Friday, September 28, 2007

Subs look like very expensive lemons

I mostly write about provincial issues, but every now and then something comes along that's too bizarrely interesting to ignore.
This time, it's Canada's submarines. I've made some misguided purchases in my day, but never anything that looked quite so dramatically flawed.
HMCS Victoria is in drydock here and the Victoria Times Colonist's report on the state of the sub had a decidedly surreal quality.
The Victoria is one of the four used submarines Canada bought from Britan in 1998, taking delivery in 2000. The plan was to spend six months getting it ready for service in Halifax and then set out to sea.
But the six months stretched into three years, The sub sailed for Esquimalt, its home base, arriving with flags flying and a band waiting dockside to celebrate.
Then it went straight into 10 more months of repairs for new problems.
It sailed for a few months at sea, and then a fire on a sister sub, the Chicoutimi, killed a sailor on its voyage from England. The Victoria was pulled from service for another seven months.
The sub was ready to sail again by May 2005. But by the fall it was into drydock here for what was supposed to be a two-year repair program. It should have been back at sea by now.
But the Times Colonist reported the navy is now hoping for a 2009 launch. Making the submarine usable and safe is going to take almost four years - twice as long as planned.
The submarines cost almost $790 million when Canada bought them. There's no ready tally of the money sunk into them since, but the Victoria repairs have more than equalled the purchase price.
Since Canada took possession in October 2000, the HMCS Victoria has actually been in service for 115 days.
For every day of use, there have been three weeks of repairs and refitting.
By the time the sub is ready to go - if it meets the new deadline - it will have been out of service 96.5 per cent of the time since delivery.
It doesn't seem like a success story. In seven years, the HCMS Victoria has actually been used for its intended purpose for four months. The rest of the time the repair bills have been mounting.
What's weird is that no one seems particularly perturbed that we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on submarines that mostly haven't worked.
The Victoria is not an anomaly. Only one of the three other submarines is functioning. The Chicoutimi has been tied up since the fire; work will start on a major overhaul after the Victoria is done in 2009.
And these repairs and delays weren't part of the plan. When the navy bought the used submarines - which had been mothballed by Britain for four years - officers talked about them being in service by the end of 2001.
But the politicians, the public, seem remarkably understanding about what looks like a bad deal.
What makes it even more worrying is that the Canadian forces, in part because of the new combat role in Afghanistan and in part because of the supportive Conservative government, appear about to go on a shopping spree. They're looking at new fighters, a $4-billion purchase. New transport and search-and-rescue aircraft, $3.2 billion. A long list from the Navy. Drones,artillery, trucks tanks - again, a second-hand deal.
All in, the price tag is something like $22 billion and counting. Given the experience with the submarines, that should make a lot of Canadians nervous.
Especially because there seems some confusion about just what the equipment is for - whether the government is preparing Canada for a succession of overseas wars like the one in Afghanistan.
I'm sure buying used subs is tricky. But by any objective standards - including the ones the government and Canadian forces brass set when they bought the ships - this has gone wildly off the rails.
Footnote: So why submarines, anyway? Are we going to be sinking interlopers in Canadian waters? Or heading off to countries unknown to spy on their fleets? "Submarines excel at defending, surveillance and intelligence gathering," Sen.
Colin Kenny offered earlier this year. "Even with modern technology, submarines are difficult to detect. The mere presence of submarines defending Canada's coasts is a deterrent to potentially hostile vessels."


Anonymous said... Canada wants to become a military industrial complex...only we'll be purchasing from??? as we don't do the manufacturing.
Who'd want to anyways. ya know 'Peace is Best'! Bev in BC

Anonymous said...

I don't think you have a clue about the complexities of submarine design. The Canadian Navy obviously didn't either, given that they decided to extensively refit British subs for a variety of parochial reasons that likely don't do much for their overall capability. And the work is also being done in dockyards with little or no experience with submarines. The problem is akin to owning an expensive import car in a small town where they only know how to service domestic models. The good news is that Canada will (presumably) have gained those skills at the end of this expensive process. What Canada gains in the end is an excellent maritime surveillance platform and a deadly anti-submarine and anti-shipping weapon. Think about those photos of foreign driftnetters in the newspapers earlier this week: they were tipped off by the maritime patrol aircraft and could start covering up their activities. If a submarine had been tailing them, they wouldn't even know they were being watched, and we'd stand a better chance of catching the perpetrators. Finally, I think that extrapolating from the submarine purchase to the current defense acquisition program is inaccurate and unfair. The submarine purchase is a textbook example of a botched program execution, and typifies the inanity of defense policy in the 1990s. The armed forces need new equipment to do the jobs assigned to them and that equipment costs money. For all the rhetoric about "soft power", defending Canadian territory is a pretty essential function of a government.

G West said...

Ah yes, Canadian military intelligence and purchasing - that's something to conjure with all right. I'd say the purchase of these four subs (why didn't we just figure out which one worked and buy it?) was a good illustration of why we shouldn't bother. Just like the 189 million dollar bill for airlifting obsolete Leopard tanks to Afghanistan last know the ones - the ones that were too hot to use anyway and had to be replaced by leased models from Germany this spring.

Something about Canucks on the prowl for military hardware always brings to mind the Ross rifle.

In fact, little Rickie Hillyer actually reminds me a lot of old Sam and Garnet Hughes. But that's another story.

As for fishing patrol duty: great idea – too bad it’s about 3 decades late. Just for God’s sake don’t give the submariners any live ammo. The boys and girls out at Naden do serve up a decent Christmas dinner though.