Is SSN-AUKUS a realistic option for Canada?

On the occasion of an announcement, eagerly awaited by the Canadian armies, of a future increase in defense spending by Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he had spoken with his American, British and Australian counterparts, regarding Canada's possible membership in the AUKUS alliance.

The leader also announced discussions with these same interlocutors so that Ottawa could possibly join the SSN-AUKUS program, aimed at designing a new generation nuclear attack submarine to equip the British and Australian navies. .

However, if the choice of nuclear propulsion for future Canadian attack submarines would make a lot of sense, all the other parameters concerning this hypothesis, ranging from the timetable to the costs of such a program, ring false. to Canadian realities.

Towards an extension of the AUKUS alliance to face China in the Pacific

For several weeks, the United States has increased diplomatic overtures to try to strengthen the AUKUS alliance, in the face of growing tensions with China. Therefore the subject was raised with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, on the occasion of his official visit to Washington to meet President Biden.

Taigei class JSDF submarine
Japan has a powerful conventional submarine fleet, which is rapidly modernizing with the arrival of the Taipei, the first submarines equipped with Lithium-ion batteries.

For Tokyo, it would be a question of joining the second pillar of the AUKUS alliance, relating only to military cooperation, and not to its participation in the SSN-AUKUS nuclear attack submarine program.

Remember that the Japanese naval self-defense forces already have a very efficient submarine fleet, currently being modernized with the new Taïgei class submarines, the first ships equipped with Lithium-ion batteries. Furthermore, constitutionally, the country does not have the ability to deploy its forces, significantly limiting the usefulness of nuclear-powered submarines.

Justin Trudeau discusses talks with US, UK and Australia to join AUKUS

This is not at all the case, however, for Canada. Not only does Ottawa share, with the three founding members of the AUKUS alliance, its membership of the Five Eyes, the closest allies of the United States, but the country does not have the constitutional constraints which govern the use of armed forces Japanese.

In addition, the Royal Canadian Navy has initiated a program to replace its four Victoria-class submarines with six to twelve new submarines, to simultaneously strengthen its presence on its Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Vctoria-class submarine
The 4 Victoria class submarines of the Royal Canadian Navy entered service between 1990 and 1993.

It is therefore not surprising, in these circumstances, that Canada is also considering joining the Aukus Alliance, so as to mirror the shift that the American neighbor and protector is making today towards the Pacific.

A few days ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he had spoken with his American, British and Australian counterparts to join the AUKUS alliance, but also to acquire, like Australia, funds -SSN-AUKUS nuclear attack marines, in place of the current program targeting conventionally powered submarines in which six Western companies are participating (Kockums, Naval Group, TKMS, Navantia, Hanwaa Ocean and Mitsubishi).

The choice of nuclear propulsion for Canadian submarines is obvious

Apart from any context, nuclear propulsion would indeed correspond to the needs of the Royal Canadian Navy. This must, in fact, take place on three oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic Ocean, under pack ice for several months of the year.

In addition, tensions over Arctic claims with Russia are growing, as Moscow rapidly strengthens its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, with the Project 885M Yassen-M class, vessels ideally suited to operate in these icy waters.

Yassen submarine
The Russian submarine fleet is rapidly modernizing with the arrival of the Iassen-M class DDGN

Finally, beyond the protection of waters and territorial rights, Canadian submarines are intended to operate over large distances, in the North Atlantic within the framework of NATO facing Russia, and in the Pacific, facing China, especially if Ottawa joins, like Tokyo, the second pillar of the AUKUS alliance.

In fact, from a purely operational point of view, turning to SSNs would be much preferable for the Canadian Navy, while participation in the SSN-AUKUS program with three other members of the Five-Eye would be obvious. even, for reasons of technological proximity.

Unfortunately for Ottawa, today, such a decision would be almost impossible to make, at least not without taking very significant risks for the Canadian submarine forces over the next 25 to 30 years.

The SSN-AUKUS schedule does not meet the needs of the Canadian Navy

The first of the factual impossibilities that Ottawa would encounter by joining the SSN-AUKUS program concerns the timetable for replacing its 4 Viktoria class submarines.

These ships, initially built for the Royal Navy, only entered service in 2000 (RCN Viktoria), 2003 (RCN Corner Brook and Windsor), and even 2015 (RCN Chicoutimi) within the Royal Canadian Navy. They, however, entered service between 1990 and 1993 in the Royal Navy, and therefore have, today, 31 to 34 years of service.

Victoria class submarine
Canadian Victorias already have 31 to 34 years of service. They will only be able to remain operational for a few more years.

Based on the forecast schedule of the SSN-AUKUS program, the first ship, destined for the Royal Navy, will only enter service in 2038 or 2039, and from 2040 for the Royal Australian Navy. At that time, Canadian ships will therefore be 46 to 49 years old, which is, in fact, unthinkable for this type of ship, unless it is kept in port.

Above all, neither Great Britain nor Australia will be ready to postpone some of their deliveries, to allow delivery to be smoothed for Canada, while accelerating the program seems, to date, unthinkable, not without postponing in question a timetable that is already particularly difficult to establish.

Additional American industrial capacities non-existent for an interim solution

Second pitfall, and not the least, American shipyards will, in all likelihood, unable to produce more submarines to possibly produce an interim solution, as is planned for Australia.

Remember that, like Ottawa, Canberra is in a hurry to replace its six Collins-class submarines, ships that are almost ten years newer than the Canadian Viktoria.

To do this, Australia must acquire three to five Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines, including two second-hand ones, from the US Navy and the US naval industry, from 2034 to 2036.

Virginia construction
the US naval industry is unable to simultaneously support the 2,4 nuclear submarines necessary for the renewal of the US Navy alone.

However, the feasibility of this sale is still far from being certain, the American Congress having required that these sales not hinder the US Navy's increase in power and modernization plan, which plans to have 60 modern SSNs at its disposal. , by 2045, while today it only has 48 ships, including more than twenty Los Angeles ships to replace.

Indeed, American shipyards are unable to increase delivery rates, partly due to HR difficulties, while the construction of the SSNs currently in progress will be joined, urgently, by the SSBNs of the Columbia class in the years to come.

In other words, it is very unlikely that Washington will be able to propose, to Ottawa, the sale of SSNs, whether new or used, to replace its Viktorias which will no longer be able to sail within a few years, in waiting for the first deliveries of SSN-AUKUS, beyond 2040.

Canadian defense budget unable to support participation in the SSN-AUKUS program

The last wall against which the ambitions expressed by Justin Trudeau come up against today is none other than the starving budget of the Canadian Armed Forces, far too insufficient to support the acquisition and implementation of nuclear submarines of attack.

Ottawa devotes, in fact, $22 billion to its armies today, or 1,38% of its GDP. The Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to bring this budget to $30 billion and 1,76% of GDP by 2030.

F-35A
In the years to come, Canada will have to finance several ambitious acquisition programs, including that of 88 F-35As for $15 billion.

At the same time, the country has engaged in several major programs, with the acquisition of 88 F-35As for $15 billion, 14 P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for $6 billion, or even 15 frigates for $26 billion, consuming, alone, the budget surplus of Canadian $87 billion announced by the Prime Minister by 2030.

At the same time, the Australian program, for 8 SSNs including 3 Virginia and 5 SSN-AUKUS, will cost, according to estimates, more than $300 billion over the lifespan of the ships, and around $50 billion in terms of acquisition alone. Canberra is today devoting 54 billion Australian dollars, 35 billion dollars, and 2,1% GDP, to its defense effort, and plans to bring it, largely to finance SSN-AUKUS, this one beyond $40 billion and 2,4% GDP in 2030.

Despite these additional resources, Canberra has scaled back several of its major programs, including frigates and infantry fighting vehicles, to free up funds for SSN-AUKUS.

Conclusion

We can see if the choice of turning to nuclear-powered submarines would prove relevant to meet the needs of the Royal Canadian Navy, and if joining the AUKUS alliance is necessary in the more or less short term for Ottawa , turning to SSN-AUKUS, seems to be wishful thinking, at best.

Suffren class
the only realistic alternative for Ottawa to acquire an SSN would be to turn to the French Suffren; But this is very unlikely to happen.

Indeed, neither the timetable, nor the budgetary resources, nor the industrial resources actually available or planned to date, seem to respond to such a program. Worse still, certain restrictions, such as actually available industrial capacities, are today more immovable constants than mobile parameters that can be adapted, for example, by increasing available credits.

Paradoxically, if Ottawa actually wants to turn to a fleet of SSNs, the only truly credible alternative, budgetarily and industrially speaking, would be to turn to France, and to the acquisition, or even the local construction, of SSNs from the Suffren class. However, it would be very surprising if Washington let Ottawa turn to Paris in this area, after having made so much effort to get the Naval group out of Australia.

The fact remains that in the absence of giving credible guarantees concerning the massive increase in the industrial production capacities of the United States or Great Britain in this area, on the one hand, and of massively increasing the budget of the Armies and the effort of defense on the Canadian side, on the other hand, it is likely that this hypothesis will come to naught, only leading to additional delays concerning the replacement of the already too old Victoria class submarines of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Article from April 15 in full version until May 25

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2 Comments

  1. Goodnight M. Wolf,

    Thank you again for your interesting articles.
    I have a question about Naval Group's production capabilities in the field of submarines.
    Because if Naval Group is well advanced in the French Suffren series, then the 4 (5?) new SSBNs will come which promise to be “monsters” with complex construction. Could be added the 4 Dutch Barracudas, and why not a few Scorpènes for buyers who do not have the skills to build them (which is not the case for Indonesia which wants, if I understand correctly , build her Scorpènes at home in technology transfer). The question is therefore that of the construction capacities of Naval Group.
    Wouldn't French shipyards be affected by the same problem as their American counterparts? Because if Naval Group is not far from its maximum capacities with few possibilities to increase them, a Canadian order (even unlikely) would be difficult to honor.
    Do you have any information on the French side?
    Sincerely.

    • Good evening Mr Manciaux
      It is, in fact, a determining parameter. With the Dutch order, and the SSBNs, we can consider that the Cherbourg site will be stuck for around ten years, unless industrial capacities are increased. In Indonesia and India, it will be local construction, so no worries. Probably also in Poland. For Canada, sincerely, I doubt that Washington will make Ottawa turn to Paris, but the price argument can make the difference. Moreover, since the writing of this article, they seem to have returned to these remarks, and seem to be interested in 3 or 4 SSK models, namely the South Korean KSS-III Dosan Anh Chango, the German Type 212CD, and perhaps the Japanese Soryu. For the moment, there has been no recent communication from Naval Group concerning this file (unlike the three previously mentioned), but French manufacturers are traditionally very discreet in their commercial approaches.
      However, if other orders are looming (Poland, Malaysia, Argentina, etc.), we can think that Naval Group could be tempted to extend its industrial infrastructure in Cherbourg, which would open up options for Canada. And if, indeed, the Blacksword Barracuda is 25% less expensive than its competitors, it risks doing very badly, provided that industrial capacities are actually available. In fact, if Naval Group actually responds to Canadian competition, we can think that the industrialist is seriously considering this option.

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