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1959 - Nuclear Submarine Survey

By the late 1950s Allied navies were demonstrating that submarines promised to make the most effective means of hunting other submarines. As well the development of nuclear submarines by both the United States and Great Britain saw Canada's major naval allies choosing a technology that would be difficult but not impossible for Canada to acquire. Certainly Canada explored the possibility of indigenous production of nuclear boats, but eventually settled upon the compromise purchase of the conventional Oberon class submarines [that served until the late 1990s].

At the 564th meeting of the Naval Board on 2 April 1958, the requirement for nuclear submarines was agreed. A detailed feasibility study on Canadian construction facilities was undertaken by the Nuclear Submarine Survey Team, which experienced no luck in securing detailed information from the United States on either the hull or propulsion characteristics of their vessels in 1958. In early 1959, a "Scope and Means" agreement was negotiated with the United States Navy and Atomic Energy Commission, allowing the exchange of some detailed information.

The final report of the Survey Team was completed by July 1959. The Canadian Nuclear Submarine Survey team concluded an atomic boat could be built in Canada according to an American design for approximately $65 million - the preferred candidate was the USS Thresher, SSN 593. A British designed conventional boat of the Porpoise (progenitor of the Oberon) class could be constructed for $15-18 million in Canada or $9 million in the UK. However, the ability of the nuclear submarine to generate electricity was also of great benefit: while Britain and the United States were employing submarine-mounted passive sonar with increasing effect, achieving quite exceptional detection ranges (in the order of 125 miles), active sonar was still considered an essential requirement, even if the power requirements of long range active sonar could quickly drain a conventional submarine's batteries. At the time a good range for active sonar was 10 miles, with some demonstrated capacity out to the first convergence zone (35 miles).

The Survey Team's extensive survey of Canadian shipyards and discussion with manufacturers concluded Canadian industry could build nuclear submarines, the only limiting considerations being time and cost. These too-generous caveats prompted the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral H.G. DeWolf, to call into question the findings of the survey. For the conservative cost estimate of one nuclear submarine, the RCN could gain three to five conventional submarines. As it was then argued, the latest conventional boats possessed many of the same operational advantages as other submarines, the only real disadvantage being submerged endurance and speed - limitations that eventually proved decisive against an immediate program to build nuclear boats, in light of the tremendous cost differential.

The Chief of Naval Staff recommended that, unless additional funds could be made available to the Navy to meet the cost of building nuclear boats, conventional submarines should be undertaken on the basis of equal priority with the surface vessels of the planned replacement program. However, until the submarine program was settled the surface fleet replacement program was also delayed.

In recognition of the demise of the nuclear program, the RCN made an interim submission to the minister on 27 October 1960. The Chief of the Naval Staff compared the costs of building six US Barbel class conventional boats in Canada (at $164 million) to building six British Oberon class boats in the United Kingdom: of all available conventional submarine designs only the Oberons approached the operational profile of the Barbels, yet for the same money the Oberons would allow the Navy to obtain an additional four surface ASW vessels, at the cost of $22 million dollars each. Although the CNS concluded the Barbels would make the most effective ASW force, the usefulness of additional ASW ships could not be discounted.

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Page last modified: 16-09-2021 18:38:26 ZULU