Peter Cairns

Tags:  histories interview 
Author: Don Wilson
Published: Apr 20th 2017
Updated: 4 years ago

Interviewee: Vice-Admiral (Ret’d) Peter Cairns
Interviewer: Gordon Smith
Date of Interview: 20 November 2013
Location of Interview: Ottawa, ON
Transcribed by: Joy Thatcher

INTERVIEWER: This is a CANDIB oral history project and presents an interview with Admiral Peter Cairns. Vice-Admiral Cairns at present is the President of Shipbuilding Association of Canada. This interview relates the Canadian Naval shipbuilding programs which span the period from 1990 to the present time and predictions for the future. It reflects the particular experiences of the interviewee from 1990 to the present time. Peter I’d like to start off with the past - between 1990 and the present time with the DDH 280 program, the OAS and the CPF.

CAIRNS: Thanks Gord. I’ve picked 1990 because I had the fairly senior rank at that time. I was a Rear-Admiral and it was at the start of the setting to work and bringing into service of the Canadian Patrol Frigate. It was also at the time at the start of the DDH 280 update project and it was just prior to the buying of the submarine and I can talk about my experiences in all three of those.

Starting with the CPF, at the time I was a Rear-Admiral and I was Commander of the Pacific Fleet and it was just at the time of the Gulf War so we were heavily involved with, particularly on the east coast, of getting three ships ready to deploy to the Gulf War. And that’s where all the action actually was and that’s where all the publicity was, but I would like to point out that on the west coast we actually did the same thing but we didn’t have the pressure of getting it done in forty eight, seventy two hours or however long it took. We were there for the second when those ships had to be replaced. They had to be fully outfitted in a similar fashion so throughout that time and my remaining time on the west coast which was ‘till 1992 during that period of time and I can’t remember the dates exactly we actually outfitted our AOR and the equivalent vessels to go to replace the three ships that went from Halifax to the Gulf.

We got quite a way through that process and the war ended. It was sort of a very fast war so we had to undo everything that we’d done and so our participation in the Gulf War was particularly small. But we got heavily involved in what happened after with very long deployments of ships into the Arabian Sea and the first ships to actually go into the Arabian Sea and into the Red Sea as part of the after the war look for contraband and monitor ship traffic came from the west coast. So those were all very long deployments and they were all at the beginning we were learning as the east coast was learning about how to deal with the extreme heat, how to deal with the sand and everything that blew over the ships regardless whether you were in the middle of the Red Sea or not. You’ve got sand intrusion into darn near everything and so it was a big learning curve for the Navy which has subsequently become pretty good at operating in that part of the world but at that time we’d never really been there before.

When I left the west coast, which was in ’92, and I was promoted actually to Vice-Admiral to be the Commander of then, Maritime Command and we were again heavily involved in these sorts of things but there were major projects actually shipbuilding projects going on at the time. The first was of course the Canadian Patrol Frigate. The Patrol Frigate I think it was signed in the eighties and the building started in the mid to late eighties. Andy McArthur, then of Irving told me that in actual fact from his point of view it started in about the late seventies because it took so long to get anybody to make a decision to actually do it within the government that they spent the first eight or nine years of that process actually getting the people to sign off and actually to decide that they were actually going to build the ship. After that there’s lots of history and a lot of people know what really went on particularly in the engineering community.

Now I was a Commander of the Command so we were more in the … we wanted to get these ships and we were getting them from the Irving folks and from the Davie folks and setting them to work and my time in Maritime Command we brought into the fleet HMCS VANCOUVER, HMCS MONTREAL, HMCS TORONTO and HMCS VILLE DE QUEBEC and that was in the two year period that I was the Commander of the Command from 1992 to 1994.

The interesting thing about the CPF was that it got particularly poor press early on because everything was over budget, everything was late, everything was taking too long to build, but you know God bless the shipbuilding industry because the shipbuilders themselves learned how to put these things together. They started to do the block building process and Irving was one of the first shipyards actually to do the outfitting of blocks and the insertion of completed blocks right into the ship. And that went extremely well until the last group of Frigates were actually under the time allocated and certainly under the budget. The consequence was that the whole program was actually under budget; at budget or under budget and the concerns about we’re going to spend tons and tons of money actually never did materialize and it turned out to be I think probably one of the most successful programs that the Navy has in fact put together.

It was also successful from the operational point of view because of the unique work that was done by the technical folks in Navy Headquarters who particularly put into the ship and opened the eyes of the world to the capability of open architecture, to the capabilities of sensors and things to a level that no one else in the world had dealt with including the Americans. So it was from a pure technical advance point of view it indicated to me how a naval shipbuilding program could in fact bring technology into the country, get technology out of the country, spur the country to produce technology for the maritime forces and come up with world beating technology. So the CPF was the first one of those. The actual shipbuilding and trials and all that stuff was done before my time and it wasn’t really my part of ship either, but operationally as they came into being I got involved in that.

The other ships that went on at the same time, was we cut the first steel in the MCDV. We didn’t mention though there were twelve MCDVs again built at Irving and you don’t hear much bad about that program. It went okay. It was under its budget, produced twelve ships on time. Complaints about the MCDV were complaints like people like myself had that it was a little slow really for what we thought we the Navy at the time when they laid it down was trying to get, but the long and the short of it is I think you’ll see that the MCDV, which was in fact given to the Reserves to operate as best they could with some regular force help, turned out to be very, very successful. And it gave for the first time I think in a long time, with the exception of shipping control, a job to the Reserves that was actually quite operational.

At the same time we were doing the Tribal update and that was all done at Davie. There were also three Frigates built at Davie and that was, from where I sat, that was a bit of a slog. There were difficulties and it took a while to get it done but I think it shows and I think there were some budget issues too. I can’t just remember exactly ‘cause it was just really at the end of the project that I actually was the Admiral and we were trying to solve funny little problems like you know the system was supposed to be able to track so many targets and be able to engage so many targets and the trials people who were the Acceptors who were from PWGSC if it didn’t do that it failed. We were getting so along in the process and spending so much money on some of this stuff that we decreed at the time that you know if it can’t track twenty four targets and engage six at one time that might be the least of your problems, so if you’ve got five and still got tracked your twenty four that was a pretty reasonable damn solution, okay? And so we kind of played with those requirements a bit and got that program through so my involvement in things that happened, the command was very involved in it. Our chief engineer was very involved in it, but that program has turned out to be one of the better. Again another great program but I can’t tell you whether it was over budget, under budget or whatever but I think the cost, …you were involved in that,


CAIRNS: Certainly in the initial 280 program. But if you look at that ship but I mean geez it’s still running like a top. Well I won’t say it’s running like a top but you know, it’s running. And a hell of a program that the Navy and the country should be incredibly proud of. I was a commander of a submarine when all four of them ended up in Halifax on that day and my little submarine invited all the four COs over for a small wet down ??[Uninterpretable word] and congratulations. And they were great, great ships for our Navy and they’ve done things that I think as technology advances they’ve done things that people I think never ever intended them to do but they’ve turned out to be able to do it pretty well.

I think at the time between the time I was on the west coast and I was on the east coast there were a lot of things that we don’t talk about but need to be talked about and that were infrastructure projects. You know the Fleet Maintenance Facility in Esquimalt was started. In fact I think it was pretty close to completed during my time out there. We started with the projects in the Dockyard. These are all and new training facilities; these are all very vital projects to allow these programs to continue. We expanded the Fleet School; engineering side. Now we found that kids coming out of high school today couldn’t actually do the math and we had to send them back to school before we could train them to be sonar techs and electricians and that sort of thing but we were able to do that. We did it and I think all in all it’s turned out pretty well.

The other one I’ll talk about and I might do it separately and that’s the submarine ‘cause you may be interested in that. But I’ll stop for a minute and you can quiz me on some of this stuff and then I’ll get into the submarine….

INTERVIEWER: Well thank you Peter. Now, now let us talk now about the present situation of the icebreaker versus the operational support ships replacement, the Canadian Patrol Frigate and the submarine replacements for the present time.

CAIRNS: Okay. In 1994 I took my uniform off and actually retired in the spring of 1995 and that was the end of thirty nine years in uniform and I went then to work for SPAR Aerospace but that was a brief stop on the way and SPAR Aerospace had an Ottawa office and they were co-located at a place that is now CFN Consultants. It was CFN Consultants then and CFN rented space to SPAR and I was there probably eight or nine months, maybe. I don’t even think I was there a full year. I was there with Patty O’Donnell. Patty O’Donnell asked me to come and join him.

And as it turned out and what I didn’t realize at the time was that the CFN also had a contract with the Shipbuilding Association of Canada and that they were looking for somebody to be the President of that and the Shipbuilding Association of Canada was in fact a legacy from the Canadian Maritime Industries Association and the Canadian Maritime Industries Association had pretty well gone under financially. So the shipbuilders themselves decided that they wanted to have a small association whereby they could discuss shipbuilding issues and they could in actual fact pursue things that were of interest to the shipbuilding industry and we try very hard to deal with industry issues not necessarily with company issues although from time to time you have to. But in general we try to be very fair and even handed and deal with issues that affect every shipbuilder not just one, or issues that you have to be very careful about as it will give one shipbuilder an advantage over another and we try very hard not to do that so that’s a little background.

So I was asked to go down the hall and did I have a resumé? And I said no I don’t but I’ll write one. So as I was going down the hall I scrolled on a piece of paper a resumé and went into a Board of Shipbuilding COs and they quizzed whether I would take the job and be the President of the Shipbuilding Association of Canada and I said yah I think it would be very interesting for me. I’m not an engineer though. You got to be aware of that, okay, because J. Y. Clarke had been there before for a long period of time and so there’s a lot of engineering discipline had been in the job. Anyway the long and the short was I got it and we very quickly got into policy issues that the association had never been before and not necessarily because of me particularly but because of the times that were changing.

And in the early 2000s we I’d realized all along that we had to do shipbuilding better, but the question was how. And we had been advancing this idea that if we could actually build ships you know in some sort of strict time frame and not do this we build them for ten years and then we don’t do anything for twenty five and that we could actually take our twenty four ships that we had at the time, build one every two years. The oldest one would be forty eight years old when we got rid of it so you could actually scale that down a bit but it gave me the sense that we could actually sort of make a perpetual motion machine here if the government would buy into it. And it would be, it would make so much sense to other governments that they’d carry on and that was kind of the philosophy behind what later became the NSPS, the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. And we started to write and I started to write and I started to do presentations on building smarter.

Now this is not a new idea; it’s not my idea. It’s been kicked around for a while but there was quite a resistance to it. It’s too difficult. We can’t order a long lead item. Everybody could think of some reason why it shouldn’t be done but the fact of the matter was is if we were going to have any shipbuilding industry in this country we had to do something that way and we weren’t going to be able to go out in the commercial market and compete with the Chinese. So it had to be a way we build our own warships and our own government ships so that we provide a small but viable shipbuilding industry to the country. And if that small industry can leverage things into an international procurement and whatever so much the better, but that was not a specific goal of NSPS. It was to build the government ship better. Keep them more modern and make them cheaper because you’re building more and more and more, you don’t lose your workforce every time you build a ship and so on and so forth.

We did a tremendous amount of lobbying work and in July of 2009 there was a shipbuilding summit here in Ottawa which was shared by PWGSC. Rona Ambrose was there and gave a speech. We had several ministers there and that was very enlightening because in actual fact I said to somebody I said you know the only time you ever get more than one minister at a meeting is if you’re actually walking behind the casket of the Queen or somebody, you know what I mean. You don’t get two or three ministers on stage at the same time very, very often and so we were heartened by that and we had actually worked up a very good presentation and I gave that presentation that day. And we were then asked to answer questions and we answered questions and we did all this sort of stuff that you do in a paper world. And in October of 2010 they announced the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy which was essentially in basics what we’d been asking for.

And I can talk more about that later if you want to go into it but in actual fact that started the ball rolling and it started talking, it’s about how we were going to build the Coast Guard ships and how we were going to build the Navy ships and which were combatants and which were non-combatants and it turned out to be a very big program dollar wise; when you look at dollars thirty five billion’s a hell of a big number. But it was the way we calculated all this stuff and I don’t do the numbers or anything but the way we do all of this to make it look like the government’s got its idea on every penny as it turns out you know there’s not that much and the Auditor General in a few days is going to talk about that, okay. I don’t see that as a big deal personally. I think that’s the government trying to tell us that we got to provide more money to this as opposed to the government’s going to cancel it. I don’t think they’re going there, I hope.

But anyway we got it going and that NSPS was divided into two ships of a thousand tons you know sort of light, light ship tons not really you know the most basic tonnage you can figure. A thousand tons and they were considered what they were considered large ships and the major shipyards that who had the capability could bid to win one of two packages. One was a combat ship package which in fact was eventually won by Irving and it consisted of six to eight Arctic Offshore Patrol ships and fifteen Canadian Surface Combatants [CSC]. Should have been sixteen but at some stage somebody decided that they were going to sink HURON and the next thing you know you don’t have sixteen you got fifteen so that’s what you’re going to get 'cause you didn’t really need sixteen anyway. Hell of a piece of logic but that’s the way it is.

So that was one package that was bid. And then the other was the Coast Guard package which included Polar Ice Breaker and included an offshore Oceanographic supply ship. It included I think three inshore fisheries, scientific vessels. It included two to three Joint Support Ships. And it was always funny to me that the AOPs, that the JSS was actually in the non-combatant package but they were trying to even out the benefits to the two yards that were selected. That yard was Seaspan in Vancouver; Vancouver Shipyards you’d know them as. And even then you know what I mean there’s a the CSC is twenty five or twenty six billion dollars right now and of course the whole Coast Guard package is about eight or nine.

The ships that were in those packages were only ships that had some dollar figure set beside them as part of the Canada First Defence Strategy. And if you look at the Coast Guard ships in particular; if you look at the Navy ships that’s all the Navy ships that we need at the moment, okay. If you look at the Coast Guard it’s only a small group of the ships the Coast Guard needs. Like the Coast Guard actually wants two polar [ice] breakers. It needs at least four midsize Breakers and needs a hockey sock full of multi-task vessels, okay, so there’s another fifteen, twenty ships of about a thousand tons and above that should eventually roll over into the Coast Guard package. So that will make it I think a little more palatable if they roll over that is. That’s the big question mark.

So people started to look at this and first of all they had to decide well how you going to select a shipyard so the shipyards themselves had to be selected in some different sort of way. So all these shipyards were open to a letter of intent was sent out and said you want to bid in one of these packages, okay, or either one or other or both and there were five shipyards involved. There was Irving. There was Peter Kiewit in Newfoundland known as Kiewit Offshore Services. There was Davie in Quebec and Davie at this time was just getting back on its feet. In fact it wasn’t even back on its feet it just had a new owner so that was a financially at that time it was very, very shaky. And that’s one, two, three, and Seaspan on the west coast which included both Vancouver Shipyards and Victoria Shipyard. So all the sort of major, oh what you would know as Port Weller, which was then taken over by Upper Lakes so it became Great Lakes Seaway Management and whatever. They all said they wanted to play in the LOI.

And then there was a third party expert was hired called First Marine International which is a British company that actually benchmarks capability of shipyards and has done that for quite some time and is quite well known in the business. And I think this was a good move. And they in fact then looked at each one of the shipyards and gave them a score card of some sort, which no one has ever seen except the shipyard and each one of the shipyards was given their own score card to show them where First Marine thought they stood and what they needed to do if they were going to win one of these programs and what they had to commit to.

INTERVIEWER: Can we now look into the future Peter to see what’s going to be done with the Navy and the Coast Guard?

CAIRNS: Yes. Let’s talk about the Navy first. If you recall I said the NSPS was our concept that we sent in with, which was the basis for NSPS now. It was designed to build a ship every so often so there was virtually what we call continuous build going on in the country and that would be for the Coast Guard and for the Navy. As it turned out the, everybody got some money from the government; they all ran to build ships. So you know we’re in danger if we’re not careful of going back to the feast and famine that we had before because we’re going to build everything at once. It might take fifteen years to do it, but you know the fact is that we’re going to build a lot of ships.

So the sequencing of ships and shipbuilding and for both the Navy and the Coast Guard has to be looked at carefully and we recommended very strongly that the sequencing of build be laid down right at the beginning. So that everybody knew on this date, to as best as you could, that you’re going to build this ship, this ship, this ship, this ship till you’ve built them all, then you start all over again. Somewhere in there you might change the brand, you might change the look, you might change the size, but you would have a sequencing on, into the future. And I said what actually happened; we all ran like hell with money.

So let’s talk about the Navy in specific. The Navy was actually very easy because they wanted to build AOPS and they wanted to build the Canadian Service Combatants and they were big money. The AOPS, all these ships had been slow off the mark because everybody signalled that once they selected two shipyards they were obviously going to go out into the shipyard the next day and cut some steel and start building. But there were no designs you know what I mean and you’ve been in this business long enough to know that the iterations of design takes some time and even you know in the commercial world which we all look at knows how to do it. They still, you know, they’re not a hell of a lot better in some ways. But so when you look at the Navy, Irving won the six to eight AOPS which immediately due to financial pressures, well to start with let me go back just one issue.

The AOPS was actually originally designed at twenty two knots and then from, purely from financial reasons they became another seventeen knot MSDV [MCDV] ship. I personally don’t think that’s good for the Navy. I don’t think the Navy should have any ship that goes under twenty knots but that’s just me, but they had to do that for budget reasons and then of course the eight became six and that’s where we sit now. The design and acquisition of long lead items and everything is being finalized and it’s going to take over a year, but the first of the AOP ships will start to be cutting steel and being built in 2015. I’m not sure exactly how quick they’ll kick those out, but you know it’s going to be a three, four year project I think. They’re fairly large but they’re not particularly complex I think. Technicians might challenge me on that but I think that will happen and there will be…

And the question is whether they’re going to spread those out because when you look at Canadian Surface Combatants, the replacement for the CPF you know they’re a long way away yet. They still got fullscaping blocks, you know they may be a little more advanced than that but it’s still pretty basic there. And I think what’s happening with the Surface Combatant highlights the results of downsizing the technical side of the Navy because the Navy is no longer able to design its own ships. The Navy designed the CPF or the builder with the Navy’s assistance or the Navy with the builder’s assistance, depending on where you sit, designed the CPF. The design of this ship will be done by some external agency. It’ll be monitored by the Navy but it’ll be done, it’ll probably be very much maybe even more so than the CPF being done by some third party; whether it will be separate to the builder or as part of the builder’s expense a lot of these haven’t really been sorted out yet. But it’s really in its infancy so you’re looking in to the late 2018, 19, 20 I think before you start to see real building activity in the Canadian Service Combatant. I hope I’m a little wrong there but I think that’s really where it’s going to go.

We’re very fortunate because in some ways because this mid-life conversion of the Frigate I think is going to be really successful and it looks to me like you’ve got a whole new ship there. It looks the same but it’s a whole new vessel. Very similar to the upgrade on the Tribal, you know as far as capability is concerned. And my opinion is if you look hard at that ship it’ll give you an idea of what the Canadian Service Combatant with another iteration on top will be like. But we’re a long way from seeing replacements for the Frigates and, and the, it will be up to the mid-life conversion of the CPF to keep the Navy in the game I think from that stage.

From the Coast Guard point of view and the JSS has had a checkered past, they’ve had three kicks at the can, this is the third and we now have actually a design. The German Berlin Class has been selected and it will be built on the west coast as soon as they get all the contractual and design changes and everything that they need to do and there is a point of concern is the question of how much Canadianization do you want to do to the German design. We had a lot of Canadianization in the submarine and look where that put us. So you know what I mean I’m not saying you don’t need some Canadianization but you have to be really careful because you take an off the shelf ship and make it into something else. And there’s nothing more difficult in my view and I’m not an engineer but there’s nothing more difficult in my view just looking at it than to try and put all sorts of things in a ship that’s already built and take other things out. There’s all sorts of unexpected consequences, so that’s going to be an interesting process. But I think the big thing is the selections been made and it’s going to happen.

I’ll get to the Polar Icebreaker in a minute but one of the things, remember we talked about sequencing. Well no one had done any sequencing so then you, so what you have now is you have the Polar Icebreaker which I’ll talk to in more specifics in a second and the JSS both coming through the system at about the same rate of knots, like two horses running through the Kentucky Derby you know – who’s going to win okay? And it looked like there was going to be a smash at the end there because they’re going to go out at the same time. Eventually there was a hard fought decision made to let the JSS go first much to the chagrin of the Coast Guard who were not impressed at all but that’s the decision was made, it had to be made really high in the government. So the first of those ships in Vancouver, there’ll be some small ones built as it goes along but and the ones you’re interested in, the JSS will be first and the Coast Guard Icebreaker will be next.

The Icebreaker design is I think, going to be a very successful program because you know STX Canada in Vancouver; you know STX is a wholly Canadian owned subsidiary of STX in Korea and STX in Finland. That and it’s all Canadian owned in Vancouver which is very successful. Actually, STX in North America is run out of Vancouver. And with their affiliates in the various places they’re doing the design and I think you’re going to end up with a pretty good design because the Finnish folks have been designing icebreakers for quite some time. I also remind people that we built some pretty damn good icebreakers in the 80’s. Now if you’re old enough to remember the 80’s you know when Dome Petroleum and all that stuff happened we built some really good ships. The Kigoriak you remember the Kigoriak? The Kigoriak right now is operating in the Caspian Sea, going strong. Russians love her, okay. So the Icebreaker’s going to come but the Icebreaker’s not going to come 'till after the two JSS. So how long is it going to take to build a JSS? Couple of years, three I don’t know; that’s part of my background that I’m not too good at, measuring how long it will build.

But when you actually look at the infrastructure and things that are being done in order to make these programs work I think you may be surprised that the building may go quicker than you think ‘cause there’s a lot of automation now going into the building that we never ever had before. But anyway the thing is that Icebreaker will come after JSS so when they start to build JSS it’s going to be however many years those two JSS are going to take to build in Vancouver before you get the first icebreaker. So that’s the situation there.

INTERVIEWER: Now Peter could you tell us a little bit more about the submarine program?

CAIRNS: The submarine program was trying to select the best out of a not very good lot. Okay? Just a little history and I’ll only be two minutes. If you recall we were going to build nuclear power submarines and that whole program was instituted by the government of the day and then just about the time it was crucial that we were going to start building somewhere and select one, the government of the day cancelled it. From the time they decided they were going to build the nuclear-powered submarine to the time they decided to cancel the nuclear-powered submarine in the middle there somewhere they cancelled what was then known I think it was the CASAP program the Canadian submarine replacement which was a diesel submarine program.

So all that work was ended, thrown in the garbage and whatever so then the question was you have to go get a submarine and how the hell do you do it and this is kind of an intriguing story. I won’t go into it in any great detail but I can at some stage if people want to interview me more about this subject but the thing is that now we have four Victoria Class submarines, they were in fact Upholder Class. When we got them they had been sitting idle for quite some time. When we looked at the submarines and decided that we could use those and they would be for us, it took so long to get a government decision to be able to do them that they sat for about five, six years idle in the water and nobody actually really looked after them.

So we got these submarines that were in fairly bad shape. Then we had a disastrous fire in CHICOUTIMI because of old wiring and what have you, as I understand it. Anyway we’ve had some significant problems in these because we decided at the time, we the Navy decided at the time, after me by the way, that they would Canadianize them, at the same time and that took significantly longer than it should have and that was being done in the dockyards. And in fact as it turned out and as it is turning out Victoria Shipyard can do it better and quicker, or as good as the dockyards can, but certainly quicker. So these submarines now are going through various stages of refit. We’re going to have two actually operational for a while very shortly as I understand it. There’s another one coming not so far behind that. I think it might be CHICOUTIMI the one that had the fire and then there will be the fourth will be a little longer cause it’s a little later in the process.

I think that they will be okay for Canada and they’ll pull us through the drought of them - make us keep a submarine force. And I think personally that’s very important for Canada to have a small submarine force. So I think we’ve got the makings there but the real question then is we have to say that these aren’t going to be around forever. We’ve got about ten or fifteen years to get another submarine program and that’s got to be the emphasis I think in the Navy is to replace these submarines with a more modern diesel electric small crew submarine that’s suitable for our waters. That’s always been one of the problems is that submarines, European submarines are great for European waters but not so good in the middle of the North Atlantic. But that there are bigger diesel electrics being built now so I think that’s where we really have to put our emphasis. Got to keep these guys going but we got to put our emphasis on replacement and it’s kind of hard to go to the government and say well you know we’ve done all this other stuff now we need to replace the submarine but it’s going to have to be done and done very sharply, very smartly if we can.

INTERVIEWER: Along with what you’ve said Peter about the submarines have you any experience or thoughts regarding the O-Boats that are significant to Naval technical history? For example the HMC Dockyard expertise facilities support submarine personnel Canadian industry.

CAIRNS: The O-Boats in my view were very good for Canada. They trained a significant number of submarine people of which I’m one and they did good work. They were at the time quite modern. We built them in the sixties and they were really the latest. The Oberon was the outcome of the Walrus Class and they were the latest on the British, British drawing… Well they had the Upholders on the drawing board but they weren’t anywhere near yet. I think some of the maintenance and dockyard expertise that was learned was very, very beneficial to the Navy and to the technical side of the Navy whether you’d be wearing a uniform or a suit.

You know we cut an OJIBWAY in half. We needed to replace engines and refurbish engines in that boat. There was a very gutsy decision made by some folks who said let’s cut the damn thing in half, pull it apart and take the engines out and that’s what they did. And you know that’s when you’re trying to weld inch thick high technical steel you know what I mean you don’t stop for a coffee break and it goes round and around the clock till you finish and it was a hell of a job, hell of an interesting job and it was extremely well done. And to me it is a technical thing that if you’re interested in technical history you should get the engineers and everything that were involved in that and talk about it because that is to me was really significant. On the west coast you know when we changed engines in the old GRILSE and RAINBOW we actually cut a piece out of the pressure hull in the top and then they lift it up. They were designed to do that. But this cutting the ship in half was really cool.

INTERVIEWER: Was there any Canadian equipment on board that was significant?

CAIRNS: There certainly was and it had to do with sensors. We did what was called the submarine operational update program and we built some sensors and a new control room sensor suite into the three boats and that was a world beater. In fact it’s so damn good they’re using it in the Upholders because they just took it out of the old boats before they went away and put it in. It really is a sweet system. It’s old but it’s a very good system. So that was one thing. Probably the biggest thing was the Towed Array Sonar. You know we put a Towed Array sonar on the back of those designed by DRDC and worked out by the dockyard and that sonar was you know we’ve always had some of the best Towed Array Sonars in the world and I think I would probably get argument from the Americans but I think we had probably one of the best Towed Array Sonar in the world in the Oberon Class submarine.

INTERVIEWER: Well Peter do you have any stories of remarkable repairs, operation of equipment or personnel?

CAIRNS: I think what I would say here we talked about cutting the submarine in half but there were many times that we had generator problems. You know these DC generators and everything were a real pain and we were always say checking the insulation and finding out it was very low and we got into being able to keep those darn things running and I thought that the ship’s companies did that and passed on all the information back to each other. May not be known on the first day we took ONONDAGA to sea after it was commissioned. We had the crew onboard. We got out to the entrance of the Thames and we blew up the switchboard. We were able to limp our way in Portsmouth and have it repaired but you know the crew, being about a day old and not even done workups, did an extremely incredible job.

There are other situations I’m sure where repairs were done to equipment at sea particularly normally to do with generators and motors and things like that. But I think the personnel situation we make some really good submarine people. And what we did in the old boats that will apply to this I think is we took those of us who had trained with the RN we took what we knew there and there was a whole bunch of people who had trained with the USN and we all got together and we took the best of both of those and made that into how we operated our submarines. So we had some things we did that were very American. We had some things we did that were very, very British. But in actual fact I think we had the best of both worlds and that’s probably one of the most significant things that we did.

INTERVIEWER: Was the experience from HMCS GRILSE and RAINBOW useful during the introduction of the O-Boats?

CAIRNS: I think it was. I think it probably you know we got trained submariners and trained senior submariners and trained officers and everything from those boats. Not so much crew ‘cause we had the west coast, east coast business at the time. Where we got most of our folks was from people serving on exchange with the Royal Navy. If you recall in the sixties the Royal Navy was bringing the nuclear power into service. And every submarine guy who had a pair of shoes and could walk was in the nuclear submarine program. And when you looked at the Oberon Class and the Porpoise Class in the British Navy at the time most of the wardrooms were Australian, Canadian or a mixture of both with a Royal Navy CO and a Royal Navy XO maybe an engineer but half of those were all colonials as they like to say. So that’s where we got our training and a lot of our training and that was really vital to us and all our commanding officers all went on the Royal Navy submarine Perisher [course] so they were all British trained, virtually all.

INTERVIEWER: Okay Peter now we’ve covered the submarines pretty well. Let us go back now to the shipyards. Do you feel that any Canadian shipyards have benefited in any long term way for previous Naval shipbuilding programs, if so in what way and or which ones?

CAIRNS: I think every shipyard that’s built a naval ship has benefited in some way from previous building. If for no other reason that they’re different from World War II, but when we get into the ST LAURENT’s and then into the Canadian Patrol Frigate, the degree of complexity was off the clock compared to what people had known before. So people that participated in those programs got into modern technology and dealing with complexity and things that required processes, required new ways of doing things you know what I mean. We didn’t build the hull anymore and then put all the stuff inside it. We built box of things and stuffed them all together and then welded them all up in the drydock and we had this insignificant thing called the float up as opposed to a launch. But I think all of those people who started with the ST LAURENT’s shipyards I think were involved there were introduced into technology and were smart enough to use other technology like shipbuilding technologies like TriBond and you know 3D drawing and all that sort of thing where you can in actual fact reconfigure compartments any damn way you wanted to and just right there and see it without having to have some poor draftsman take three days to do it. So I think you know those technologies came into the shipyards in our case in Canada as a result of building naval ships in particular.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that naval shipbuilding programs and refits in shipyards provided an impetus to making improvements in their project management ability, cost control procurement, etc?

CAIRNS: Yes I think quickly yes. My quick answer is yes. I’m not sure of the ground I’m on, but I think yes. I think what has happened with these sorts of things with shipyards is that I’ve always believed and I tried to get it when I was a commander that and other commanders didn’t necessarily agree with me but I always looked at the Canadian shipbuilding as part of the maintenance arm of the Royal Canadian Navy. Okay? They belong to the Navy. I think the Navy should treat them like they belong and that they’re more than just partners. They’re actually part of the damn team and as opposed to being separate and coming into a room once a month to have a meeting we ought to have a more synergistic process. Don’t ask me how we do that but that’s kind of what I believe so I think that there is benefit.

INTERVIEWER: Peter do you think that the naval shipbuilding programs and refits in shipyards help the commercial competiveness?

CAIRNS: I don’t think as much as probably we’d hoped it would and I think that’s because of factors in the world. You have countries in this world if you go from the nineties back, back through, you know China, Korea, Vietnam, India where governments have poured tons of money into their shipbuilding industries and labour is cheap and for Canadians who you know who are used to having a good source of…, a good wage and good jobs and whatever you know trying to get those things comparable has been very difficult. There’s always been a thought that we could do it by technology but I don’t think that’s correct. I think actually the situation you’re in like right now is that you have Chinese who are paying a buck an hour whatever it is. Twenty five cents an hour but they’ve got the best equipment in the world too. So you know what I mean we can have the best of equipment but if we’re just paying our people more it’s going to be very, very difficult. These other nations didn’t have any environmental standards. Didn’t have any rules and regulations, any safety you know what I mean and all these things add to overhead. So I don’t it has been as good for shipyards.

That said I think it has been better for suppliers because I think people companies that make radar, sensors, command management systems, those sort of things and were Canadian have been able to get their equipment as much as we possibly can and we should be doing more of it into Canadian ships where it’s seen by people. But I mean if you take a Canadian Patrol Frigate as an example to some country and you take people through it and you show them what’s in there with you know the Canadian sailor well I mean that’s a world beating sales, sales thing. But I mean so I think for a lot of companies that are particularly in the high tech sensor field and various parts of the pure technical gizmos it’s been, I think, beneficial. A lot more beneficial than if we didn’t have it. But I mean, people tell me all the time it’s very hard to sell a product 'cause the first question they ask you is does your Navy use it, okay, and if the answer’s yes then they, they perk up but if it’s no they kind of turn off.

INTERVIEWER: I wish to thank you Peter for sharing your experiences with us. This interview will be recorded and put in the CANDIB archives. This interview with Peter Cairns on November the 20th 2013 ends.


AOPS Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship
AOR Replenishment vessel
CANDIB Canadian Naval Defence Industrial Base Sub Committee
CASAP Canadian Submarine Acquisition Project
CFN CFN Consultants
CO Commanding Officer
CPF Canadian Patrol Frigate
CSC Canadian Surface Combatant
DC Direct Current
Davie Davie Shipbuilding Inc.
DRDC Defence Research and Development Canada
JSS Joint Support Ship
LOI Letter of Interest
MCDV Maritime Coastal Defence Vessel (Navy)
MSPV Mid-Shore Patrol Vessel (Coast Guard)
NSPS National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy
O-Boat Oberon class submarine
PWGSC Public Works and Government Services
RN Royal Navy
Seaspan Seaspan Marine Corp.
SOUP Submarine Operational Update Program
SPAR SPAR Aerospace Inc.
STX STX Canada Marine Inc.
3D 3 dimensional
USN United States Navy
XO Executive Officer