We interrupt this program to bring you an information bulletin from the Department of National Defence. Here is the bulletin: a Canadian naval submarine has successfully fired a torpedo. That is all.
Well, actually more than one torpedo as the department’s news release suggested. But wait, you say. What’s the big deal? Submarines fire torpedoes. It’s kind of the whole point. And too true, for most submarines in most navies around the world, firing torpedoes is nothing too unusual. But for the Royal Canadian Navy, the successful test firings in Nanoose Bay, B.C. last week were a deal, a big deal, even if they were only firing unarmed fish.
That’s because our four-boat fleet of former Royal Navy subs has been more than a dozen years and billions of dollars in the making, with very few actual results. And the test-firings by HMCS Victoria, the only sub currently in service, represents the first-ever firings of the Canadian heavy torpedo of choice, the MK48, by any vessel in the fleet.
And the reason that’s doubly significant? The navy, when it bought the four boats from some fast-talking Brits for $750 million in 1998, wanted to use the torpedo that was in commission with the Canadian Forces. Problem was, the British boats used a different torpedo, the Spearfish. So all the boats have had to be modified to accommodate the preferred Canadian weapon, which of course is an American weapon.
Navy brass at the time also decided to Canadianize many other systems on the submarines, and that cost a lot of dough. Then there was the fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004, the day after it was commissioned by our navy. The fire killed a gallant young officer and put Chicoutimi out of operation. It might not be ready to go to sea again until 2016, according to defense industry publications. So in the case of that boat, it was in service for a day and out of commission potentially for 12 years.
There have many others problems: an undersea grounding and fire safety concerns feature prominently and at times the navy was hard pressed to keep up the effort to get the subs operational while still committing the surface fleet to missions in the Mediterranean, the Arabian Sea, Haiti and other hotspots.
The navy isn’t keen to talk about how much this whole escapade has cost. With so much of the senior ranks’ credibility on the line over the sub program, the costs are an embarrassment. Independent and government sources generally agree that the total is approaching $3 billion. So just to keep things in perspective, for $3 billion, we’ve kept four boats in various states of repair, for about 14 years.