This is, on the face of it, an astonishing statement. There is a naval capability that our Minister of Nation Defence has defined as “critical for sovereignty” but the government is not sure if it wants to spend the money necessary to maintain that capability. Is it possible that this government does not understand what it is constituted for? Or is it possible that the minister is engaging in hyperbole for the sake of increasing his department’s budget?
So just how ‘critical’ is our submarine service?
In press reports, Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd described the vessels as “essential” to the navy’s ability to protect the country and help NATO, an assessment that was echoed by defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance. “As Canadians, I think we want to know who’s operating on, above and below our water from a sovereignty perspective,” Lloyd was reported as sayings. “The one strategic asset that allows you to understand what’s operating below the water is a submarine. Nothing else can replace that.”
It is true that according to internal Defence Department documents that the navy’s submarine fleet will have to be withdrawn in the next few years unless the federal government opts to spend billions to upgrade the ships.
The documents show that the first submarine, HMCS Victoria, is scheduled to reach its end of service life in 2022. The other three vessels will follow until the last, HMCS Windsor, retires in 2027. The navy estimates that extending their usefulness would cost between $1.5 billion and $3 billion, depending on the upgrades that are made and how long they are to remain in service.
To put this in context it should be noted that Canada has the longest coastline in the world, 202,080 km (125,567 miles) altogether. It is also true that International trade makes up a large part of the Canadian economy and that a huge part of that trade moves by sea. In fact at the end of 2015, Canada’s exports of goods and services were 31% as large as GDP and amounted to $611 billion.
Maritime transport is essential to the entire world's economy as over 90% of the world's trade is carried by sea and it is, by far, the most cost-effective way to move mass goods and raw materials around the world.
It is estimated that foreign trade sustains one out of every four Canadian jobs and one out of five jobs in Canada depends on exports, either directly or indirectly. Even our trade with the United States is dependent on marine transportation, which accounted for almost a fifth of the volume of Canada’s exports to the United States and over 95 percent of the approximately 180 million tonnes of commodities and processed goods Canada exports to other countries annually.
What all this means is that what Canada must have, like most of the other nations on earth, is “a stable, rules-based global order which supports the peaceful resolution of disputes, facilitates free and open trade and enables unfettered access to the global commons to support economic development”, to quote from the most recent Australian DefenceWhite Paper
That same paper also notes that “the framework of the rules‐based global order is under increasing pressure and has shown signs of fragility. Rules for the global commons of the high seas (emphasis added), cyberspace and space will continue to be challenged by states and non‐state actors, leading to uncertainty and tension.”
What part do submarines play in supporting this hoped for stable, rules based global order? According to the Department of National Defence Canada uses submarines for:
- Fisheries patrols
- Surveillance of all three Canadian coastlines
- Support to maritime law enforcement and other governmental departments
- Maintenance of fleet skills
- Bilateral engagement with continental defence partners
- Participation in multinational exercises
- Deterrence of would-be terrorists, smugglers and polluters
That department also maintains that Victoria-class submarines represent the Royal Canadian Navy’s “key contribution to Canada’s deployable strategic military assets.”
So it would appear that Minister Sajjan’s statement may not be an exaggeration. Given the shrinking nature of the RCN it may well be that our submarine fleet does indeed play a critical role in Canada's’ sovereignty.
If this is this is indeed the case then there are two alternative explanations for the Minister’s comment. Either he is attempting to publicly back the Prime Minister and the rest of the cabinet into a position from which they have no alternative but to fund the submarine program, or this government believes that sovereignty, and economic well being, are negotiable and can be disposed of on the altar of political necessity.
It is also possible that the current government has correctly concluded that Canadians have become so indifferent to questions of sovereignty and national responsibility that they do not care what the government does on these issues unless it impacts them personally, in the form of jobs or taxes.
So is this really about maintaining a Canadian submarine capability or is it about maintaining the kind of government Canada has and wants?
Submarines critical for defence, but no decision on upgrades – Sajjan
Sunk without subs
Submarine Equipment Life Extension
THE CANADIAN ECONOMY AT A GLANCE
Industry Information —Canadian Port Industry
2016 Defence White Paper
Royal Canadian Navy Submarines: Fleet Status – Overview