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Navies, Narratives and Canada’s Submarine Fleet

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CDA Institute guest contributor Paul Mitchell, a professor at Canadian Forces College, explores the question of narratives as it relates to Canada’s submarine fleet.

As HMCS Chicoutimi slipped silently into the depths of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I reflected on what many friends and family remarked when I told them of my opportunity to spend a day underwater on her: “are you crazy?” Indeed, this particular submarine made their concern all the more poignant. Chicoutimi, after all, is arguably the most infamous submarine in the fleet given the fire on its maiden voyage to Canada, an incident that cost the life of Lt. (N) Chris Saunders, repairs costing millions of dollars, and a long delayed re-​entry into operational service. The fire established a story that we had bought lemons from a used car lot.

Chicoutimi passageSince the fire, the navy has had to fight against this very well established narrative. Along with the usual references to the West Edmonton Mall, such derision extends even into the intellectual realm. Professor Michael Byers regularly publishes critiques of the program under snappy titles like That Sinking Feeling. If you Google “Canadian submarine” and “boondoggle,” you will get the picture very quickly.

I shared neither of the qualms of my family, nor the derision of the critics. The dedication and professionalism of those who work beneath the waves is remarkable. The cramped quarters would challenge most of us. Passageways are similar to airplane aisles, requiring passing people to turn sideways and get closely acquainted with their physical features. The “racks” in which one sleeps are roughly the size of a coffin, with just as much headspace. Three toilets are shared by 48 crew men and women (four women proudly serve aboard Chicoutimi), and the mess, a space measuring roughly ten by ten feet, is the only spot where one might escape the demands of the work environment. The biggest space aboard her is the operations room, smaller than most people’s living room, in which a team of 15 to 20 people work. The stink of diesel fuel embeds itself into hair and clothing. Finally, the secrecy of submarine movements means that no one may reveal when they will be leaving or returning to port, thus complicating any sort of social or family life.

The constraints of life are dominated by rigid safety protocols followed religiously. Failure results in death. Once the hatches were locked down, a rapid roll call raced through the vessel to ensure that no one had been left outside: early in the last decade, such a procedure was not standard in another navy, and two submariners, forgotten in the conning tower, paid for it with their lives. Once underwater, a constant drone of contacts, distances, and bearings, as well as depth soundings echoed within the operations room to ensure that Chicoutimi neither hit the bottom, nor vessels sailing above. When you can’t look out a window and see where you are, your reliance on technical systems becomes paramount.

Telling the real submarine story is inherently difficult. To begin with, Canadians have a certain “sea blinded-​ness” and the navy is an “unseen service”: most live far from the coasts and the demands of protecting them does not resonate. Submarines’ inherent stealthiness and secrecy compounds this further. Last, while the navy has good public relations programmes that enable ordinary Canadians to visit its ships and even sail aboard them for a lucky few, similar opportunities with submarines are rare. For my day aboard Chicoutimi, I lobbied the navy relentlessly for about a year, and then had to wait a further 18 months for an opening to occur.

Chicoutimi engineStill, the basic problem affecting the navy’s submarine story is its plot. The navy likes to focus on technical details of the submarines. Compared with surface vessels, submarines are relatively cost effective in conducting surveillance given the enormous ranges that their sensors are able to surveil together with the small size of their crews. Furthermore, this surveillance can be done very discreetly, allowing submarines to operate undetected in sensitive areas. Canadian submarines have performed very useful roles in the Caribbean Sea monitoring the transit of drug shipments, passing along such information to surface vessels and aircraft for their physical interdiction. Submarines also were able to monitor illegal fishing by American vessels in Canadian waters, surprising a few with a radio transmission noting their activities. It promotes the notion of the “balanced fleet”: waterspace control requires operating in all three dimensions – above, on, and below sea level.

Such arguments ring cold for ordinary Canadians given the lack of connection these success stories have for day to day life. The durability of the narrative of dysfunction is frustrating. Thus, no sub news is good news for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). That may satisfy admirals running the day to day operation of the fleet, but it is short sighted when it comes to justifying and replacing these vessels.

In order to drive out the narrative of dysfunction, the navy needs to address the emotive angle: when Canadians call our submarines lemons, they do so not because they know this to be a fact, but rather they feel it to be so. The metaphor of the used car is an easy one to understand and resonates strongly. But our submarines, used though they may be, are so much more than that. A trip on a submarine is like going into outer space. The safety culture of space engineering share much in common with submarines: the environment of outer space is every bit as unforgiving as the undersea environment.

Similarly, there is a “cool” factor that stems from such high technology that has never been exploited by the RCN (although has been by the US Navy – witness films such as The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide). If the RCN wishes to change the narrative of its submarines, it must begin to think along these lines. Only then may ordinary Canadians begin to see these vessels, critical to modern maritime security, as something less dysfunctional, and something more relatable to their day to day lives.

Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College, where he is the Director of Academics and the RMC Associate Dean of Arts (CFC). He is well published on submarine affairs: his very first academic publication in 1991 examined the issue of Strategic ASW and War Termination. (Images courtesy of Paul Mitchell.)

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  • Guest
    M Shannon Tuesday, 27 October 2015


    The problem with the subs as with most of the CF, isn’t “narrative”. It’s lack of utility and need. Due to geography and the end of general war as a usable arm of foreign policy few Canadians believe it defends us or our European allies. What we’re left with is a very expensive habit that must resort to stretches of the imagination to convince the public that it’s worthwhile. For example the navy has attached itself to the failed war on drugs where it’s anti-​smuggling activities aid the cartels by raising risk premiums for their products.

    There will always be people for a larger military– the principal of concentrated benefit and dispersed cost will ensure that there are people who will have well compensated and interesting careers in the defence-​security complex but most Canadians understand it’s a waste which explains why even with a Tory government defence spending was allowed to take up so little of the GNP.

  • Guest
    Christian Tuesday, 17 November 2015

    CF is Justified

    Your arguments have nothing to do with submarines but are rather about the idea of having a military at all. Is a military needed? Canada is well protected by geography, however perception is important and having a military can help shape that perception. If Canada abolished its military, it would be seen as weak by the US and other allies, and worse unfairly relying on the US and NATO military spending for protection. It is highly likely that trade negotiation positions suffer with Canada’s perceived weakness, causing harm to our economy far in excess of the small amount of GDP dedicated to our military.
    Canada is a nation with a proud military tradition, it does not make sense in my mind to go down that road. Particularly when there would likely be no economic benefit.
    Back to submarines, if a nation accepts that having a military is something it should have submarines are the single most effective way we can defend our vast coastlines. A submarine is about three times cheaper to operate than a frigate, with more than three times more potency.
    War on our shores is unlikely, but a look world today one will not have much trouble finding several nations who’s citizens would be better off today if they had a stronger military.

  • Guest
    Rose Compass Wednesday, 11 November 2015


    There is truly no pun intended with my observation that your take on the maintenance of a credible and potent military establishment illustrates an inclination for navel gazing which seems to afflict Canada – like an everlasting and all too absorbing identity crisis. If you could look upon yourselves from outside – rather than having that inward focus, defining Canada’s defence needs purely in terms of preserving Canada’s territorial integrity – then you might just see that outsiders look to Canada’s history as a reliable and formidable ally. So you think we don’t need that contribution anymore? Wrong. Introspection is beneficial for critical self-​analysis but not as a norm. Entertain the idea instead that maintaining and building upon your historic strengths buys you into a security community, and makes the rest of that community feel so much more secure for knowing that you are there in force. Or you could just opt out, and let the rest of the community down. You may not realize that this is what your passivity amounts to, but then you aren’t looking at yourselves from our perspective – nor, critically, even trying to. Ask your allies – they’ll point you in the right direction – it’s Canada’s choice to opt out, not something we need you to do.

  • Guest
    Capt.mouck Wednesday, 28 October 2015

    Submarine Patching

    THe biggest part of the subs history is during the WWI and WWII the decoy vessels used for the subs to attach to and cruise past sonar, I sent the article into the Esquimalt CFB naval museum, and its the only article ever written about it, was viewed as magnificent , but that part of history was still classified and they couldn’t publish it. the article still exists in my database waiting for the day to emerge and make people realize what those sub patching vessels really did and how they saved the war. Try to prove me wrong.

  • Guest
    Catherine Raven Thursday, 29 October 2015

    HMCS Ojibwa offers incredible experiences and reveals the real story of Cold War Warriors

    Whether you take the regular tours or the ground breaking Greater Depths tour which offers three hours on Ojibwa with former submariners as your guide the result is invariably the same AWESOME! I HAD NO IDEA! There will be times when the hair stands up on the back of your neck on hearing some stories and other times you will laugh till you cry. But that is only the beginning. We put the sub in SUBject. Ojibwa offers an incomparable overview of everything from physics and chemistry to industrial design to what it takes to live in such cramped spaces. The Elgin Military Museum (the owners of HMCS Ojibwa) is proud of our work with those dealing with PTSD. In short, this Cold War Warrior may be out of the water but she continues to serve in so many ways. Raising the level of awareness amongst Canadians is difficult but those who see Ojibwa NEVER forget the experience.

  • Guest
    NavyLookout Tuesday, 10 November 2015

    What happens at sea impacts us all

    An excellent piece that highlights the dilemma for many navies and submarine services in particular. Instinctively they want (and need) to be secretive and low profile but without public and media understanding and the accompanying political backing, it is increasingly hard get the funds needs for an effective fleet. ‘Sea blindness’ is a big problem in island like the UK so it must be even more difficult for a large continental nation like Canada. www​.savetheroy​al​navy​.org

  • Guest
    Ken Tuesday, 10 November 2015

    The truth costs

    You will Never truly know what happens unless you were there and no one talks about it. Simple really. That’s what theirs the official secrets act. Skimmers can’t hide.… boats do and can hide. You can’t see their problems. It’s called be in brave even when you don’t want to be. But we do survive

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