Canadian Submarine Bedeviled By Accidents For A Decade Is Finally Back In The Water

Canada’s tiny submarine fleet has been in sad shape for years. Now with the return of HMCS Corner Brook that could start to change.

HMCS Corner Brook
Royal Canadian Navy

The Royal Canadian Navy’s Victoria class diesel-electric submarine HMCS Corner Brook has returned to the water, following a troubled overhaul that began back in 2014 and was interrupted by an onboard fire. The boat has not been to sea for even longer, however, since it was effectively put out of commission after hitting the seabed off Vancouver Island in the Pacific Ocean back in 2011.

The Royal Canadian Navy, or RCN, announced yesterday that Corner Brook had begun the undocking process at Esquimalt Graving Dock (EGD), when it was loaded onto the lift barge Seaspan Careen over several hours. The barge then moved the sub to Ogden Point. Here, the submarine was gradually lowered into the water. It will then be moved to Her Majesty’s Canadian Dockyard at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and fueled in advance of in-harbor acceptance trials, after which it should finally go back to sea.

Royal Canadian Navy

HMCS Corner Brook is maneuvered onto the lift barge for the journey to Her Majesty’s Canadian Dockyard.

The RCN described it as a “significant milestone for Canada’s Submarine Force” and “also a noteworthy step towards the goal of having three of four submarines back in operations across the east and west coast in the near future.”

Preparations for the undocking of Corner Brook began on June 10 after Babcock Canada completed its Extended Docking Work Period (EDWP) at EGD.

The path to getting Corner Brook back into service — which has still not happened yet — has been a tortuous one and has become emblematic of the problems that the four-boat Victoria class has faced.

Royal Canadian Navy

HMCS Corner Brook transported on the lift barge Seaspan Careen.

The submarines were acquired from the United Kingdom after the British Royal Navy phased out conventionally-powered boats in favor of an all-nuclear sub-surface fleet in the 1990s. The four ex-Upholder class submarines arrived in Canada between 2000 and 2004. After spending $427 million on an eight-year lease, the boats were officially sold for exactly one British pound and another $98 million was invested in overhauls and refits. Their subsequent service in RCN hands, where they were renamed as members of the Victoria class, has been anything but straightforward, however.

Corner Brook’s particular misfortune really began with the aforementioned accident off Vancouver Island in 2011, which was officially blamed on human error. At the time there were concerns that damage to the submarine’s pressure hull might mean it would have to be scrapped, but repairs were subsequently authorized and work began in 2014.

U.S. NAVY

HMCS Corner Brook pulls into Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, for a 2009 port visit.

In 2019, as the repair process dragged on, a fire broke out on Corner Brook at Victoria Shipyards in Canada's British Columbia. It was quickly extinguished, thankfully, reportedly causing only minimal damage. Then, last December, the Canadian Department of Defense confirmed a leak aboard the submarine had caused new damage during a test carried out by Babcock the previous March and had pushed back the date of the boat's expected return to service.

With all this in mind, the latest progress made by Corner Brook is encouraging for the RCN and for the Canadian military at large.

However, it’s not only this Victoria class submarine that has had a checkered history since its transfer to the RCN. Among the other three boats, the future HMCS Chicoutimi, caught fire while sailing from the United Kingdom to Canada in 2004, killing one sailor and injuring eight. HMCS Victoria, meanwhile, was found to have a dent in its hull in 2000 and then suffered “catastrophic damage” to its electrical system during upgrade work in 2006.

Canadian Forces

Fire damage inside HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004.

In the years after their transfer from the United Kingdom, all four boats were found to have dangerous sub-standard welds that required repairs, as well.

As a result, these submarines have barely managed to spend any meaningful periods at sea since their — much delayed — introductions. In 2019, for instance, the four boats were at sea for zero days as further maintenance continued.

The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated things and, although Victoria returned to the fleet last September, Corner Brook faced more delays. As of April this year, both Windsor and Victoria were in the water undergoing post-work testing, suggesting the program may, finally, have turned a corner. There seems to be some uncertainty when work on Chicoutimi might be completed, however, evidenced by the RCN’s stated aim of “having three of four submarines” back in service in the near-term.

An RCN video showing preparations to make HMCS Victoria ready for sea in late 2011 and 2012:

That aspiration might also be challenged by the age of the submarines, with the oldest, Victoria, due to reach the end of its planned service life next year. A life-extension program costing roughly $1.5 billion would be required to keep the class active into the late 2030s or early 2040s. While that may not sound such a lot, it’s a significant figure in a country where annual defense spending for 2019-20 was estimated at around $26.5 billion, total. The life-extension program would equate to more than 5 percent of the entire defense budget. 

Rick Anthony/Wikimedia Commons

HMCS Corner Brook passing Fort Amherst and entering St. John’s Harbour in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if the Canadian government decides the funds for submarine life-extension could be better spent elsewhere. Regardless, Canada has already invested more than a billion dollars in the submarines in the past 20 years, with very little return so far. Submarines are also not the only area where Canada is struggling to modernize, with the saga of acquiring new fighter jets another prominent big-ticket example.

The RCN’s requirement for a submarine of any kind is meanwhile clear, with the strategic importance of the nearby Arctic region steadily growing and with highly advanced Russian submarines increasingly active in the North Atlantic. The result has been a revival of submarine and anti-submarine warfare across NATO, something that Canada is keenly aware of. That said, just four submarines for a country like Canada with maritime interests in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic, as well as responsibilities as part of NATO, is an extremely small force — even if they do all work.

That Ottawa is willing to invest in high-end naval capabilities is clear by looking at its ambitious next-generation frigates, based on the British Type 26 design, which will be among the most heavily armed warships of their size.

It remains to be seen whether Canada will opt to persist with its trouble-prone Victoria class or if it will decide to invest in a new design offering better reliability and capabilities, although, so far, there doesn’t appear to be any active movements toward acquiring new submarines. Once the RCN finally has three subs back in regular service, the defense ministry might be better able to make a decision on that front.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com