VICTORIA -- For the first time in seven years, the Canadian navy expects to have three of its four submarines operating simultaneously by the end of 2021.

The achievement would mark the realization of a plan that was scuttled last year by faulty maintenance work and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The commander of the Canadian submarine force says the success of the plan depends largely on HMCS Corner Brook. The sub left dry dock in Victoria on June 13, following years of repairs and upgrades since running aground off Vancouver Island in 2011.

The sub was supposed to return to service last summer but its re-entry was delayed by a year after a maintenance contractor caused significant damage to one of its main ballast tanks.

The Corner Brook is now set to undergo a series of in-water tests, ideally culminating in a camber dive this fall and sea trials before the year is out.

Upon its return to service, the Corner Brook will join two other submarines – HMCS Victoria and HMCS Windsor – that were supposed to return to operations early last year but were instead tied up when maintenance work was stalled amid the pandemic.

HMCS Victoria eventually returned to the waters of B.C. last September, followed six months later by HMCS Windsor in Halifax.

If all goes according to plan, the end of 2021 will be first time Canada has had three subs in service simultaneously since 2014, according to Maritime Forces Pacific spokesperson Capt. Chelsea Dubeau.

The overlap in operating schedules will be short-lived, however. HMCS Victoria is slated to begin several years of maintenance work next summer after spending less than two years in the water.

The rigorous maintenance schedule underscores one of the main criticisms of Canada’s 40-year-old submarines, which have spent more time in repairs than in the water since they were bought second-hand from Britain in 1998.

“What one must understand is that a submarine – by design with the maintenance model – is only available approximately 50 per cent of the time,” says submarine force commander Capt. Jean Stéphane Ouellet. “We’re making great strides right now to having three submarines back to operations by the end of the year.”

The fourth submarine, HMCS Chicoutimi, is currently in dry dock, where it will remain into 2023.

TESTING UNDERWAY ON NEW TORPEDO

As the submarines cycle through the maintenance and modernization work necessary to extend their life into the mid-2030s, they are each being equipped with new sonar, communications and torpedo capabilities.

A new heavyweight torpedo – the Mark 48 Mod 7 – was first sought by the sub force in 2011, according to the U.S. Defence Security Cooperation Agency, the office in Washington that clears large foreign military sales.

“We’re just starting to receive those weapons right now,” says Ouellet. “The first time that we’re going to be firing from a submarine will be in 2022.”

HMCS Windsor has been selected to test-fire the new torpedo off the East Coast next summer before the sub-sea weapon is eventually rolled out across the fleet. The Mod 7 torpedo, a conversion of the navy’s current Mod 4 weapon, is now being test-fired from a barge in Nanoose Bay, B.C.

“The main thing is that we went from an analog weapon to a digital weapon,” Ouellet says. “I can’t get into the details of what the new weapon provides us but it’s an increase in capability.”

The subs are also gaining the capability to better detect icebergs, according to the sub commander.

A new Lockheed Martin sonar system is being installed fleet-wide and could open the door to undersea missions in the Far North.

The high-frequency sonar “is an enabler to Arctic operations for the Victoria-class submarine,” Ouellet says, given its improved accuracy in detecting sea ice over the current system. “Should the need to arise to essentially get involved in Arctic security, we will do so.”