UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


1987 - Submarine Acquisition Project

In June 1987 the Canadian White Paper on Defence "Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada" announced that Canada would spend $8 billion to build 10 to 12 nuclear attack submarines (SSN's) to defend the Arctic against the Soviet submarine threat, and, importantly, for patrolling the Northwest Passage and territorial waters over which it claimed sovereignty. The 'crown jewel' of the White Paper was the concept of a three-ocean navy and the planned acquisition of 10 to 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). This submarine purchase, intended to be the largest acquisition program in the history of the Canadian military, represented a fundamental shift from the Canadian Atlantist alliance-oriented policy toward a program more inclined toward the protection of Canadian territory, and, particularly, the maintenance of national sovereignty.

In 1978, four years after a tired HMCS Rainbow was paid off, Project M1642 West Coast Submarine Acquisition was initiated to procure a replacement submarine for Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC). In 1980, this initiative turned into a broader replacement strategy for the entire CF Oberon fleet, designated Projec tM1837 Canadian Submarine Replacement Project. This sought a minimum of six modern platforms for service by the end of that decade. In 1985, the Mulroney Conservative government revamped the Canadian Submarine Acquisition Project, re-scoped to investigatethe option of acquiring nuclear submarines.

The 1987 White Paper on Defence was prepared during the mid-1980s, when the Cold War still dominated international relations. The White Paper therefore reinforced Canada's commitments to NATO and the defence of North America and proposed various equipment purchases to close what was perceived to be a commitment-capability gap in Canada's military establishment. When, however, the White Paper was finally issued, on 5 June 1987, the international strategic situation was already evolving in a different direction from what had been anticipated.

Canada, not wanting to design an SSN from the keel up, would buy existing hull and nuclear propulsion technology designs and build them under license in Canadian shipyards. Three potential sources, the US, the United Kingdom, and France, were to be considered. The strongest American opposition to the U.K.-Canadian SSN deal within DOE came from Naval Reactors, which wanted no part of any nuclear propulsion transfer deal. For DOE the issues were simple. For Canada to build SSN's, large amounts of sensitive classified nuclear propulsion technology would have to be transferred to the Canadian government and industry. The question was would it be protected? Second, Canada did not have the critically important technology infrastructure which Naval Reactors knew was necessary for the safe application of naval nuclear propulsion. Their greatest concern, one shared by all in DOE and DOD, was that a reactor accident aboard a Canadian SSN using US-design nuclear technology could severely damage public confidence in the safety of all nuclear vessels, severely curtailing the operational freedom and port access of the U.S. Navy, 40% of whose vessels were nuclear.

In April 1988 President Reagan approved the transfer of US-developed nuclear submarine propulsion technology to Canada and would inform Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during his visit to Washington later that month. The opponents of the transfer, the Department of Defense, the United States Navy and the Department of Energy (the home of naval reactors), were stunned.

By May 1988, when the Canadian cabinet failed to meet to discuss the SSN contract, the plan was essentially if not officially dead. This cancellation was due to a combination of factors, including a serious budget squeeze and the rapid decline and collapse of the Soviet Union. Analysis soon appeared which revealed the military flaws in the plan and the substantially overlooked industrial infrastructure costs that would have to be paid, costs which would add billions of dollars to the price of the SSN program. The Mulroney government eventually reduced to 5 or 6 the number of SSN's it wished to buy but even then the costs seemed prohibitive.

In June 1987, 50 percent of Canadians backed the purchase (with 37 percent opposed). A little more than a year later, opposition had increased to 60 percent. By 1989, 71 percent were against the purchase, as most Canadians polled expressed a belief that a Soviet attack was highly unlikely. Canada made no effect after the decision it had taken in principle, following a strong internal opposition based in its contradiction with the policy of non-proliferation so strongly espoused by successive Canadian Governments, and also in the huge financial cost that the acquisition of these submarines would have meant.

In May 1989 the nuclear submarine project was cancelled. The Canadian navy still needed to replace the aging Oberons, so Project M2549 Canadian Patrol Submarine Project stood up in 1990, but in 1992, it was deferred two years until 1994. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the emergence of new independent states like Russia and the Ukraine completed the transition from the Cold War to a more normal but still volatile system of international relations. The new situation prompted a new policy statement, Canadian Defence Policy, made public in April 1992 at about the same time as the 1992 federal Budget. While making a fuller presentation of Canada's place in the new geopolitical situation, the 1992 statement basically reflected the impact of the additional cuts in planned defence spending in the 1992 federal Budget.

By 1994 the Liberal government-instituted Defence White Paper stated that the government intended to "explore [the] option" of "acquiring three to six modern diesel-electric submarines on a ... demonstrably cost-effective [basis]." This deferral entailed yet another change in nomenclature, to Project M2549 Submarine Capability Life Extension. The Canadian Oberons one by one advanced beyond their 25-year design life.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

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