Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Cursed Canadian Boats

Ten years after a fire at sea, the Canadian sub HMCS Chicoutimi is returning to service, sort of. Chicoutimi can only make shallow dives until further tests are run. Tests will also be required to make sure the new torpedo handling equipment is working properly. The repairs for the 2004 fire cost $125 million and the fire occurred a month after Chicoutimi entered Canadian service. It may be another year before Chicoutimi is really, really ready for service.  
 
Sixteen years after purchasing four slightly-used British diesel-electric submarines Canada still has not gotten all of them in shape to go to war. Currently, only one of the four Victoria class subs can go to sea actually fire a torpedo. Within a year two more may be ready as well, or maybe not. What Canada has learned from all this is that submarines are expensive boats to build and maintain, even if they are secondhand.
 
It all began in the 1990s, when Canada wanted to replace its 1960s era diesel-electric subs. This did not seem possible, because the cost of new boats would have been about half a billion dollars each which was more than Canada could afford. Britain, however, had four slightly used Upholder class diesel-electric subs that it was willing to part with for $210 million each. That was nearly half what it cost Britain to build these boats in the late 1980s. The Upholders entered British service between 1990 and 1993 and were mothballed shortly thereafter when it decided to go with an all-nuclear submarine fleet.
 
So the deal was made in 1998, with delivery of the Upholders to begin in 2000. Canada decommissioned its older Oberons in 2000, then discovered that the British Upholders needed more work (fixing flaws, installing Canadian equipment) than anticipated. It wasn't until 2004 that the subs were ready and that year Chicoutimi was damaged by fire while at sea. Chicoutimi was supposed to be back in service by 2006 but the repair job was more extensive than first realized and there were other problems found as the repairs proceeded. Thus the initial $20 million repair job just got more and more expensive.
 
The Upholders are now called the Victoria class and are much more modern and capable than the older Oberons. The Victorias are 2,160 tons (displacement on the surface) boats with a crew of 46 and six torpedo tubes (and 18 Mk 48 torpedoes.) The electronics on the Victorias are state of the art and a primary reason for buying these boats in the first place. The subs are to be used to patrol Canada's extensive coastline. The passive sonars on these subs make it possible to detect surface ships over a great distance. But not having any subs on active duty, ready for combat, for most of the last decade has become a major issue in Canada.
 
The problem is that the subs were bought without a thorough enough examination. It was later found that most major systems had problems and defects that had to be fixed (at considerable expense). Thus these boats have spent most of their time, during the last decade, undergoing repairs or upgrades. The final fix was be to get the torpedo tubes working, something that was only completed in the last two years. In any event, a Canadian sub has never fired a torpedo in combat, mainly because the Canadian Navy did not get subs until the 1960s. Lots of Canadian surface ships have fired torpedoes in combat, but the last time that happened was in 1945. The sole operational Victoria class boat is on patrol in the Pacific, listening for trouble which, if found, will be handled as best the only operational submarine in the Royal Canadian Navy can manage.

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