Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Chicoutimi Incident

For those non-Canadians not in the know: HMCS Chicoutimi, the latest of Canada's four submarines, suffered an electrical fire a few days ago on its maiden voyage. One officer is dead, two are hospitalized with smoke inhalation injuries, 6 others were hurt fighting the blaze and the sub itself is powerless but under control, awaiting a tow back to England.

Some observations:

First: yes, Canada does have a submarine fleet, and yes, we do need one for marine security purposes. We leased them from the Brits in 1998 to replace the 30-year-old Oberon-class submarines which were approaching the end of their service life. The problems with the Upholder class (now called the Victoria class) are well documented, which means it's a good thing we leased them rather than flat-out bought them; we can at least take advantage of British expertise in figuring out how to make them work for our purposes.

Second: The fact that the sub is still afloat, with the majority of the crew intact and onboard, is a tribute to Canadian and British seamanship. Anyone who's read up on the history of submarines will know that this type of vessel can easily turn into a death trap.

Third: Don't be surprised if the sub's commanding officer comes up for disciplinary action. once the Chicoutimi gets back in port. Incidents involving loss of life and crippling of a sea asset almost always result in inquiries and investigations, up to and including courts-martial. This is a normal procedure in modern navies; a ship's commanding officer is ultimately responsible for whatever happens on his/her vessel, and this incident is serious enough that action cannot be avoided. Also, remember that a court-martial does not imply that the defendant is already guilty of the charge; what would be examined is whether the actions taken were a) appropriate; b) within prescribed procedure; and c) the best course available at the time. There will also be a question as to whether the fire and/or its consequences were preventable; was the fire-fighting gear appropriate? Were the crew properly equipped to fight the fire? Was medical treatment available? All of these questions need to be dealt with.

Finally: some of the newspapers are already pointing to this as an example of DND procurement failures. I think it's a little too soon for this to become a political issue; I'd be more concerned about getting the Chicoutimi back to port, and making sure the injured personnel are taken care of, before starting to point fingers.