The last time HMCS Chicoutimi crossed an ocean, the boat flooded, caught fire, and a sailor died. Twenty-five years later, the diesel-electric submarine has deployed to Asia — farther from home than any Canadian sub in five decades — on a mission the Canadian military hopes will erase doubts about the vessel’s effectiveness.
Though planned for more than a year, the mission comes at particularly sensitive time.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile development activity has spiked in recent months despite trade sanctions. International tensions have risen to the point where the U.S. is considering options that could include a military strike on the Korean Peninsula.
CBC News had unprecedented access onboard the Canadian sub as it tracked suspicious vessels and activity, and trained with naval vessels from partner nations working to monitor and enforce the economic sanctions in Asia-Pacific waters.
“Our stealth is something we need to guard,” says Cmdr. Stephane Ouellet, Chicoutimi’s Commanding Officer, referring to the specifics of the current mission. “[But] we are operating much more than any Canadian thinks … deployed for almost 200 days and farther than we’ve ever operated before.”
It took five weeks for the boat to travel from its home base in Esquimalt, B.C., to its classified patrolling area, making port visits in Japan and Guam.
What exactly the sub has been doing, or can do, remains secret.
Ouellet confirms the sub is capable of discreetly recording events on land, such as airport take-offs and landings. Its primary role revolves around covertly tracking merchant and military vessels while submerged, and observing suspicious activity on the sea, including ship-to-ship cargo transfers far from any harbour.
That kind of capability is key in the region right now. The U.S. has accused China and Russia of breaching UN sanctions on North Korea by transferring oil from their ships to North Korean tankers out at sea to avoid detection.
At the end of January, Japan’s military identified a Dominican-flagged tanker transferring oil to a North Korean vessel, for example.
The North Korean regime relies on oil to power its military, and the oil sanctions are intended to restrict its nuclear weapons development.
But tracking illegal activity is difficult, especially in remote expanses of ocean.
Satellites only pass over an area intermittently, sometimes just once a day, and surface ships can scare off illicit activity.
That’s where the submarine plays a vital role, watching areas of concern or specific targets around the clock.
According to Chicoutimi’s combat officer, Lt. David Henry, “whatever ship or object we’re observing, they’re unaware of the fact that we’re there. And that is a huge bonus, because [then] they’re not going to stop what they’re doing.”
New kind of mission
HMCS Chicoutimi was one of four mothballed subs bought used from the United Kingdom in the 1990s.
What was thought to be a sweetheart deal led to years of problems, starting with the 2004 fire aboard Chicoutimi when it first left the U.K. for Canada.
In the years since, rust and welding issues have continued to plague the fleet, which has either been in dry dock, or sailing with limited capabilities.
Today, the situation has improved and a sub is always operating on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, including missions to identify illegal fishing or environmental crimes by vessels in Canadian waters.
The Chicoutimi’s deployment in the Pacific far from its home port is a big departure from the regular types of missions for a Canadian sub. CBC News was on board recently as HMCS Chicoutimi stalked another ship in waters off Asia as part of a training exercise.
During the chase, the Captain announced to his 58-person crew: “We are sneaking up on the warship now … at this point, I suspect he doesn’t know where we are.”
The sub used sonar to track the vessel and raised one of its two periscopes above the waves for visual confirmation, though for only seconds at a time to avoid being seen.
The Canadian boat followed a French frigate for more than two hours before surfacing less than a kilometre from the vessel. The Captain used codenames (Chicoutimi was “Ice Wine”) over a secure radio to warn the warship just prior to surfacing. Until that point, the ship’s crew was unaware how close the Canadian sub had been.
“We provide a different level of situational awareness,” says Ouellet. “We can essentially collect intelligence from a different angle, we can come close, we can read the name of a vessel, determine its course and speed and quickly report.”
For security reasons, the crew could not discuss any other specific interceptions it has been involved with in recent weeks in the region.
Life aboard a sub
Aspects of the Chicoutimi’s mission are shrouded in secrecy, but the 58 people aboard have little privacy themselves.
Sleeping quarters amount to a bunk, often embedded in another piece of equipment to save space. More than a dozen sleep above, below, or immediately beside the boat’s Mark 48 torpedoes, for example.
“We don’t differentiate between genders,” says the only woman aboard, Master Seaman Anna Whiten. “We don’t segregate in the Canadian Navy the way the Americans have. The women’s quarters don’t exist.”
Only the Captain has his own quarters, a tiny compartment adjacent to the noisy control room, where steering, navigation and sonar functions are staffed.
The crewmembers normally work eight hours on duty, eight off, then four hours on and four off. But everyone is called on duty when the submarine is diving, surfacing, tracking another vessel, or dealing with an emergency onboard.
And on a complicated piece of machinery like a submarine, things can go wrong. While CBC News was on the Chicoutimi, the engineers spent hours attempting to repair the sub’s chilled water systems which, among other things, keep food cold on board.
The problem couldn’t be fixed at sea, so the Chicoutimi put in at a nearby port for repair.
It was the first technical issue to result in a schedule change during the submarine’s current deployment.
In spite of the minor setback, the Royal Canadian Navy has high hopes for this mission. After years of problems, Chicoutimi’s far-flung deployment is intended to send a signal to allies — and Canadians — that the submarines can now go anywhere they’re needed.