Defence Minister Peter MacKay blames the Liberals for Canada’s troubled fleet of second-hand Victoria-class submarines. It was the Liberals who purchased the four British-made vessels for the suspiciously low price of $750-million in 1998. Yet it was none other than MacKay himself who, 10 years later, persuaded his Conservative colleagues not to scrap them. It was MacKay who signed taxpayers up for another $1.5-billion worth of refits and repairs, thereby throwing good money after bad.
It was apparent long before 2008 that the submarines were deeply flawed. The diesel engines were designed for railroad locomotives and not the rapid stops and starts required of submarines. There were defects in the torpedo tubes, making it possible for both the inner and outer doors to be open at the same time, even while the subs were submerged. The subs were mothballed in saltwater for four years before Canada bought them, and years more before we took possession. They suffered serious corrosion — the diving depth of HMCS Windsor is now restricted due to rust damage on the hull.
Shortly after Canada took possession, 1,500 litres of saltwater spilled into HMCS Corner Brook because of a malfunctioning Submerged Signal Ejector — a device that is used to deploy decoys while submerged. HMCS Victoria experienced serious problems with its cooling system. And a deadly fire broke out on HMCS Chicoutimi when seawater entering through an open hatch caused an electrical short in wiring that had just one layer of waterproof sealant, instead of the three layers the construction specifications had required. In 2004, the electrical system on Victoria was destroyed when the submarine was hooked up to an on-shore electric supply. The Halifax Chronicle Herald reported that the Navy spent about $200,000 after the accident “to buy old technology that mirrors what the sub’s British builders used” – equipment that one of the Navy’s own “electrical technologists” said “probably goes back to the ‘60s.”
In 2007, Windsor entered a refit that was supposed to take three years but ended up taking six. Documents obtained by the CBC later explained that every system had major problems. Spare parts are also difficult to obtain.
It was in this context that MacKay pushed for the $1.5-billion refit and repair contract, a move rendered all the more perplexing by the fact that, by 2008, the submarines were already between 15-19 years old. This meant that the most one could hope for from the vessels, after their refits, was a single decade of service.
Which is not very long when you consider that, for the same amount of money, Canada could have procured between 3-4 brand new diesel-electric submarines based on proven designs from France or Germany.
Chicoutimi has been out of the water since the fire in 2004, and will remain in dry dock until at least the end of this year
Today, five years after the $1.5-billion contract, MacKay insists the situation is improving. Which is true, if going from horrendous to bad counts as an improvement. Corner Brook was damaged in an accident in 2011 and put out of action until 2012. It is scheduled to return to dry dock for three years in 2014. In December 2012, a defect was discovered in one of Windsor’s two diesel engines, which resulted in the submarine having to operate on just one engine. This put the sub on limited duty. She will be taken out of service later this year so that the engine can be replaced. Chicoutimi has been out of the water since the fire in 2004, and will remain in dry dock until at least the end of this year. Victoria, which emerged from six years in dry dock in 2011, is scheduled to return there for three years in 2016.
According to the Department of National Defence, Canada’s four Victoria-class submarines have accumulated a total of just 1,131 days at sea in the decade since 2003 — about 30 days per submarine per year. It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad. If Canada wants to maintain this capability, we need to start from scratch.