The USNS Concord went to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in minutes after being hit by a torpedo fired from the submarine HMCS Victoria.
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Better late than never.
Two weeks ago the Royal Canadian Navy achieved something that, as recently as a year ago, many thought impossible: One of its submarines fired a fully armed torpedo.
Not only that, it hit the mark and sank a decommissioned U.S. navy ship in less than 15 minutes.
The submarine was HMCS Victoria and it fired a heavyweight MK48 torpedo as part of RIMPAC naval exercises off the island of Kauai, Hawaii.
Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, Commander RCN, was there to see it for himself. He left nobody in any doubt about the significance of the event.
“This is a clear demonstration of the full weapons capability of the Victoria-class and marks a significant achievement in HMCS Victoria’s return to operations,” said Vice-Admiral Maddison.
“This platform provides Canada with a unique strategic capability unrivalled in stealth, persistence and lethality that can act decisively on and below the surface of the sea at a time and place of the government’s choosing.”
It’s not recorded if he added a sigh of relief, but it would have been understandable if he did.
The sinking of the USNS Concord means Canada’s troubled four-boat submarine fleet may be finally approaching full operational capability, thus ending one of the most troubled defence procurement projects in Canadian military history.
The story began in the 1990s when Canada wanted to replace its 1960s-era diesel-electric Oberon class subs. The boats were reliable, quiet, well crewed and operated but were simply too old to put back in the water.
New submarines seemed an impossible fiscal and strategic dream, because the cost of replacement would have been upwards of half a billion dollars each.
Step forward Britain. The Royal Navy had four slightly used Upholder class diesel-electric subs that it was willing to part with for a mere $188 million each.
Britain launched these boats in the late 1980s, commissioned them between 1990 and 1993, but then mothballed the fleet as the Cold War drew to an end and the RN went solely with nuclear submarines.
So the deal was made in 1998, with delivery of the Upholders to begin in 2000.
Canada decommissioned its Oberons before discovering that the British boats needed more work (removing rust, fixing electrical flaws, installing Canadian compatible equipment and repairing key welds) than anticipated.
The reason for the massive works program was simple. The British had chosen to retire the Upholders rather than upgrade them, so the submarines’ first deep refit work was left to Canada.
Canada also wanted compatibility with its Oberon-legacy MK48 torpedoes rather than replacing them with the British Spearfish torpedoes that the subs had been built for.
Added to the basic refit work was the task of replacing some Upholder systems with fire control devices from the Oberons, a decision that was meant to be economical.
It wasn’t. Canada learnt a multi-million dollar lesson that any other non-nuclear submarine operating country like South Korea, Australia, Germany, Israel or Japan could have told them for free.
Submarine fleets are expensive to buy (even second hand) and even more expensive to run in the long term.
Unsurprisingly, final refit and refurbishment costs for Canada’s renamed Victoria Class soared well past the initial $750-million estimate. This was on top of the initial purchase price.
There was plenty of political flack along the way and a near catastrophic fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi that combined to have some experts predicting in mid-2011 the program would be wound up.
That was then and this is now.
The RCN remains confident it will have three submarines fully operational by 2013. The final one, HMCS Chicoutimi, is expected to be ready by 2016.
That will be good news for Canadian taxpayers, politicians, the RCN and, interestingly enough, our neighbours south of the border.
The U.S. Navy needs to train against diesel-electric subs, but doesn’t operate any. Canada’s next-door fleet will be a much sought after partner for joint naval exercises.
It will also bring back a few memories for the U.S. Navy — maybe not all of them good.
During the 1981 NATO exercise Ocean Venture, an unnamed RCN Oberon class submarine infiltrated one of two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups.
It evaded the screening destroyers and “sank” the carrier USS America without once being itself detected.
Later in the same North Atlantic exercise a second unidentified diesel sub “sank” the carrier USS Forrestal.
This is the experience that RCN submariners are rebuilding with the Victoria class — one torpedo at a time