? Badger Badger (Live) | Main | Risable ?

October 21, 2004

Victoria-class (Upholder-class)


*** Exclusive ***

Chief of Maritime Staff, Vice-Admiral Bruce MacLean made the case for Canada's submarine fleet in Parliamentary hearings describing their capability as "indispensable."

"In an increasingly uncertain world, with many and varied threats, which we all have been made aware of over time, it makes sense to me that as a nation with the longest coastline in the world, needs eyes and ears to observe, detect and deter any and all potential threats -- whether military or otherwise -- to our national sovereignty," Henault said.

I should once again signal my bias in this matter given my research with the fleet's manufacturer, Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (now BAE Systems Marine). While I was never an employee of VSEL and had no involvement in the diesel-electric component of their submarine program my experience left me with an impression of supreme competence and professionalism. With this caveat, I want to signal my emphatic agreement with Vice-Admiral MacLean's assessment of the strategic importance of a Canadian submarine capability. More important, I want to convey my confidence in the ability of Canada's military to make such assessments. It is of crucial importance to this country that we hold the federal government and its predecessors to account for the long-standing, systemic underfunding of our military and continued prevarication in matters of foreign policy. But it is equally important that we not leap to conclusions about Canada's decision to procure the Victoria-class (formerly Upholder-class) fleet let alone assign blame for the recent disaster aboard HMCS Chicoutimi before the facts are in.

Deputy Conservative Party Leader Peter MacKay recently accused the government of ignoring warnings regarding the Chicoutimi, asking, "What was done to mitigate the risks before the HMCS Chicoutimi was cleared to leave port for Canada across the North Atlantic, unescorted?"

Defence Minister Bill Graham replied, "I rest my case and put my faith in the maritime command, who are the professionals who make these (decisions)."

Readers will know it is rare day I find myself in agreement with this Minister or his government. This is one of those days. We should hold the government to account in matters of funding and policy but we must put our faith in the decisions of maritime command and await the outcome of Commons hearings before assigning blame or choosing a course of action. I present for your consideration a letter that is making an impression in the networks of Canada's defense community. The letter, sent originally to the Executive Secretary of the Conference of Defence Associations, speaks to the acquisition of the Victoria-class fleet. It makes an informed response to Mr. MacKay's question and explains an important distinction in types of risk. I publish it with my thanks and by permission of its author, Vice Admiral Lynn Mason.


Dear Colleagues The following comments provided by Vice Admiral Lynn Mason (ret'd), on the acquisition by Canada of the Upholder class submarine, may be of interest to you. He was intimately involved with the project in his capacity as Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (DCDS) 94-95 and Commander MARCOM 95-97
Alain Pellerin

Dear Alain,

You are probably already aware of what I am about to tell you, but in the event you aren't, here goes.

First point. Peter MacKay seems to be mixing program risk and operational risk. There is no doubt that as those hardly used submarines sat idle for several years, before the Government could finally be convinced to buy them, they degraded. The risk, as they degraded, was to money and time. There was no operational risk, because no matter what, the reactivation program had to restore the submarines to like-new condition before they could become
operational. The Navy, with countless acceptance inspections as surety, took the decision, once the Department had accepted the submarine, to sail her to Canada. If the Navy had had any indication that there was more than NORMAL risk, it wouldn't have. In short, the risk to the program was somewhat higher than the Department had originally figured, but that had nothing to do with the operational risk of sailing the submarine to Canada - which was considered acceptable by the Navy.

Second point. When the nuclear submarine program was cancelled, the Navy went back to a diesel-electric program. In the early 90s, the top-flight programs that we looked at were the Dutch Walrus Class, the German 209s, the proposed Australian Collins Class, and the British Upholders. They were all considered excellent submarines, with the on-paper Collins Class seeming to be on top. Thank the fates that we didn't go the Collins route because that program has had significant problems. In those days, however, the Navy would have been happy to acquire any of the those classes of submarine. And it is noteworthy
that the Upholder Class was not considered to be the least of the bunch. Accordingly, the Navy was ecstatic when, instead of an unaffordable program of 2 1/2 to 4 billion dollars, we were offered four slightly used Upholder Class submarines. Unfortunately, it took several years for the negotiations to be completed and the Canadian Government to be convinced. That delay caused the reactivation program to become increasingly problematic. Even so, it is hard to imagine a build-new program that would have made submarines available more quickly.

Third point. Teams of Canadian experts were involved in assessing the submarines before the deal was struck, and they have been involved in the reactivation and the acceptance.

Finally, until the facts prove otherwise, these were the right submarines for Canada. The Navy fought like the dickens to get them, and the Navy has no history of going second class when it comes to equipment.

Vice Admiral Lynn Gordon Mason (Retired)
Research Fellow
Centre for Foreign Policy Studies
Dalhousie University

Posted by Ghost of a flea at October 21, 2004 06:07 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Victoria-class (Upholder-class):

? Yes, my new server is down and yes I ave a backup from My Pet Jawa
If you're reading this then you're one of the 15 people left on earth who even know I have a backup site. Or, you're one of the dozen or so people who come here daily from a Google search or an old link from another blogger. Ok, so here's some linka... [Read More]

Tracked on October 21, 2004 04:38 PM

? Vice Admiral Lynn Mason on the Victoria class from Quotulatiousness
Brigade Commander Nicholas Packwood has a very informative post about the Victoria class of submarines (formerly the Royal Navy's Upholder class), including a letter from Vice Admiral Lynn Mason: When the nuclear submarine program was cancelled, the Na... [Read More]

Tracked on October 21, 2004 06:26 PM


Flea I respectfully disagree with you on this one. I concede that the Upholders were the best bang for the buck -- only if nuclear-powered subs are out of the question.

I believe the Vice Admiral's letter concedes that point as well.

I consider the Victoria class to be among the top-ranked diesel-electric subs; but diesel-electric tends to be impractical for anything but short-range coastal patrolling. You wouldn't ask them to go to the Gulf and fire off a load of Tomahawks, for instance. They don't even have that capability. Nor can they spend a few months trailing the opposition under the ice cap. The best advantage of nucs is that they are limited only by the amount of food they can carry. This is normally 45 days and theoretically they could stay submerged the entire time. SSNs have no endurance-related speed restrictions, either.

Diesel-electric boats are typically limited to a few weeks dive duration, even with AIP (air-independent propulsion) systems. Worse, their speed is highly restricted. To stay submerged for 14 days, an AIP-equipped Victoria class is restricted to a top speed of 6kts. The advantage of diesel-electric boats is that they are cheaper and quieter than nucs. Their limited range and endurance can be extended with at-sea refueling, but it's a relatively simple matter to track the sub tender or fleet oiler, which of course remains on the surface.

Remember also that in NATO wargames the British and American nuc boats are very very stealthy themselves, but usually run with sound augmenters (to simulate noisier opposition boats). So our friendly diesel vs. nuc mock engagements are not necessarily indicative of the true capabilities of stealthy nuclear subs.

Global power projection and of course Canadian coastal protection should be our goals. Diesel can only do one. Nucs can do both. The Victoria class is among the best of diesel-electric subs, but the limitations of their powerplant make them impractical for a country with a coastline and climate like ours.

Posted by: Chris Taylor at October 21, 2004 12:09 PM

Well, I quite agree with all that you say (and please note I said my work was not related to the diesel-electric component of the Royal Navy's submarine fleet). Given a comprehensive change of political will in this country I would probably favour an SSN capability if only for projecting power in the Arctic. Even then I can only say I would probably favour it. The Canadian Navy was respected for its ability to take on the SSNs with the quieter Oberon class (the sound augmenters are a matter not for print). In fact, it was a matter of fraught debate for the Royal Navy to give up the Upholder-class precisely because their SSNs, while devastating in many roles, are not as quiet as some potential adversaries in specific tactical situations. It was for this reason that I was delighted to learn Canada was acquiring the whole fleet (and why I am not as alarmed as some by China's new SSNs). In any likely future conflict I would hope and expect Canada's navy to act in concert with our US and UK allies. In this context a force of SSKs is a valuable complement to the SSNs you discuss.

Posted by: Flea at October 21, 2004 12:27 PM

I take it then, that the bluster about possibly suing the UK is out the window. Mason's statement would go word for word into any defence brief.

Posted by: Occam's Carbuncle at October 21, 2004 12:37 PM

I think it is impossible to say without knowing the outcome of the board of enquiry and the details of all contracts signed in the matter. Please keep in mind that while the Vice Admiral offers an expert and informed opinion that it is nevertheless speculative.

Posted by: Flea at October 21, 2004 12:40 PM

I saw part of the hearing and was struck by the technical illiteracy of some of the questions. Was it just me or did some of the politicians have real trouble grasping the difference between nuc and diesel electric boats capabilities?

Posted by: Jack at October 21, 2004 05:19 PM

I have very strong memories of working at Vickers on the S class upgrade. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Canada's decision I shall remember the crewmember who dies and those who were injured. I regret the whole sorry affair.

Posted by: ExpatEgghead at October 21, 2004 05:53 PM

I saw part of the hearing and was struck by the technical illiteracy of some of the questions. Was it just me or did some of the politicians have real trouble grasping the difference between nuc and diesel electric boats capabilities?

You haven't talked to many politicians, then. Technical illiteracy is no bar to high office in the Canadian political system; in fact, you could probably make a case that knowing nothing made it more likely that you'd be appointed to cabinet-rank (especially in unimportant roles like Defence).

Does anyone remember just how loudly the moonbats howled when the Mulroney government floated the idea (sorry) of buying nuclear submarines? I doubt that a Liberal government could even get their backbenchers to vote in favour of buying those eeeeeevil Gaia-destroying nuke boats. In spite of their clear role in defending the country, the people would not support purchasing them. End of story, I'm afraid.

Posted by: Nicholas at October 21, 2004 06:57 PM