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Think-tanks call for scrapping of sub fleet; former rear-admiral disagrees

Calls for the Royal Canadian Navy to scrap or replace its beleaguered fleet of submarines are premature, says retired rear-admiral Tyrone Pile.
CornerBrook.jpg
HMCS Corner Brook docked at CFB Esquimalt in this June 2011 photo. The submarine needed extensive repairs after being damaged when it struck the bottom of the ocean off Nootka Sound.

Calls for the Royal Canadian Navy to scrap or replace its beleaguered fleet of submarines are premature, says retired rear-admiral Tyrone Pile.

“Canadian taxpayers have made a big investment in this capability and my view is we’ve turned the corner — it’s time to reap some of the investments,” said Pile, who served as commander of Maritime Forces Pacific from 2007 until his retirement in 2010.

On Tuesday, both the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Rideau Institute said the Victoria-class submarines, purchased second-hand from Britain in the late 1990s, are nearing the end of their service life and should be scrapped or replaced.

A report written by defence and law academic Michael Byers and researcher Stewart Webb asks whether Canada even needs submarines. “I don’t see a strong case for Canada to require submarines,” Byers said Tuesday in Ottawa.

Pile oversaw “the very, very difficult years” of watching the submarines struggle to reach their operational capability. “The navy and the Canadian Forces learned a lot from that experience,” Pile said. “Now’s the time to reap the benefits of the training that’s going to be afforded submariners.”

It’s vital for Canada to have a presence beneath the ocean’s surface, Pile said. Almost 15 years after it was acquired by the Chrétien government, HMCS Victoria, based at CFB Esquimalt, fired its first torpedo last year and was declared fully operational by the navy. The three other submarines, including HMCS Chicoutimi, which suffered severe damage in a 2004 electrical fire, are in various states of overhaul, upgrade and limited operations.

“We see HMCS Victoria at sea today and we’ll see her sister boats very shortly doing the same thing,” Pile said.

Many of the mechanical issues the submarines faced stemmed from not being used while they were on the market, Pile said. “That probably did more disservice to the boats than anything else.”

The former Liberal government originally set aside $895 million for the purchase and activation of the submarines, but the Defence Department subsequently spent almost double the amount. In addition, the Harper government in 2008 approved a 15-year, $1.5-billion support and refit contract for the submarines.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

— With The Canadian Press