THE Mulroney government's momentous decision to join the nuclear submarine club has sparked some controversy within Canada, but some perspective is called for. The Canadians can hardly be said to be going on the warpath; their defense spending has been remarkably low by the standards of their partners in the North Atlantic alliance. Canada's defense buildup, including the plan to purchase 10 nuclear submarines, would lead to an increase of only some 2 percent per year, in real terms, in Canadian military spending.
Nor is this new submarine fleet going to appear overnight. It will take perhaps 10 years before the first submarine is delivered.
The practical realities of Canadian defense procurement are that the subs will be built by Canadians in Canadian shipyards.
But if they don't have any nuclear subs, the reasonable reader may ask, how do they know how to build them? Well, it will presumably be necessary to buy some technology from abroad - likely from Britain - but the Canadians have been building nuclear reactors for use in power plants for some time, and they also have shipyards that have been building frigates and other vessels.
The production of the new sub fleet will presumably come about as a result of cooperation between the nuclear and the shipbuilding industries - an evolution, not a revolution, in technology, as a Canadian naval official told the Monitor.
Not to say that Canada thereby joins the nuclear weapons club. A nuclear-powered sub, of course, merely relies on nuclear reaction as a source of locomotion. Canada already has diesel-powered subs. But nuclear-powered subs are much faster than the aging conventionally powered ones.
Moreover, the nuclear subs, unlike the diesels, will be able to patrol under the ice in the waters of Canada's Arctic archipelago. Canada claims these waters as sovereign territory, but the United States regards them as international waters.
This whole program is being promoted to the Canadian people as a means of protecting and enhancing ``national sovereignty.''
Perhaps more significant than any assertions of sovereignty vis-`a-vis the Americans, though, the nuclear subs would help keep Soviets out of these waters. Not to overestimate the abilities of 10 subs against the Soviet Navy - and its arsenal of cruise missiles. But Canadian subs would at least put the Soviets on notice that ``this is not a free ride,'' as one Canadian put it.