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Canada - Nuclear Submarine

The RCN has existed for most of its history without submarines. In fact, it was not until the 1960s when the government became convinced of the utility of submarines for Canada’s defence policy. Even then, the submarines were used as a training tool to develop Canada’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Previous governments have supported submarine acquisitions, including a brief experiment with the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines in the 1980s, but there was a growing perception in Canada that submarines were a political liability.

Canada’s best known sovereignty issue remains control over maritime traffic in the Northwest Passage. Canada claims these waters are internal, giving Canada the right to control entry and conditions upon same. The American and EU position is that these waters are part of an international strait. Chief among those competing for Arctic resources are Russia and China, and with expanding access for shipping and resource extraction in the Arctic, state military capabilities are expanding.

The Arctic under-ice environment is unsuitable for existing or developing AIP-powered submarines since they lack endurance, speed, versatility and the ability to surface safely in extreme conditions. To replenish air, SSKs must surface and raise their snorkel at regular intervals, which is impossible under all but the thinnest layers of ice.

Canadian submarines must operate for prolonged periods, at great distances, with unlimited endurance in some of the most unforgiving waters on the planet. Although SSNs have higher upfront costs they have many advantages. Nuclear propulsion is superior in terms of surge ability, changing stations and staying on station, without the encumbrance of fuel supply logistics. The high density of nuclear power allows space for other cargo including spare parts, water, food, autonomous vehicles and weapons. Only an SSN has the ability to repeatedly surface through several feet of ice.

The RCN began reviewing the possibility of acquiring SSNs in 1958. Vice Admiral Harry “Hard Over” DeWolf served as Chief of the Naval Staff between 1956 and 1960. He fully accepted the principle that the nuclear submarine was the best anti-submarine platform. DeWolf actively pursued the possible acquisition of the American Skipjack class for the RCN early in his tenure as Chief of the Naval Staff. As much as he wanted these nuclear attack submarines, however, he quickly realized that committing Canada to such an expensive platform would likely leave little cash for any other ships.

most submariners truly wanted the nuclear-powered Thresher class submarines, and they had good reason to believe that such a program was possible. Not only had Cabinet agreed to explore their potential procurement, but also a study from the 1962 Submarine Survey Committee had given the Threshers particularly high marks. The Submarine Committee advised that the RCN should continue with the acquisition of the three conventional Oberons However, its major conclusions, which reiterated many of the findings from the earlier Nuclear Submarine Survey Team, was that the RCN immediately embark on a program of six Canadian-built Threshers. These findings were greeted with an “ominous silence” from both the Naval Staff and Board. The Naval Policy Coordinating Committee rightly concluded on 06 November 1962 that the nuclear submarines were “clearly beyond the financial capabilities of the RCN.”

Safe Low Power C(K)ritical Experiment (SLOWPOKE) nuclear research reactors were designed by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) as a simple, safe, and affordable neutron source for universities and hospitals for application of neutron activation analysis (NAA) and radioisotope production. In 1985, the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC) commissioned a 20 kW SLOWPOKE-2 reactor into its new engineering building in support of the proposed Canadian nuclear submarine program. The nuclear submarine program never materialized but the SLOWPOKE-2 has proven to be an extremely versatile and valuable asset for RMCC and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

In 1987, the Defence White Paper portrayed the SSN as the ideal weapon for the RCN due to its unparalleled mobility and versatility. The Canadian Public accepted the need. In June 1987, public support for the SSN program was at 50% with only 37% opposed. In July 1987, John Rogers Anderson was made Rear-Admiral. He was tasked to head the Canadian Nuclear Submarine Acquisition Project as the Chief of Submarine Acquisition.

On 5 June 1987, the Brian Mulroney Progressive Conservative government of Canada unveiled to the House of Commons its White Paper on national defence. The document, Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada, was advertised as a plan to rejuvenate the Canadian military, which the Conservatives had long accused former Liberal governments of ignoring and allowing to decline.

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.

Defence Update 1988-89 stated: “One of the most challenging defence initiatives, which has caught the imagination of many and attracted the criticism of some, is the plan to acquire 10-12 nuclear-propelled submarines… They are the only vessels capable of exercising surveillance and control in the Arctic. There is simply no other way for Canada to defend its Arctic approaches.”

Some sections of the American navy and government were “appalled” at what they saw as Canadian military interference aimed only at resolving a Canadian-American sovereignty dispute. During a 1987 trip to Washington to secure the transfer of American nuclear technology from Britain to Canada, as was required by the 1958 US Arms Control Export Act, Minister of National Defence Perrin Beatty and his associates were told in no uncertain terms by the U.S. Defence Department and submarine service officials that a Canadian nuclear submarine program was unnecessary and even unwelcome.

The Canadian nuclear submarine program, and most of the programs outlined in the 1987 White Paper were never undertaken. By January 1989, Perrin Beatty had left DND and had been replaced as Minister by Bill McKnight. And, by May 1988, when the cabinet failed to meet to discuss the SSN contract, the plan was essentially if not officially dead. By 1989, 71 percent of Canadians were against the purchase.

On 27 October 2011 Defence Minister McKay told CBC News “… I know nuclear subs are what’s needed under deep water, deep ice.” A built-in-Canada solution, supported by a foreign shipbuilder with submarine building experience, would be the best solution for leveraging domestic capability. Canada could develop its own Small Modular Reactor (SMR) nuclear systems to propel both SSNs and icebreakers, and to provide emissions-free electricity to both Canadian industry and remote communities.

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Page last modified: 10-02-2022 19:16:28 ZULU