Canadian Submarine Project: Saab Betting Big on its C71 ‘Expeditionary’ Subs to Win the Contest

Defence Industry

Karlskrona (Sweden): In this quiet coastal town in the southeast of Sweden, hull sections of two Blekinge-class submarines sit perpendicular to each other on dry land at Saab’s Kockums shipyard. The vessels bear few identifying marks, save for the large holes on one section reserved for the boat’s multi-mission portal. Company officials say for security reasons they can’t identify which boat is which.

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Visible from just outside the building is the Baltic Sea, the hunting ground the two new subs are slated to begin patrolling when they join the Royal Swedish Navy’s fleet in 2027 and 2028. But even seaside on a sunny day here, at the top of mind for most company officials is a larger variant of these submarines, a vessel they hope will one day troll the open ocean nearly 4,000 miles away for a different military, and for a hefty price tag.

Following a disappointing loss earlier this year in a Dutch competition, Saab says it will double down on its latest submarine design, C71, for the Canadian Patrol Submarine Project, a program that has already captured the attention of numerous shipbuilders from around the globe with a reported price tag of at least $60 billion Canadian dollars for up to 12 submarines.

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Though a recent Canadian defence policy document was unclear about how many subs Ottawa will pursue, the competition is already gearing up and is expected to be fierce. The Royal Canadian Navy is in talks with companies from South Korea, Japan, Spain, Germany, France and Saab’s Kockums here in Sweden.

But a top Saab official says he’s keenly aware that even if the C71 is the best sub, other factors could torpedo the company’s bid. “It will come down to very much a political play again,” said Simon Carroll, president of Saab Canada, who travelled to Sweden to accompany reporters on a tour of the shipyard.

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“If you think fighters are political, submarines take it to another level,” he added, alluding to competitions in the Czech Republic, Finland and other European countries that chose the American F-35 Joint Strike Fighter over Saab’s Gripen.

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As Saab tells it, their submarines, going back 100 years with a new design being produced once per decade, have been finely tuned to perform in the Baltic Sea, the primary area of operations of the Royal Swedish Navy and many of Sweden’s neighbouring countries. That is true of the A26, the sub design on which the Blekinge-class submarines are based. High-density commercial traffic, varying levels of salinity and the serious threat of thousands of decades-old mines on the seabed floor all make operating in the Baltics difficult.

But those concerns are not relevant to Canada, which will want to make extended trips through the open oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific. For Canada, Saab will propose its C71, also known as the Expeditionary submarine, which is currently deep in the design stage.

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Per-Ola Hedin, Saab’s chief engineer for the A26, said the C71 is envisioned to be 80 metres long, eight metres in diameter and will displace 3,300 tons. By comparison, the A26 is roughly 66-metres long, six-and-three-quarters metres in diameter and displaces approximately 2,000 tons. Hedin said that while the C71 has not yet been built, the design is relatively far along because Saab made a similar submarine proposal to the Royal Netherlands Navy. But the Dutch passed on Saab’s offering in March, instead choosing France’s Naval Group to build four Barracuda-class diesel electric submarines to replace that country’s Walrus-class boats.