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HMCS Oberon Class Submarines

After much 'politicking' and to the intense frustration of a few caring naval officers, in November of 1963, the Canadian Navy purchased three "Oberon" class submarines from Britain. HMCS OJIBWA was commissioned into the Navy on September 23, 1965. ONONDAGA followed on June 22, 1967. The commissioning of OKANAGAN, the last of the fleet, took place on June 22, 1968. A fourth boat, OLYMPUS, was purchased as a training vessel and spare parts depot.

The three Oberon Class submarines, Ojibwa, Okanagan and Onondaga were at the time the Royal Navy's latest conventionally powered submarines. Allwere built at Her Majesty's Dockyard, Chatham, United Kingdom. In 1979, approval was given for the three to undergo a Submarine Operational UpdateProgram (SOUP). In the course of this, they were fitted with new fire control, sonar, communications and optical equipment, as well as new batteries,which improved their endurance. Carried out at Halifax, Nova Scotia, the procedure upgraded their status from that of passive "tame" targets to anaggressive capability. Though respectable enough craft in their prime, the "O" boats had long since reached the end of their useful lives and by July 1999,the three had been paid off and replaced by the Victoria class.

Canada's Navy has a long history of submarine operations, but these have never been its main focus. The Navy operated a few submarines during the First World War and while it did not have submarines of its own during the Second World War, except for some captured enemy vessels in the final weeks of the war, some Canadians served aboard the submarines of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy. The cold war prompted Canada's Navy to acquire a few submarines in the 1960s, initially through leasing arrangements with the United States Navy for two Second World War vessels and then through the purchase from the United Kingdom of three new Oberon class submarines.

Adding submarines to the fleet of surface vessels and maritime patrol aircraft was in keeping with the use by other NATO navies of a multi-layered approach to anti-submarine warfare to counter the threat posed by Soviet submarines. The naval battles of the Second World War had demonstrated the value of using air and naval forces combined to detect submerged submarines. However, as Martin Shadwick of the York Centre for International and Security Studies pointed out to the Committee, the Oberons were used for much of their operational life mainly to provide anti-submarine warfare training for air and surface ships. There was more emphasis on their surveillance and anti-submarine capabilities during the last years of operational use.

By the 1980s, when submarines were a well-established capability within the fleet, the Canadian Navy started planning for the replacement of the three Oberons which were expected to be close to the limit of their safe operational lifespan by the end of the 1990s. The original plans called for new submarines with a propulsion system similar to the diesel-electric one used in the Oberons.

However, there was a brief hiatus when, as indicated in the 1987 Defence White Paper, Canada announced its intention to buy nuclear-powered submarines and to expand its fleet to as many as 10 or 12 vessels. Various arguments were used to justify the proposed acquisition including the necessity to increase naval capabilities in order to assert sovereignty in Canadian waters, especially in the Arctic, and to make an effective contribution to allied maritime operations during the cold war. However, the proposed acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines was questioned because of the costs involved and concerns about the use of a propulsion system relying on nuclear energy, whatever its operational advantages under the polar ice cap and elsewhere. In 1989, when it became evident that the cold war was coming to an end, the Progressive Conservative Government announced the cancellation of these controversial plans as well as the first of what became a long series of cuts in Canadian defence spending made during the last decade of the last century, the effects of which are still being felt by the Canadian Forces today.

Thus, in the early 1990s, the Navy again found itself looking for a replacement for its old Oberons. Vice-Admiral (Retired) Peter Cairns, who was the commander of Maritime Forces Pacific and later commander of the Navy prior to his retirement in 1994, confirmed in his testimony to the Committee that between 1989 and 1993, the Navy examined many types of conventionally powered submarines as possible replacements for the Oberons. The candidates included the Walrus class submarine produced in the Netherlands, the German Type 209 and the British-made Upholder class then entering service with the Royal Navy. The Navy favored submarines with enough range and other capabilities to operate in the oceans far from their home port rather than those designed more for coastal defence. This was due to the fact that in addition to the protection of Canadian waters, the Navy was also involved in naval operations in the North Atlantic and elsewhere as part of Canada's commitments to NATO. Another reason for the search for a replacement submarine was the looming termination of a contract for spare parts for the Oberon. At that time, the United Kingdom was the main source of spare parts for the British-built Oberons operated by Australia and Canada as well as the Royal Navy. According to Brigadier-General (Retired) Darrell Dean, then-commander of the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff (London), British officials alerted Canada to this effect in 1992.

The Navy's plans to replace the Oberons were stated in the Department of National Defence policy statement entitled Canadian Defence Policy made public in April 1992. This document was issued at a time when Canada was still adjusting the size and capabilities of the Canadian Forces in light of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. Among other things, it noted that submarines "greatly enhance the flexibility of maritime forces and increase our ability to carry out surveillance and enforcement in our maritime areas of responsibility." The statement added that in "a project continuing beyond the end of the 15-year planning period, the Navy will replace its three Oberon Class submarines with up to six modern conventional submarines, in order to provide an underwater capability in both the Atlantic and Pacific."

This was a commitment to replace the old submarines, but the government of the day was not necessarily ready to proceed quickly with the actual acquisition of replacement submarines. There were other defence priorities at this time, including a contract, subsequently cancelled, for the purchase of EH-101 helicopters to replace the Sea King maritime helicopters, a project which was becoming more and more controversial because of, among other things, questions about the need for modernized anti-submarine capabilities in the post-cold war era. Besides, as the policy statement pointed out, the government intended to use the limited funds available for new military equipment projects "frugally on the highest priority items." These and other factors may explain why the Progressive Conservative Cabinet of the day deferred a final decision on the acquisition of replacement submarines. However, the need to replace the old submarines became more acute as the Oberons decreased in efficiency.

In 1998 Canada acquired four diesel-electric submarines from the United Kingdom, which the Canadian Navy has formally designated the VICTORIA Class Long Range Patrol Submarine. These modern submarines replaced three OBERON Class submarines retired in 2000 after more than three decades of service.

Dimensions 90 m x 8.1 m x 5.5 m
Displacement 2,030 tons (Surface) / 2,410 tons (Submerged)
Maximum Speed 12 knots (Surface) / 17 knots (Submerged)
Crew 68
Armament eight 533-mm torpedo tubes

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:35:21 ZULU