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Allies to face off with stealthy sub in RIMPAC exercise

HMCS Victoria sails past Fisgard Lighthouse as she departs Esquimalt, B.C. to start a series of sea trials in December, 2011.

HONOLULU — Next week, the Canadian long-range hunter-killer submarine HMCS Victoria will head to deep waters off Hawaii and pretend to be a foe of the United States and other nations during Rim of the Pacific war games.

Surface ships, helicopters, patrol aircraft and other subs will be seeking to get their figurative sights on the 230-foot Victoria in return — which won't be an easy task.

In the cat-and-mouse game that is undersea warfare, U.S. Navy subs have nuclear power that lets them stay submerged for a long time, but diesel electrics such as the Victoria have a whisper factor that's hard to beat.

"What we bring is we are a high-end diesel-electric submarine, which means we're known to be quiet and well trained, and we know how to operate these boats. We've been doing it a long time," said Cmdr. Alex Kooiman, captain of the Victoria. "What that brings to our allies and other countries participating in RIMPAC is that it's a challenge for them."

What no surface ship wants to see is the green flare the Victoria can shoot from its hull into the sky, indicating it could have put that vessel in its Mark 48 torpedo cross hairs.

Single diesel-electric subs from Canada, South Korea and Australia will be participating in RIMPAC with three U.S. submarines.

All U.S. subs are nuclear, but it is increasingly sophisticated diesel electrics that are proliferating throughout Asia and the Pacific, with more and more countries getting submarines or adding to their lineup to protect shipping interests.

Some experts stop short of calling it a submarine arms race, and instead characterize the undersea buildup as part of an inevitable naval modernization that has accompanied booming Asian economies.

Strategy analysis firm Frost & Sullivan said tracking and locating the diesel-electric subs, known as SSKs, "is a challenging task, even for the most advanced navies."

Nuclear subs can stay submerged longer and are faster, but they also make more noise than modern diesel electrics, which run on battery power at depth. Diesel-electric subs with newer air-independent propulsion systems can stay submerged longer than their predecessors.

The non-nuclear subs are better suited for the littorals, or shallower waters, and "as a result, the importance of smaller and quieter conventional submarines has significantly increased," Frost and Sullivan said in its 2013 report.

"The SSK will play an important role in the anti-access/area denial operational concept of countries such as China, North Korea or Iran that aim to block access to combat zones," the analysis said.

According to Frost & Sullivan, U.S. vessels have often experienced "defeat" at the hands of South Korean diesel electric subs during RIMPAC training.

The Victoria participated in RIMPAC in 2012, but Kooiman, who took over as skipper in July 2013, isn't sure of the outcome then.

"To be honest with you, I'm not sure what their (sinking) tonnage was," he said. What he does know is "they got in a lot of attacks."

Kooiman, 44, said his crew gets a lot of practice working with other nations and with bigger ship formations during RIMPAC.

"There's a whole host of other platforms to work with," he said Thursday during a tour of the sub at Pearl Harbor. "They sound different, they work differently, they have different tactics."

Things also work a lot differently on the Victoria compared with the U.S. Navy's Los Angeles- or Virginia-class attack submarines.

The Victoria is 230 feet compared with a 362-foot Los Angeles-class sub. Space is tighter, but the control room has work stations around the periphery, leaving more central space for two periscopes and movement.

Kooiman, who is 6-foot-4, often has to duck overhanging equipment. He is the only one with a private cabin, the doorway of which is 11/2 feet from the search periscope.

The Victoria, one of four subs in the Royal Canadian fleet, has 48 core crew and 11 trainees aboard. A Los Angeles sub could have a crew of about 130. The Victoria was commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1991 as HMS Unseen, retired, sold to Canada, upgraded and renamed.

Among the Victoria's crew are three women. Canada has had women on subs since 2001, while the U.S. Navy started placing women on some subs in late 2011.

"We've had no issues whatsoever, and it seems that other navies are finally getting onto that," Kooiman said. Back in 2001 "everyone was, ‘Oh my God, what's going to happen?' and nothing did," he said.

There are just three toilets on the Victoria, one short shower stall and a hand-held shower head.

The sub runs underwater on more than 400 battery cells that take up about 40 feet of space, Kooiman said.

To recharge the batteries, the Victoria uses twin Paxman Valenta diesel generators — which Kooiman said were train engines before being installed on the sub.

Recharging requires ascending to periscope depth to raise a snorkel and take in air while the diesel generators run — a vulnerability for the subs and a source of worry for the crew.

"Doing that with very quiet warships above you is tense," Kooiman said. "When you have maneuvering warships and your sonar picture is somewhat confused, that is more tense than normal. We're trained to do that, but instead of submarining 101, it's sort of submarining postgrad."

Onboard a diesel-electric sub, "it's all about the batteries," Kooiman said.

"If we go slow, we can go on our batteries for a number of days," he said. "If we go fast, we have to charge our batteries more frequently. So it's all dependent on what our routing speed is. If they say, ‘OK, Victoria, you need to go very fast 100 miles from here to catch this task group,' then we have to snorkel quite a bit to keep our batteries charged."

The initial part of the at-sea portion of RIMPAC includes scripted events.

"(We'll be told), ‘We want you to be here, and the ships are going to come to you. We want you to attack the ships, and we want them to find you and attack you or track you,'" Kooiman said. "So it's sort of set exercises. They know where we are going to start, and they are going to come looking for us. We're going to try to not get caught. They are going to do their best to catch us."

When ships successfully engage a submarine, an electronic device is placed in the water that transmits coded messages that a submarine can hear, Kooiman said.

His sub also can communicate with other subs and surface ships via underwater telephone, he said.

The "free play" segment comes later in the exercise.

"That's where we get to be cunning and devious," Kooiman said with a grin. "You really get to sort of dig deep and bring out all your skills, and the team gets to really put their heads together and come up with the best ways to get that ship or get the carrier."
 

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