‘Good life’ still left in Canada’s submarines: Navy commander

OTTAWA — Canada’s top sailor is standing by the Royal Canadian Navy’s submarine fleet, saying there is still “good life” in the vessels and that with some “modest investments,” they will be able to operate through to the 2030s.

The assertion by Vice-Admiral Art McDonald follows a year in which Canada’s four Victoria-class submarines were largely docked for extended maintenance work and the government faced calls to buy replacements.

“You and I both as taxpayers want us to get all of the money out of the investment we’ve made in platforms, and there’s still some good life in the Victoria-class submarines,” McDonald said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“With some modest investments over the next while, we’ll be able to operate it into the 2030s, when we will start to look at decommissioning the class in a cycle. So that’s where we’re focused.”

Officials have previously pegged the cost of upgrading the submarine fleet at around $2 billion. McDonald said those upgrades include boosting the vessels’ ability to survive in conflict and making them more accommodating to crew.

McDonald, who took over as Navy commander in June, also said he was “comfortable” with having only one temporary support ship despite repeated delays in the delivery of permanent replacements.

The navy retired the last of its support ships in 2014 and has been leasing a converted civilian vessel from Quebec’s Chantier Davie shipyard until the two permanent replacements, known as joint support ships, are delivered.

Those ships were originally expected this year, but delivery by Vancouver’s Seaspan shipyard has been pushed back numerous times. The government now expects the first of the vessels, which are considered critical for extended overseas operations, in 2023-24.

During the election, the Conservatives had promised that if elected, they’d have Davie build a second temporary support ship, saying the navy needed the additional vessel to operate around the world until the permanent ones were delivered.

“I’m comfortable with the one ship that we currently have,” McDonald said while playing down the latest delay in delivery of the first joint support ship as only a few months. “I’ve got confidence in the delivery time frames.”

As for the submarines, McDonald noted the navy “operated the heck” out of the vessels in 2018. That included two subs being deployed on extended tours to different parts of the globe at the same time, a first for the fleet.

The subs have spent nearly as much time docked for maintenance and repairs as they have at sea since they were purchased, with the Conservatives and Senate defence committee suggesting they be scrapped and replacements purchased.

However, two are expected to resume operations in the coming year.

“After a well-deserved rest following the successful deployments in 2017-18, the submarine fleet is poised to enter 2020 with two boats deployed again and a third ready to go,” said navy Capt. Stephane Ouellet, commander of Canada’s submarine force.

The navy has learned a great deal over the past 20 years about how to operate the Victoria-class submarines, McDonald said.

“The best way is still to get every bit of capability out of the current investment as long as it’s relevant, and it continues to be so,” he said.

Even if Ottawa wanted to buy new subs now, it has a full slate of development underway: designing and building a fleet of warships, Arctic patrol vessels and the joint support ships for the navy, in addition to a bevy of coast guard vessels.

At the same time, allies such as Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands are looking at buying new submarines, which McDonald suggested provides Canada an opportunity to learn for when the time does come to replace its own boats.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Dec. 18, 2019.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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