Victoria-Class Modernization: The Way Forward
As the world grows more contested, continental defence grows in significance, of which submarines are part of a valuable tool set. Canada continues to invest in the Victoria-Class submarines and expand the fleet’s capabilities. Recognizing that the end of their service lives will take Canada to the late 2030s there is discussion and the announcement of a small team to look at the future Canadian Patrol Submarine Project. The future submarine capability must accurately reflect the needs of the Royal Canadian Navy for the 21st century.
In May of this year, Capt(N) Alex Kooiman was appointed as the Commander Canadian Submarine Force, recently Vanguard had the opportunity to speak with him. A native of Pointe Claire Québec, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy as an ROTP cadet in 1988. After completing initial Naval Warfare Officer training in 1993, he served in the Canadian Submarines Okanagan, Windsor, Corner Brook, and Victoria, as well the Dutch submarine HNLMS Walrus. He commanded HMCS Corner Brook between 2009 and 2011 and later HMCS Victoria between 2013 and 2015. He also served as Commander Submarine Sea Training between 2015 and 2016. He assumed the position as Maritime Forces Pacific Chief of Staff Plans and Operations in July 2021 and held that position until May 2022.
Q Can you please give the readers an assessment of the current state of the Victoria-class submarine fleet and, as we are now coming out of the pandemic, how have the support organizations (both military and commercial) have coped with availability and capability?
It has been a busy year for the Canadian Submarine Force (CANSUBFOR). His Majesty’s Canadian Submarine (HMCS) Victoria, which returned to sea in September 2020, spent much of 2021 conducting crew readiness training and force generation of new submariners from the West Coast. Victoria is now alongside and preparations are underway for its scheduled Extended Docking Work Period (EDWP). HMCS Corner Brook is nearing completion of its EDWP, led by its in-service support contractor, and we expect the submarine will soon complete its camber dive milestone in preparation for its return to sea this winter. HMCS Chicoutimi is in the midst of its Transition Docking Work Period (TDWP), which will align itsfuture maintenance periods to a cycle of nine years of operations followed by a three-year docking work period. This cycle will increase reliability by doing more corrective maintenance. Additionally, opportunities to install new capabilities or upgrade equipment during these scheduled maintenance periods will be created, notably to sonar and torpedo upgrades.
On the East Coast, HMCS Windsor took part in Exercise CUTLASS FURY in autumn 2021, providing excellent training for the submarine, surface vessels and participating air crews alike before returning to sea in June 2022. Over the summer, Windsor’s crew successfully completed sonar and torpedo trials at a specialized testing facility in the Bahamas. Itssuccess was a testament to the enterprise approach to submarine safety in operations. The staff at our Fleet Maintenance Facilities, Formation Technical Authorities, the Technical and Systems Authorities in Ottawa, and our industry partners here at home, as well as in the United States and the United Kingdom, worked together to deliver this capability. They did so while adapting to challenges posed by the ongoing COVID pandemic, and for that they have earned my respect and admiration.
Q Personnel and training issues are always a critical path to maintaining a submarine capability – given that the pandemic restrictions have had a significant impact on fleet training and operations of navies worldwide, what are your concerns and plans for Submarine Force rejuvenation post-pandemic?
During the COVID Pandemic, there was no loss of at sea training capacity. The number of personnel requiring training is relatively small and we were able to quickly modify and adjust our training program so all courses were running at full capacity. However, when there were unscheduled maintenance delays or unforeseen instructor shortages, some modifications of the training schedule were necessary. Fortunately, CANSUBFOR has very passionate and flexible sailors who quickly adapted to these minor changes in order to ensure training was successfully completed.
Training continued with rigid safety measures in place, including isolation before sailing. This ensured our sailors were at low risk of contracting COVID, allowing the operations to continue. Select staff ashore worked remotely to ensure continuity and to eliminate any possible interruption to operations, maintenance, logistics support and planning.
There is no doubt that the time submariners spend at sea is the most valuable in their careers. To maximize training time and effectiveness, each bunk on every submarine is closely monitored. We have a dedicated team of human resource specialists who make sure that the right sailor gets the right mix of at-sea and ashore training opportunities. While other submarines are engaged in essential long-term maintenance, crews are balanced to ensure their experiences and training remains current at all times.
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as a whole, and more specifically the Royal Canadian Navy, are feeling the constraints of personnel shortages. CANSUBFOR remains focused on creating a healthy workplace culture which will continue to increase both the retention of current sailors and recruitment of new ones. My greatest challenge is keeping our highly trained and experienced submariners motivated and engaged, in order to retain these valuable members of our team. Careful career management, initiatives to improve morale and open communication will all serve to keep our most valuable resource: our submariners.
Q The government has indicated that it intends to make a significant investment in Continental Defence alongside our US allies, which more than simply NORAD renewal. How do you see the Victoria-class contributing to this Continental Defence and, to follow-on, continued interoperability with the US Navy submarine force?
The diesel-electric Victoria-class submarines (VCS) are a strategic asset for the Government of Canada both at home and abroad, notably in partnership with the United States in the continental defence of North America. Our submarines possess valuable capabilities, including upgraded weapon systems, a sonar suite, electronic surveillance monitoring, and intelligence and reconnaissance gathering capabilities. Together, they directly contribute to continental defence, as well as monitoring Canadian waters and exclusive economic zones. CANSUBFOR regularly operates with other Navy and Air Force assets, Special Forces units, and with our allies. Our submarines also provide an important anti-submarine warfare capability to the CAF and are natural maritime deterrents.
Given that the U.S. Navy’s submarine force is comprised entirely of nuclear submarines, Canadian submarines uniquely augment the vanguard component of any coalition forces preparing for operations. The diesel-electric propulsion system allows our submarines to operate quietly and in more shallow water than nuclear submarines, especially while performing surveillance operations. As with any diesel-electric submarine, our submarines are ideally suited to monitor choke points, such as the approaches to our seaways, shipping routes and Arctic waters. Additionally, as the only North American nation with diesel-electric submarines, we offer excellent training opportunities to the U.S. Navy in anti-submarine warfare.
Q As Strong, Secure, Engaged commits to the modernization of the four Victoria-class submarines through the Victoria-Class Modernization (VCM) program, what major improvements in operational capability, maintenance and habitability do you envision a post VCM submarine will be able to bring to the table?
Through the Victoria-class Modernization (VCM) project, we will be implementing up to 17 distinct projects to upgrade the survivability, habitability, and capability of the Victoria class, to ensure it can effectively counter evolving threats. This series of projects will build on lessons learned from the successful Halifax-class Modernization Project, providing improved habitability and deployment conditions for submariners. As well, the VCM will enhance the class’s capabilities to support continued contributions to CAF operations. Our submarines will be able to adapt to current and evolving threats, including an increased ability to operate in Arctic waters up to the marginal ice zone.
VCM will deliver improved sensor capabilities through upgrades to the Flank Array Sonar, and to both the search and attack periscopes. The new sonar will provide modern sensors that will increase detection ranges with high fidelity acoustic data, which can be analyzed and integrated with the existing sonar suite. The search and attack periscope upgrades aim to convert the existing analog lenses and mirror-type periscopes to digitized systems that are now commonly used across allied navies. This will decrease counter-detection by reducing the amount of time that the search periscope remains exposed, as well as increasing the availability of the system.
The introduction of a new battery monitoring system will allow for more accurate and real-time battery readings. This will allow the crew to closely monitor battery health and help identify battery system defects early on. Additionally, the increased accuracy of readings will improve deep cycle battery maintenance by allowing the battery to be charged and discharged closer to the maximum and minimum capacity limits, ultimately increasing the life and endurance of the VCS’s batteries.
The first round of habitability upgrades are slated for HMCS Victoria and will greatly improve day-to-day living conditions on board for our sailors. New upgrades to the messes, wash places and showers will provide some of the comforts that sailors are used to in their homes. The galley will also be significantly improved, resulting in a more modern and efficient workplace for our cooks.
Q Are there areas of interest to you of which VCM is not addressing? Specifically, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and the covert launch, operation, and recovery of these systems?
There are many advanced capabilities that are being incorporated into the Victoria class. Capabilities that will not be included within VCM are being explored in depth for inclusion on the next class of submarine. The capabilities of the next class of submarines are in the early stages of definition now. The RCN is in consultation with our allies and industry partners, and is committed to developing an advanced operational capability while also providing value to Canadians.
Q With the announcement last year of the stand-up of a small team to look at a future Canadian Patrol Submarine Project, what are your thoughts on what key capabilities a future Canadian submarine should be able to do?
The Canadian Patrol Submarine Project (CPSP) aims to provide a replacement for the Victoria class, and is exploring the following capabilities:
- Worldwide open ocean operability, including in the Arctic;
- Air Independent and diesel-electric propulsion systems;
- Anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare;
- Support to joint operations ashore;
- Joint intelligence surveillance reconnaissance;
- Special Operations Forces insertion and recovery;
- Deploying autonomous underwater, unmanned underwater and aerial vehicles;
- Survivability and self-protection through coatings, decoys, jammers, and noise suppression features;
- Modular and evolutionary design; and
- Green and clean technologies.
Q With the continual evolution of non-nuclear power generation and storage what areas of technological development do you see as key for Canada to capitalize on in a future Canadian submarine?
Technological development in two key areas will influence decisions with respect to submarine design and propulsion systems.
The first is Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), which will extend the operational range of future submarines by allowing them to stay on patrol longer. Whether it be a fuel cell-based system or a Stirling Engine model, AIP technologies are improving and will allow diesel-electric submarines to stay submerged for 18-21 days. This greatly reduces that amount of time that a submarine needs to rise to periscope depth in order to re-charge batteries. The inclusion of AIP in Canadian Patrol Submarines would allow limited near, and if necessary, under-ice operations.
The second key area is battery technology. Lithium-ion batteries are an exciting technology for submarine application, and offer a significant energy density increase over the historically used lead acid design. Lithium-ion will increase submerged endurance and reduce the frequency of battery recharge requirements to approximately once every four days instead every second day. There is potential for this to increase even further as the technology becomes more efficient.
Q To follow-on from the previous question, what are your thoughts on where the combat systems suite of a future Canadian submarine will be going, specifically as to sensors, weapons, and data connectivity?
There are three key elements that will influence decisions with respect to the Combat System.
The first is data management and fusion. Advancements in submarine sensor technology, such as greater sensitivity and processing power, have significantly increased the amount of data available to a command team. High data rate communications adds to the amount of data that needs to be fused to the submarine’s or submarines’ organic picture.
Second is weapons control and integration. A good control suite is key for a weapons system which will employ heavyweight torpedoes, anti-ship cruise missiles and land-strike cruise missiles.
Lastly is the system architecture. The preferred way forward for modern combat systems is commercial-off-the-shelf-based open system architecture. This allows for flexibility in introducing new technologies, as well as for adapting to cyber security considerations.