Chretien's Folly - Heading For the Bottom?

There are some Liberals who see Jean Chretien as a great man, one of Canada's finest prime ministers. I liked Chretien but 'great'? 

I associate Mr. Chretien with three things - scandal, especially the Sponsorship Scandal that served as Stephen Harper's springboard to power; a Quebec sovereignty referendum that Chretien took for granted and damned near lost; and the utterly boneheaded decision to pay good money for castoff submarines mothballed (after just 3 years in service) for many reasons by the Royal Navy. I like to think of the subs as Chretien's Folly.

We bought four of these 1990-vintage Upholder class boats after a Brit deal to unload them on Pakistan fell through. They look like real submarines only way shorter. They were supposed to be a great deal but only proved the adage about "penny wise, pound foolish." They're unreliable, outdated, fraught with defects and bleed the Canadian navy budget just tied up at dockside (where you'll find them when they're not in dry dock). It was reported that Canada's submarine fleet logged an impressive zero hours at sea last year at a cost of about $300 million.

Chicoutimi and Windsor
in their natural environment

But don't worry, things are looking up only no, they're not. It's the Cornerbrook again. This sub has had its share of woe and strife. 

HMCS Corner Brook has been hit particularly hard, with the vessel docked for extensive repairs and maintenance for the past six years after striking the bottom of the ocean off B.C. in 2011. A fire also broke out while it was docked in Victoria in August 2019.

This time the Cornerbrook was gored when the company contracted to maintain our sub flotilla messed up a test of its ballast tanks. of Corner Brook’s main ballast tanks ruptured last March during a test by Babcock Canada, which has been contracted to maintain and repair the sub fleet since 2008. The government recently extended Babcock’s contract to 2023.

“The test consisted of the tank being largely filled by water with air added to apply the required test pressure,” reads the Aug. 6, 2020 report prepared for the deputy minister of the Department of National Defence.

“After the tank successfully met this requirement, the final step was to drain the tank. This was intended to be done by gravity, however members of the test team attempted to accelerate drainage of the tank by re-applying pressure.

“In doing so, they inadvertently over-pressurized the tank and caused it to rupture.”

Defence officials have previously said the incident would delay the Navy’s plans to get the Corner Brook back in the water. The submarine was supposed to return to service last summer, but will now remain docked until at least June.

A full repair of the damage is impractical and would not be economical,” the report reads. “There is the potential that the post-repaired condition will still present undesirable risk, in which case the residual risk will be presented to the Navy for acceptance.”

The report underscores the importance of maintaining the "structural integrity" of main ballast tanks to the safe operation of a submarine. They are used in controlling whether the vessel goes up or down in the water.

“Otherwise the submarine may not be able to surface (including surfacing from depth in an emergency due to flooding) or remain stable on the surface, either of which could lead to loss of the submarine,” the report reads.

A full repair is impractical and may not be economical. Wait a second. This is a submarine. You don't send people into the depths in a dodgy boat because repair is not economical. Notice what's missing from all this blather? Any mention of the crew. You might lose the submarine. Not a peep about what that could mean for the crew.

This reminds me of another Canadian sub, HMCS Grilse. It too was a castoff from the US Navy. It was one of those rakish boats the Americans used against the Japanese to great success. By the time it fell into Canadian hands, however, it was pretty long in the tooth. When I first saw it at the dock in Esquimalt there was a full size B.C. Tel phone booth on the foredeck. Like today's subs, Grilse had seen her better days (the difference is she had some better days). She was still being used as a detection target for Canadian destroyers and frigates. Also like Cornerbrook, no one was sure when Grilse went down that she'd be coming up again. As a precaution, Grilse was not permitted to submerge unless she had a surface escort directly overhead.

Grilse met her end off San Clemente Island in 1969 when US helicopters used her for torpedo practice. We ought to ask the Americans what they'd give us for Cornerbrook.


  1. Canada doesn't need submarines and these. are not great submarines. But. The fire was caused by careless navigation; running on the service in rough water let water into the tower and caused shorts. Somebody forgot that there was an ocean floor. Blowing up a pressure vessel to scam money is nor best practice.

    Operator error has caused all these problems. We will never know how these boats would work with correct operation.

    1. I think we've got a pretty idea how these boats would work correctly operated by the Royal Navy's decision to mothball them after an average of three years service.

      What does it tell you that, 20 years after these boats entered RCN service, we still don't know "how they work with correct operation." Why do you imagine that is, Rumley?

      As for whether Canada needs submarines, we do. What we don't need are these boats, a foolish purchase that is draining funds from the RCN. The only good thing for the Liberals is that the Tories went along with this stupidity.

  2. I am with Rumleyfips on this one.
    Hitting the bottom of the ocean and other unknown immoveable objects is not a design fault.
    Rewiring the subs and replacing the generators so the crew could used 120volt toasters instead of buying EU 230v toasters certainly added to the confusion.( a bit exaggerated)
    Canada also insisted upon replacing the Tigerfish torpedo's with another design.
    The US also had influence on the purchase as they needed a diesel engine sub to play hide and seek with whilst they practiced attacking North Korean submarines.
    Yet as my eyes have seen, they are rust buckets long overdue for replacement.


  3. The Aussies were all proud to choose brand new French-designed subs for their Navy. Only $50 billion the dozen. Complete the build in Australia leaving the expensive bits to be made in France and shipped over. The cost is now at least $90 billion and delivery between 2033 and 2050. Out of date last year let alone in in twelve more, and as expensive as a non-working US aircraft carrier. Just Google Australian sub folly. They seem about as bright as our lot at purchasing military equipment, and could have bought Japanese with an owner's manual like a Camry. Here's one summary:

    Saw Chretien blustering away the other day about that plan to bury international nuclear waste in Labrador. He's now very old indeed and the favourite PM of only one man I know of.

    1. I thought the Aussies made a mistake in not going for Japan's Soryu-class boats. I think Canada would best be suited with the German 212 boats. Yet it seems we've come to a point where the RCN is going to saddle itself with the Upholder boats for another 20 years. Technologically it's a bit like choosing a car with drum brakes and bias-ply tires. Unfortunately the Canadian navy has a rich history of boneheaded policies. Remember when we did a complete refit on HMCS Bonaventure only to sell it for scrap? Look at how we overpaid for those Arctic patrol ships. Now it's the Type 26 frigates, also out of Irving's shipyards. It's interesting to see what Britain pays for its Type 26 and the price Australia pays for its Type 26 ships compared to what it's going to cost Canada.

      Between the top brass dickin' the help and these programme/budget fiascos it's hard to have a lot of confidence in today's military.

  4. .. Who exactly do our submariners think they will be sneaking up on ? (The possibilities of course are as endless.. as they are ludicrous.. Perhaps the Navajo or water skiers on Lake Tahoe ?)

    The script writes itself..
    'Up periscope' - Aye !
    Bearing ! Mark ! I have multiple herring trawlers at 3 o'clock !'

    A curious dolphin looks into the periscope ..

    'Dive dive !'

    1. Hey, Sal.

      Submarines today play a more diverse role than the subs of WWII. They're designed more for patrol and surveillance than stalking convoys of lumbering freighters. That is reflected in the far smaller numbers each nation deploys.

      The small numbers, however, mean you need higher rates of readiness. When you've got just four you need at least three seaworthy at any given time. When all four are drydock queens you've got a problem.

  5. Chretien Report card:

    Economics: C+
    He allowed Paul Martin to foolishly follow the global start of 'austerity'. But stopped well short of the Thatcherite/Reagan nonsense and he did not trust 'boys in red suspenders' with their neo-liberal plans. Thank god.

    Foreign Policy: A- One decision alone earns him this grade: Gulf War 1. That and he preserved what was then left of our traditional Pearsonian policies.

    The 'Sponsorship Scandal' was his hiccup, that Paul Martin carelessly blew up.

    He was the last PM that actually saw past the polling nightmare beauty-contests that we've trapped ourselves in.


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