Nuclear submarines for Canada?

Canadian leaders are considering the possibility of fielding SSNs, but there's a long way to go before a nuclear boat flies a maple leaf ensign.

Canada’s defense minister is “hinting” that Ottawa might be interested in adding nuclear fast-attack submarines to its navy for tomorrow’s critical under-ice patrols.

It could use them: The Royal Canadian Navy has not had good luck with submarines of late, as the CBC, via Galrahn, describes — all four of Canada’s former British boats are laid up today, and one of them has only had two days of service in the 13 years it’s been a Canadian warship.

All other things equal, it could be a great idea for both Canada and the United States. Either the Canadians could buy new versions of the U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class fast attack sub — and you’d better believe General Dynamics’ Electric Boat yard would make them a heckuva deal — or, as Galrahn suggests, they could even lease U.S. Los Angeles-class boats. The U.S. and its contractors could get a nice payday from the deal, plus the strategic comfort in knowing a close ally had some sophisticated gear to help keep an eye under the all-important Arctic.

Will it happen? Seems like a long shot. File this one away with the onetime suggestions that Australia could buy some American nuclear submarines, which was just as pleasant a daydream. In fact, it was better, because an Aussie nuclear submarine force would not only guarantee sales and work for American engineers, it would’ve created a friendly new nuclear-capable port conveniently situated in the Western Pacific. Although speakers at the Naval Submarine League conference this month praised the value of the Navy’s two current submarine tenders, those ships aren’t getting any younger, and the service won’t replace them any time soon.

The thing is, defense issues are national issues for Canadians (and Australians) in ways they aren’t for Americans. President Obama was photographed at Langley AFB, Va. not too long ago with two Air Force F-22s, and he even made a joke about how he wanted to take one for a spin. Has any national reporter or commentator connected Obama’s visit with the Air Force’s apparent inability to make the jets safe for their pilots? In another time and place, Obama’s joking about the F-22 could have been the equivalent of President George W. Bush’s praise about “a heckuva job.” But the F-22’s grounding and troubles are so below the radar of both the White House and the national press corps, Obama’s advance team may not even have known the Raptors’ backstory, or cared enough about it to change the president’s photo op. Multiply that times Future Combat Systems; the San Antonio-class amphibious transports; the Joint Tactical Radio System and so on — for the most part, voters just don’t care.

Canada is different, though. Every couple of weeks, for example, the mainstream national newspapers have an item about Canada’s membership in Club F-35 — either political controversy or some new question about the jets’ capability. As you read on Defense Tech, the Winnepeg Free Press reported that Canada’s CF-35s may not be able to fully communicate when they’re patrolling their portions of the Arctic. The National Post had a column about the program “unraveling” on Friday. All this means that Ottawa can’t make big defense decisions such as buying or leasing nuclear submarines out of sight, the way our Pentagon mostly operates on its own. So given how much juice it’s already costing Canada’s Conservative government to buy 65 CF-35s, any discussion about nuclear submarines might prove to be a boat too far.