Canada should not follow Australia’s decision to acquire U.S. nuclear-powered submarines because they are a sovereignty-undermining, murderously expensive, nuclear proliferation stimulant, the procurement of which risks entangling Canada further into America’s aggressive and short-sighted China containment strategy.
Canada, like Australia, is a non-nuclear weapon state party (NNWS) to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which requires safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on peaceful nuclear activities. Under the agreement, all military nuclear uses are prohibited for NNWS parties, with the exception of a “glaring and worrying loophole in IAEA safeguards” that permits them to withdraw nuclear material from international oversight for the duration of its use in naval reactors.
U.S. nuclear subs are powered by highly enriched uranium, weapons-grade material that can be used directly in warheads. The concern isn’t that Canada or Australia would use the enriched uranium for anything other than naval propulsion. Rather, it’s that aspiring nuclear powers such as Iran or Saudi Arabia might, out of reach of IAEA inspectors.
Then there’s the exorbitant cost. Canada has stated that it requires up to 12 conventionally powered submarines at a projected cost of $60 billion. Under the AUKUS trilateral security partnership between the U.S., U.K. and Australia, the latter will purchase up to eight American nuclear-powered subs between $268 billion-$368 billion. Bearing in mind that military procurement, especially for large projects, rarely if ever stays on budget, it’s absurd for Canada to consider expending such a large proportion of its military budget on nuclear-powered submarines.
It’s absurd for Canada to consider expending such a large proportion of its military budget on nuclear-powered submarines.
The way that former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans put the sovereignty problem is equally applicable to Canada: “whether, by so comprehensively further yoking ourselves to such extraordinarily sophisticated and sensitive U.S. military technology, Australia has for all practical purposes abandoned our capacity for independent sovereign judgment.
“Not only as to how we use this new capability,” he continued, “but in how we respond to future U.S. calls for military support.”
The importance of Canada maintaining some independence in global affairs is even greater in light of the final argument against the Canadian acquisition of U.S. nuclear subs: doing so risks further enmeshing Canada in America’s destabilizing anti-China strategy in the Western Pacific.
Canada is already participating in American-led freedom-of-navigation operations and other exercises in areas close to the Chinese coast. The acquisition of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines risks greater involvement in this effort to contain China at the very time when progressive American strategists are urging President Joe Biden’s administration to move to “an active denial” defensive posture that will effectively deter potential Chinese aggression while limiting risks of rapid, and nuclear, escalation.
Canada should not follow in Australia’s misguided footsteps and seek to acquire this murderously expensive, proliferation-enhancing, sovereignty and security-undermining military equipment.
As Canada approaches the second quarter of the 21st century, it needs to get its priorities straight for a changing world. Arctic and marine sovereignty should be high in the lengthy list of things in which the country needs to invest. The Earth is warming and monitoring the north polar region is critical to a prosperous and secure future. Russia is already encroaching
on Canada’s North with its own nuclear submarines and underwater sensors, asserting its sovereignty claims, while China is threatening expansion in the Pacific. Canada has three vast coasts to monitor, from the maritime provinces to the Arctic to the B.C. shoreline in the Pacific, and there’s only one suitable vehicle: a nuclear submarine.
The public might think Canada already has a fleet of submarines, so why the need for expensive new ones? Well, the current ones aren’t the right tools for the job. Canada’s existing Victoria-class subs were built in the 1980s, but were purchased from Britain in 1998. And the country has since spent billions on repairs. Plus, calling it a fleet makes it seem like they are ready at moment’s notice. But that’s not the case—only one is operational. Besides, they’re also due to be decommissioned in the 2030s, which means Canada needs to decide soon what’s next.
Such vessels would give Canada the capability to monitor its waters with fewer limitations.
Of course, needing to replace the current vessels isn’t reason enough alone for the nuclear option. But Canada’s vast and vulnerable coastline, the longest in the world, is reason enough. Nuclear submarines can stay submerged for—double-checks notes—about 20 years (!) without needing to refuel, meaning the only limitation is food, supplies and the fact that it’s inhumane to keep sailors underwater for that long. But such vessels would give Canada the capability to monitor its waters with fewer limitations, reach depths previously unobtainable and map Arctic passageways emerging as polar ice melts.
Not only does Canada need to improve its domestic defence capabilities, but it should also be collaborating with its allies. The Canadian military’s international reputation has been floundering. It routinely fails to meet NATO’s two per cent gross domestic product spending target—Canada spends about 1.3 per cent—and has been left out of important international security partnerships such as the new Australia-U.K.-U.S. coalition. Known as AUKUS, it’s working to secure the Indo-Pacific through strategic co-operation, intelligence sharing and, notably, facilitating the former’s procurement of nuclear submarines. Could Canada not have tacked a few more onto the order?
In March 2023, then-defence minister Anita Anand said Canada was not part of AUKUS because of its lack of interest in obtaining nuclear submarines. But that decision directly limits the country’s intelligence capabilities. Canada isn’t pulling its weight in that regard and countries are noticing.
The federal government might be saving taxpayers money, but Canadians will pay one way or another if the country’s marine and Arctic sovereignty come under threat while they’re sleeping.