VICTORIA -- What was meant to be a “milestone” return to sea for Canada’s military submarines in 2020 is now on hold amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Two Royal Canadian Navy submarines were due to embark this spring and summer after a nearly two-year deployment gap for the sub fleet. But now, the submarines HMCS Victoria and HMCS Windsor will remain in port for the foreseeable future as work to return the vessels to sea is put on hold.

“Further maintenance is required before they can be deployed,” said National Defence spokesperson Jessica Lamirande on Monday. “However, in order to ensure the health and safety of our Defence team, work on board submarines was put on pause during this pandemic.”

HMCS Victoria completed dive trials in February at its home port of Esquimalt, B.C., after six years of maintenance and upgrades since her last outing. The navy was planning to deploy the Victoria this spring with a new sonar array and battery.

Its departure was to be followed this summer by the deployment of HMCS Windsor from Halifax after the completion of extensive work in drydock. Once at sea, the Windsor was to test-fire a new heavyweight torpedo system slated for rollout across the Canadian sub fleet.

With both subs deployed by summertime, the navy was planning to get a third – HMCS Corner Brook – ready for sea trials off Vancouver Island later this year.

Having three of Canada’s four military submarines operating simultaneously would mark “a historical milestone,” said Maritime Forces Pacific spokesperson Capt. Jenn Jackson in February.

All of Canada's second-hand military subs have been grounded since 2018, when HMCS Windsor and HMCS Chicoutimi were last deployed. 

“The intent is to return the submarines to sea as soon as maintenance is completed,” Lamirande said.

The National Defence spokesperson declined to comment on whether the return would come fast enough for the navy to meet its prior commitment to send a submarine to the multinational Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) off Hawaii this summer.

National Defence said in a statement that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) remains committed to participating in “a significant way” at RIMPAC, the largest international maritime exercise in the world. 

On April 29, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet announced that RIMPAC 2020 would be an abbreviated version of years past in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The biennial exercise, which typically runs from June to August and features events at sea and onshore, will this year run from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31 and feature at-sea training only.

“The CAF are in close communication with our U.S. counterparts, and are currently evaluating options to adapt our participation accordingly,” said National Defence in a statement Monday.

“Participation in RIMPAC will balance the requirement to complete critical tasks and high readiness training in support of planned operations, with the requirement to protect the health and safety of our personnel.”