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We don't need subs, expert says
Vessels 'useless' in war on terror, but were 'sold' to public as such
Isabel TeotonioSound Off
The Ottawa Citizen

CREDIT: Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press
Canada bought four submarines from Britain to replace its aging fleet of Oberon-class subs, like the HMCS Okanagan, above. The military uses subs to monitor illegal activities along the coasts.

When it comes to the Canadian military's role in peace-keeping and anti-terrorist operations, "submarines are wholly useless" in a post-Sept. 11 world, says an expert on Canadian and international intelligence and security issues.

"Submarines are essentially useless in anybody's definition of a war on terror," said Wesley Wark of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.

Instead, he said, the Department of National Defence has engaged in an "impressive, but fundamentally empty," attempt at portraying submarines as "much more multi-capable than they in fact are."

While there has been much talk in military circles about using subs for covert counter-terrorism operations, the talk amounts to a "a kind of salesmanship," he said. Many argue that submarines are effective intelligence-gatherers, particularly when crammed full of the latest electronic gear and parked in a strategically vital spot to collect intelligence or monitor movement in a region of interest to Canada.

But Mr. Wark said Canada has neither the submarine equipment nor will to use the vessels in that fashion.

"To be blunt about it, I think it's a kind of salesmanship as the navy looks, as it knows it has to, for new missions for these submarines. And I'm afraid that what's going to happen is we'll see that process going on -- various kinds of new missions will be (invented) for these submarines to justify why we're stuck with them."

Mr. Wark's comments came days after a fire aboard a Canadian submarine, HMCS Chicoutimi, killed one sailor and left his crewmates adrift off the coast of Ireland. It was on its maiden voyage to Canada Tuesday when the fire knocked out the boat's power. Chicoutimi was one of four used diesel-electric submarines, built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that Canada leased from the Royal Navy in 1998.

The new submarines replaced Canada's previous fleet of 30-year-old Oberon-class subs.

Back then, the Canadian military intended to use the submarines for oceanic warfare, trade protection and convoy duty, said Mr. Wark. But nowadays, as the military focuses on the 21st century and its role for a peacekeeping nation, submarines "have no capacity to make any contribution."

"They were bought at a different time for a different reason with a wholly different set of capabilities," said Mr. Wark, who also served as a consultant to the Privy Council Office of Canada on intelligence policy. "We don't need them, but we have them. ... We're kind of trapped by the circumstances of what, in retrospect, looks like a bad decision to buy this equipment."

But Capt. Kelly Williams, director of maritime strategy, says a country with Canada's sheer size and maritime dimensions "cannot afford to not have submarines."

"Submarines are incredible naval tools that bring balance to our fleet and allow us to respond in a measured and graduated way to any challenge to authority or any challenge to sovereignty -- submarines are the very essence of sovereignty."

There are always going to be submarines in Canadian waters, he said, adding they can either be ours or someone else's: "Which would you prefer?"

It's pointless to have a navy that's capable of controlling what happens on and above the water, but not below it, he said, referring to subs as the "ocean's hidden cameras."

Moreover, submarines have become increasingly useful in reporting on illegal drug shipping activity and monitoring the activity of foreign ships to determine if they're overfishing in Canadian waters, he said.

Canada's newly leased fleet of submarines is instrumental for a navy that needed and wanted the four vessels. In fact, he said, submarines are more relevant today than ever, pointing out there are about 40 nations operating more than 400 submarines.

"In the future, there are going to be more challenges to Canadian sovereignty, there's going to be greater competition for resources and submarines provide that sense of balance in allowing us to respond. ... These submarines are more relevant today than they have ever been in the past, even more so in a post-9/11 world."

But even when it comes to issues of sovereignty, ship monitoring and being on the lookout for dangerous vessels, Mr. Wark argued that Canada would have been better off with a fundamental rethinking of what the coast guard and navy require in terms of surface ships and aerial platforms.

"In an ideal world, if we had lots of money to throw around on our military we should have subs as part of an all-armed armed forces, but we don't have that kind of money, we're not that kind of military power. ... So we have to make hard choices, and in that context of hard choices, submarines don't make any sense for us."

How Canada's Subs Work

HMCS Chicoutimi is a diesel-electric submarine, a 1980s design based on technology developed in the First World War.

Like the Toyota Prius, this is a hybrid power plant that can run on conventional fuel or an electric battery.

The sub has two diesel generators whose main job is to charge an array of batteries. The diesels, totalling just more than 4,000 horsepower, need an air supply that comes from a "snorkel" or air intake from the outside. This only works when the sub is on the surface, or just below it.

To dive, a sub needs engines that don't consume oxygen. That's where the electric batteries come in. They power an electric motor that turns a large single propeller. And they're incredibly quiet. But they use up their charge if the sub is travelling far or fast, and when they run low, the sub must surface to run the diesels again.

The amount of time a diesel submarine can stay underwater is limited by the state of battery technology.

The sub can also use one diesel generator to drive the propeller while the other is charging the batteries.

Submarines dive by opening the valves on the hull's ballast tanks, letting air out and seawater in.

To surface, they force compressed air into the ballast tanks, which pushes the water out again.

Chicoutimi, launched in 1986 and commissioned in 1990 as HMS Upholder, is the first of her class of four.

The Upholder-class boats are known for being extremely quiet and for being small -- with many functions automated, allowing a crew of just 44 sailors and seven officers, compared with a crew of more than 100 needed on a nuclear submarine.

They are 70 metres long and 7.6 metres wide.

-- Compiled by Tom Spears

Submarine Tragedy. Ran with fact box "How Canada's subs work", which has been appended to the story.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2004

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