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Thinking the ‘unthinkable’: How China could change Canada’s conversation about nuclear subs

Almost a decade ago, a military conflict between the United States and its allies on one side and China on the other was described by major foreign policy and defence observers as the “unthinkable war.”

Lately, it’s become clear that those same experts are now thinking through the unthinkable.

After the recent G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Beijing summoned Japan’s ambassador to China to complain about what it called the “anti-China” tone of the summit. Later, the Chinese government publicly berated Great Britain.

On the second day of the G7 meeting, the assembled leaders issued a joint communique that singled out China’s actions on a range of foreign policy flashpoints — everything from the status of Taiwan and nuclear arms to economic coercion and human rights abuses. It underscored the simmering tensions between Beijing and the world’s leading democratic economies.

The idea that these tensions could escalate into open conflict has people in the security, foreign policy and defence worlds imagining how such a conflict might play out, and what Canada could — and could not — do in such a circumstance.

“I often think about this and it’s an absolute worst-case scenario. And we don’t want to go there,” said Vincent Rigby, a former national security and intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It is within the context of these frightening scenarios that the debate over Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines — and whether Canada should be upgrading its own fleet — is playing out.

This is not a conversation Canada is “happy” to engage in, said Rigby. “But we have to have it now, given some of the potential scenarios playing out.”

One of Rigby’s absolute worst-case scenarios involves Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge to reunite the mainland with Taiwan — by force if necessary.

A jet fighter pilot in the cockpit.
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a Chinese fighter jet pilot from the Eastern Theatre Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) takes part in combat readiness patrol and military exercises around Taiwan on Sunday, April 9, 2023. (Mei Shaoquan/Xinhua via AP)

The California-based RAND Corporation warned eight years ago in major study that China was developing a sophisticated new defence network, known in military circles as an anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) system. It links together a series of sensors, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles with ground defences and long-range missiles. The purpose of the network is to prevent a foreign power from entering a region by land, sea or air.

China’s A2/AD is concentrated around Taiwan and the South China Sea, according to the U.S.-based Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), a non-partisan group that conducts research and public education on missile defence technology.

The threat to Canada’s warships

The placement of the system with a range of different missiles — such as the YJ-12, the Y-18 (supersonic), the YJ-21 (hypersonic) and the YJ-100 (long range ballistic) — poses a considerable risk to U.S. aircraft carriers and other surface vessels in the region, including Canada’s aging frigates.

“This regional A2/AD threat also severely mitigates the ability of U.S. forces to conduct operations in the Asia-Pacific,” said the MDAA. “For anti-access, China relies on advanced land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles to threaten U.S. military facilities on the islands of Okinawa and Guam.”

According to RAND, China’s A2/AD capability has been a long-standing source of worry for the U.S. and its allies.

“Along with measures to prevent crises from becoming violent and violence from becoming severe, the United States should try to reduce the effect of Chinese A2/AD in the coming years,” said the RAND Corporation report released in July 2016 — one of the most authoritative and detailed examinations of a potential war with China.

“Work at RAND and elsewhere increasingly stresses the need to invest in more-survivable force platforms (e.g., submarines) and in counter-A2/AD.”

A mobile missile launcher at night.
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a missile launcher from the rocket force of the Eastern Theatre Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) takes part in exercises near Taiwan on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Liu Mingsong/Xinhua via AP)

Rigby said that for allies looking to operate in the western Pacific, submarines are indispensable.

“I think any serious military power is going to want to have capabilities across their land forces, their maritime forces, their air forces, Special Operations Forces,” he said.

“If you want to be a serious naval power, you have to have capable submarines, especially in response to the Russian and Chinese fleets, which are growing in number and capability, growing in terms of the technology. So I think it’s incredibly important that Canada and all other Western nations invest in some serious submarine capability with respect to the western Pacific.”

Canada is currently reviewing its defence policy with an eye to the rapid deterioration of international relations.

Several weeks ago, the Ottawa Citizen reported on an internal Canadian navy proposal which suggested up to 12 submarines would be needed to meet Canada’s defence needs in the coming decades — six boats on each coast. Industry sources told the newspaper that such a plan would cost roughly $60 billion.

Federal prosecutors stayed a breach of trust charge against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.
Retired vice-admiral Mark Norman: ‘I don’t believe we have the stomach to actually commit to this type of capability.’ (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Retired Canadian vice-admiral Mark Norman said the estimate on the number of submarines sounds about right if the intention is to have one boat operating in each of Canada’s oceans at all times and one operating with allies (one at sea, one in port, one in deep maintenance).

It is a proposal, he said, that needs a thorough public discussion, led by the federal government.

“I think if Canada is really serious about why submarines are an essential part of their military capability toolbox, they need to have a conversation about what’s the right type of submarine,” said Norman.

‘Park the political rhetoric’

He argued the conversation should not be limited and should look at whether it makes sense to follow Australia’s lead and acquire nuclear boats. 

“They need to park the emotion and they need to park the political rhetoric associated with the allergy that we have had in this country, historically, about this conversation,” Norman said. “Canada has tried twice to have a conversation about nuclear powered submarines and it’s been an abysmal failure both times.”

The Liberal government already has flatly rejected the notion of a Canadian nuclear fleet. In the immediate aftermath of the AUKUS deal between the United States, the U.K. and Australia — which will see the three nations cooperate on military technology and help to build Australia’s nuclear fleet — Ottawa said it wasn’t interested in nuclear submarines.

The biggest argument against such a proposal has to do with its cost and technical complexity. The price tag on Australia’s plan is expected to run between $238 billion and $327 billion over the next 30 years.

A submarine returns to port.
HMCS Windsor, one of Canada’s Victoria-class long range patrol submarines, returns to port in Halifax on June 20, 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The arguments in favour of Canada pursuing such a capability relate mostly to the advantages nuclear subs have over conventionally powered ones. They can operate under Arctic ice. They’re quieter and can stay hidden underwater for longer periods. They’re cleaner and more environmentally-friendly than the current diesel-electric boats.

Norman said he questions whether Canada is ready to take this debate seriously,

“It needs to be part of the conversation,” he said. “I don’t believe we have the ability to have this conversation in Canada. I don’t believe we have the stomach to actually commit to this type of capability.

“But if we’re looking at this entirely objectively, without the emotion and rhetoric of politics, it’d be a pretty compelling argument as to why that makes sense for Canada.”

A submarine breaks through Arctic ice.
Royal Navy nuclear submarine HMS Trenchant breaks through the metre-thick ice of the Arctic Ocean on Ice Exercise 18 in April, 2018. (Cdr Charles Ball/Royal Navy/Public Affairs)

Part of that argument, Norman said, relates to the risk surface vessels face in the vicinity of the western Pacific.

If there is a conflict with China in the foreseeable future, it will be what some in military circles call “a come-as-you-are-war.” Once the fighting erupts, combatants won’t be able to build new warships and warplanes at the pace they managed during the previous century’s world wars.

The question that allied military commanders are asking themselves already is how much risk they’re prepared to endure by exposing surface ships to China’s A2/AD system.

It’s a particularly pressing question for Canada, given the age of the navy’s frigates.

“You fight with what you got,” said Norman. “So it isn’t a question of whether the head of the navy or the chief of defence staff would be comfortable [sending frigates to the western Pacific].

“If you’re not comfortable sending military capabilities into harm’s way, then you’ve got a serious problem.”

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