Politics

DND extends life of submarine escape suits beyond expiry date as fleet shows its age

DND is extending the life of its stock of submarine escape suits as the federal government goes looking for brand new ones. The safety equipment procurement has rekindled the debate about the age of the navy's submarines and the Liberal government's unwillingness to replace them.

Liberals plan to modernize and sail the navy's 4 aging submarines until 2040

HMCS Windsor returns to port in Halifax in June 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Canadian navy's stock of survival suits, which allow submariners to escape in an emergency from a sunken boat, has been thrown a lifeline after much of the equipment had reached its expiry date, federal documents reveal.

The critical safety suits give stranded crew members the ability to ascend from a depth of 183 metres and protect against hypothermia.

They even inflate into a single-seat life raft once on the surface.

The orange whole-body suits were part of the original equipment aboard the Victoria-class submarines, diesel-electric boats originally built for the Royal Navy and purchased from Britain in the late 1990s.

Documents obtained by CBC News show there was concern among naval engineers, in late 2016, that many of the suits had passed or were about to pass their best-before, safety dates.

A spokeswoman for the Defence Department said a decision was made to extend the life of suits while the federal government procures new ones — a process that is ongoing.

There is no threat to safety, said Jessica Lamirande.

"The service life extension was approved based on successful, rigorous testing at the Naval Engineering Test Establishment on a representative sample of suits that had passed their intended service lives," said Lamirande, in a recent email.

"Testing consisted of detailed visual inspection, leakage tests, and functional testing."

Sailors stand on the deck of HMCS Victoria as they leave port in Halifax in 2003. Victoria is one of four submarines purchased from the United Kingdom. (Canadian Press)

Fleet sailing until 2040

But defence experts say it is a small project that speaks volumes about the Liberal government's plan to modernize and keep operating the four submarines until 2040, a proposal that was articulated in the latest defence policy.

Retired commander Peter Haydon, who also taught defence policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax for years, said keeping submarine replacement parts and equipment in the system has been an ongoing headache for the navy, dating back to the 1980s.

However, the bigger concern is: As the boats age, the strength of their pressure hulls declines.

The  government plans to modernize the boats, but Haydon said that's fine for the electronic and other components.

"You can modernize most things, but you can't modernize the hull, unless you build a new hull," he said.

Pressure to buy new 

The Senate and House of Commons defence committees have recommended the government begin exploring options now for the replacement of the submarines, which took years to formally bring into service after they were purchased.

The government, in its response to a committee report last fall, argued it is already fully engaged building Arctic patrol ships and replacements for frigates and supply ships.

Buying new submarines is a topic that has been debated behind the scenes for a long time at National Defence with one former top commander, retired general Walt Natynczyk ordering — in 2012 — a study that looked at the possible replacements.

They're running a risk with the lives of sailors, the older these vessels get in an extremely dangerous environment, especially when they're submerged.— Michael Byers, University of British Columbia

University of British Columbia defence expert Michael Byers has been quoted as saying he's worried Canada "will lose its submarine capability through negligence rather than design," noting that it is politically more palatable to refurbish the underwater fleet rather than endure a painful procurement process.

"They're running a risk with the lives of sailors, the older these vessels get in an extremely dangerous environment, especially when they're submerged," said Byers, who pointed to the loss of the Argentine submarine San Juan and its crew of 44 in 2017.

"I would be more comfortable with a decision to buy a new fleet submarines than the current path that we're on. I have been skeptical as to whether we need submarines, but better a new fleet than send our sailors to sea in these old vessels."

Since Canada does not have the technology, nor has it ever constructed its own submarines, the federal government would be required to go overseas to countries such as Germany or Sweden to get them built.

Restricted diving

In the meantime, Haydon said he's confident ongoing maintenance and the stringent safety standards among Western allies will keep the Victoria-class submarines in the water and operating safely.

He cautions, however, like Canada's previous submarines retired in the 1990s, the Oberon class, the older the current fleet gets, the more their diving depth will eventually have to be restricted.

As the hull and its valves weaken, the less pressure they can sustain.

Lamirande said the navy has enough escape submarine suits whenever it deploys, and she emphasized it never goes to sea with "expired" equipment.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.