology will not cut it in an interconnected battlespace. Either we pay the cost of staying current, or we choose to get out of the game.

Edward Speicher is a former Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Officer and writes about Canadian defence topics.