Canada, China and Submarines


When the new Australia-UK-US defence pact called AUKUS was first announced, and critics accused Canada of being “snubbed,” Prime Minister Trudeau responded:

This is a deal for nuclear submarines, which Canada is not currently or any time soon in the market for. Australia is.

As the overall scope of the deal has become clearer, however, Canada has signalled its interest in the non-nuclear portions of AUKUS, with Defence Minister Anita Anand saying recently:

Canada is highly interested in furthering cooperation on AI, quantum computing and other advanced technologies … with our closest allies.

The security hawks, however, have not given up on Canada acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.

Murray Brewster conveys their message in an article entitled Thinking the ‘unthinkable’: How China could change Canada’s conversation about nuclear subs (, 27 May 2023).

Referencing “simmering tensions between Beijing and the world’s leading democracies,” Brewster writes:

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.

It is against this backdrop that experts argue Canada must consider whether, and how it should upgrade its own submarine fleet.

The article then discusses a Rand report on China’s sophisticated “anti-access/area denial” defence strategy to

prevent a foreign power from entering a region [operational area] by land, sea or air.

Defense News writes about this strategy:

In short, it appears Beijing’s aim is to prevent American and allied military forces from operating freely in the A2/AD airspace and maritime “bubble” around China’s coastline.

As should be obvious, this is fundamentally a defensive military strategy, unlike America’s offensive strategies of control and containment of China.

For a detailed argument on why the US should also move to an active denial strategy, see Active Denial: A Roadmap to a More Effective, Stabilizing, and Sustainable U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia (Quincy Paper No. 8, June 2022).

The Executive Summary begins:

As China’s military power has grown over the past three decades, U.S. military dominance in the Western Pacific has eroded significantly. Efforts by the United States to restore military dominance in the region through offensive strategies of control are unlikely to succeed….

In view of these trends, the United States needs a more credible, stabilizing, and affordable defense strategy for deterring potential use of military force by China, coupled with a diplomatic strategy to reduce military tensions and improve crisis management. comments:

Needless to say, this is not the approach espoused by the experts cited in the Brewster article. Instead, they argue that Canada must focus on upgrading its submarine fleet so we can better participate in America’s current, aggressive China-control-and-containment strategy.

Brewster writes:

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

For his part, Vincent Rigby, a former national security and intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, argues:

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 considers new conventional submarines

Brewster then cites media reports of

an internal Canadian navy proposal which suggested up to 12 [conventional] 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.

But retired Vice-Admiral Mark Norman argues:

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.

Norman dismisses past Canadian debates on this issue as an “abysmal failure,” presumably because the final decision was against nuclear-powered subs. Nuclear non-proliferation expert Trevor Findlay has a different view of the first, and most extensive, consideration by Canada of this issue:

In June 1987, Canada announced that it intended to build 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines, based on a French or UK design and fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU) possibly of Canadian origin. Faced with insurmountable strategic, political, financial, logistical, and nonproliferation obstacles, the idea sank without trace within two years.

For another look at this debate, written at the time, see Opening Pandora’s Box: Nuclear-powered submarines and the spread of nuclear weapons, Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, Aurora Papers no. 8 (1987) by M.F. Desjardins and Tariq Rauf.  (Rauf went on to become Head of Verification and Security Policy Cooperation at the IAEA.)

The second look at nuclear subs by Canada, under then PM Harper in 2011, appears to have been a much briefer flirtation, with prohibitive cost being the determining factor in the second rejection.

Cost and technical complexity cited as disadvantages

Recalling that the Liberal government has already “flatly rejected the notion of a Canadian nuclear fleet”, Brewster soldiers on:

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.

Brewster then turns to the arguments in favour:

They can operate under Arctic ice. They’re often quieter and can stay hidden underwater for longer periods. They’re cleaner and more environmentally-friendly than the current diesel-electric boats.

And if the eye-watering cost is not enough, let us now consider all the other important arguments against Canada (or Australia) acquiring nuclear-powered subs.

Grave nuclear non-proliferation implications

The global nuclear non-proliferation regime, the foundation of which is the NPT and the system of global safeguards administered by the IAEA, aims to prevent — or severely constrain — the spread of nuclear weapons, fissionable material, and weapons-applicable nuclear technology and information to nations not recognized as nuclear weapons states under the NPT.

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

We already have four de facto nuclear weapons states — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — outside the NPT; we have concerns over Iran’s growing capability and we have massive modernization programmes ongoing among the 5 NPT nuclear weapons states in flagrant disregard of their NPT Article VI nuclear disarmament obligations.

To say the regime is fragile is an understatement.

The grave implications for this vital regime, if Australia (and Canada) proceed to acquire nuclear-powered submarines for military purposes, are many, and we have canvassed them in several past blog posts.

Bearing in mind that the Brewster article does not mention even one of these concerns, we summarize them here:

  • Australia/Canada would be the first non-nuclear weapons states to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
  • Australia/Canada would be the first to take advantage of a “loophole” in the IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards agreements that permits nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose to be removed from safeguards for the duration of that use.
    • In this case, the submarines will be powered by “very highly enriched” [HEU] weapons-grade uranium which can be excluded from IAEA safeguards while at sea.
    • The sensitivity of the technology and the inaccessibility of the reactor to inspectors create a “very complex” non-proliferation verification challenge for the IAEA.
    • The Australian and Canadian projects would involve the acquisition of HEU by a non-nuclear-weapon state at a time when the United States and others, including Australia and Canada, are attempting to minimize global holdings of HEU, including by converting reactors to using low-enriched uranium (LEU) and repatriating HEU to the United States or Russia for disposition.

A precedent will be set that Iran or others can legitimately follow

In essence, what this means is:

The precedent will be set for a non-nuclear weapons state party to the NPT [e.g. Iran ]  to remove weapons-grade fissile material from international safeguards to non-monitored military use and, in turn, this could be used as a cover for development of weapons-grade uranium for nuclear explosive purposes.

Trevor Findlay adds:

The constant chipping away at the fundamentals of the nonproliferation regime, especially by erstwhile champions [like Australia and Canada], can only increase cynicism and undermine confidence in its longevity.

There are other potential cascading effects of the Australian/Canadian precedents:

  • France may relax its position on not transferring naval nuclear reactor technology to Brazil as they continue to help that country build its first [so-far conventional] attack submarine;
  • South Korea may ask the USA or other nations for an arrangement similar to Australia’s, citing threats from North Korea;
  • Russia could begin new naval nuclear reactor cooperation with China to boost that country’s submarine capabilities; and
  • Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could explore new transfer opportunities in relation to this technology.

Independent, sovereign action will be curtailed

In his critique of the Australian decision, former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans posed this question, which is equally applicable to Canada:

whether, by so comprehensively further yoking ourselves to such extraordinarily sophisticated and sensitive US 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, but in how we respond to future US calls for military support.

Cost means much smaller number of nuclear-powered subs than conventional subs

Gareth Evans also asks another question that is relevant to Canada, bearing in mind that Canada’s total number of either type of submarine will be less than Australia says it wants:

Are this small number of nuclear-propelled submarines better than a far larger number of conventional subs — for the same cost — if their primary purpose is to prevent continental Australia and its sea-lanes from possible attack?

To put this another way:

Is it more important to have a small number of nuclear-powered subs to enable Canada to participate in American forward “defence” in the Pacific or a larger number of conventional submarines to help directly protect Canada?

Lessons from Ukraine on avoiding catastrophic nuclear escalation

As we have discussed in many past blog posts, the behaviour of the US and NATO in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has made it painfully clear that the risk of escalation to nuclear war is too great for nuclear-armed adversaries to go to war with each other. asks:

Why is this central lesson being ignored when it comes to China?

This brings us back to the Quincy report referenced earlier and its blunt statement that

U.S. – China mutual nuclear vulnerability is a fact of life.

Accordingly, the report recommends, in addition to the adoption by the US of an “active denial defense strategy,” the pursuit of robust diplomacy and arms control measures to mitigate military competition.

This would include the US

acknowledg[ing] mutual nuclear vulnerability with China and express[ing] openness to limits on America’s ballistic-missile defense to create opportunities to advance more ambitious arms-control measures with China over time. comments:

While Canada may be reluctant to urge its powerful American neighbour, even quietly behind the scenes, to adopt a more restrained and sustainable defence posture toward China, the government should stand firm in its decision to acquire conventional, not nuclear-powered, submarines.

And it would be even better if Canada began to publicly articulate why rejecting nuclear-powered submarines is good for Canada, for nuclear non-proliferation and for global stability.

Photo credit: Government of Canada (HMS Windsor) is a public outreach project of the Rideau Institute linking Canadians working together for peace. We depend on your donations as we accept no funding from government or industry to protect our independence. Thank you for your support….     

Tags: Active denial defence strategy, active denial defense strategy, AUKUS, Australia, Canada and nuclear-powered submarines, China, IAEA safeguards, Murray Brewster, mutual nuclear vulnerability, NPT, Nuclear Non Proliferation, nuclear nonproliferation, Tariq Rauf, Timothy Findlay, UK, US, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman