RN attack submarines – is there a crisis?

It is very easy to write fiction about submarines but rather more difficult to come by the facts. It is strict MoD policy that “We don’t comment on submarine operations”  and while operational security must obviously be first priority, this information vacuum allows journalists to say whatever they like on the subject with little accountability.

Inevitably the majority of media stories focus on supposed failures. For journalists straying into this secretive world armed with limited knowledge, there is the added frisson of excitement that comes with anything that includes the word ‘nuclear’. Meanwhile a blanket of secrecy must shroud the frequent successes of attack submarines (SSNs) that can deliver vital intelligence, sometimes straight the desk of the Prime Minister. The SSN is the ‘big stick’ of naval warfare. Aircraft carriers can project enormous and obvious power but the SSN exerts a strong deterrent effect even by the possibility of their presence. The RN’s seven boats are simply not enough and when availability is reduced by technical problems or sod’s law, there is a profound effect. For those keen to promote the submarine service to the public, it is a restricted and difficult job. Details about current or recent operations remain mostly hidden, indeed if you read the news on the Navy’s official website you would get the erroneous impression that submariners spend most of their time doing charity work and cycle rides.

Media field day

By rather optimistically declaring 2017 “the year of the Royal Navy” perhaps the Defence Secretary has unwittingly made the service a particular target for negative press. CND, the SNP and the extreme left, together with certain foreign powers have a concerted agenda to undermine the submarine force in any way possible. Despite their role as Britain’s first line of defence, they want to mislead the public into believing that nuclear submarines are unsafe, don’t work and are too expensive in the hope they will be axed. Individual journalists will doubtless claim to be only acting in the ‘public interest’ but just 6 weeks into 2017 and there have been three major press stories calculated to undermine confidence the RN submarine service. On 22nd January The Sunday Times revealed a failed Trident missile test in 2016, giving the false impression that the Trident system is unreliable.

No SSNs at sea

On Friday 10th the Sun published an exclusive claiming all of the RNs attack submarines were inoperable. It would seem there is a grain of truth in this, all 7 boats were in Faslane or Devonport, at least for a time. This is unusual with at least two SSNs typically at sea at one time. The commitment to keeping a ‘duty Tomahawk boat’ stationed East of Suez has clearly had to be abandoned. With Russian submarines operating with increasing tempo near to UK waters, having no SSNs at sea is very serious, not least for the protection of the nuclear deterrent submarine. However informed naval sources state that, while not desirable, this is a short-term blip in the maintenance cycle and more usual patrol patterns with resume in the near future. Although rather more significant, the situation is akin to the storm that erupted last summer when all six Type 45s were alongside in Portsmouth .

Trafalgar class reactors – beyond repair?

On Sunday 12th February Marco Giannangeli writing in the Express “revealed” that a major flaw had been discovered in the reactor of HMS Trenchant. He claimed the fault is so hard to repair that all four remaining Trafalgar class boats will have to be scrapped immediately. If true, this would be catastrophic and leave the RN with just 3 active SSNs. Mr Giannangeli vehemently defends his claims and trusts his “source” who must be feeding him detailed information that is either very loosely based in fact or made up.

‘Nuclear expert’ John Large is extensively quoted in the Express article. Mr Large has previous form. Although undoubtedly knowledgeable, his views are partisan. He has acted as a hired gun for Greenpeace and has critical views on much of government nuclear policy. When a major fault was discovered in the reactor of HMS Tireless in 2000 she was forced to limp into Gibraltar. Mr Large did not “help with the repair” as stated in the article, but was on hand to advise the governor of Gibraltar about risks. In fact with incredible ingenuity, it was the RN engineers serving aboard HMS Tireless who eventually developed a solution to the problem which they carried out with assistance from a Rolls Royce Team. All ten of the SSNs in commission the time had to be inspected and repaired where needed, severely reducing their availability for almost two years.

The Trafalgar class are ageing fast and their captains must be used to having discouraging meetings with their Marine Engineering Officers. In vessels of this age and complexity, unfortunately, defects both large and small, are common. Against this background, the alarming report in the Express has a veneer of believability.

The MoD has denied that there is a problem that would prevent T-boats from deploying again. Other naval sources say they do not recognise any of the statements made in the article and no other credible media outlet has taken up this sensational story.

Where are the boats?

HMS Astute has been at sea on trials, seen on the Clyde in early February after completing a lengthy refit in Faslane. HMS Ambush was pictured still under repair in Faslane at the end of January, the damaged conning tower cover still shrouded in scaffolding more than 5 months after an embarrassing accident. While conducting ‘Perisher’ Commanding Officer training, she collided with a merchant vessel off Gibraltar, damage was obviously more than cosmetic. This accident was the last thing the RN needed but perhaps one should consider for a moment the lunacy that has forced the navy to conduct CO training using a £1Bn submarine that represents 33-50% of its available strength. HMS Artful was pictured in Faslane at the end of January fitted with the CHALFONT Dry Deck Shelter (for use by special forces divers) so it would seem likely she is preparing for deployment.

HMS Triumph was refitted in Faslane 2014-15 and has been active around Plymouth in 2016-17. Our friend Mr Giannangeli at the Express published an extraordinary story on New Year’s day claiming she had tracked two Russian submarines for four days just before Christmas with a special new non-acoustic sensor made by Thales (Possibly based on wake-tracking technology that has been around for decades). The MoD itself remained silent but reliable naval sources are quite bemused and say the article was just a fantasy. HMS Trenchant recommissioned in August 2016 after a major refit and upgrade in Devonport. It seems unlikely that a terminal problem with her reactor would emerge now. HMS Torbay was a very busy submarine in 2016 but is scheduled to decommission this year after 30 years of service. A rare and excellent piece about the role of submarines and life on board Torbay was published in the Mirror in December 2016. HMS Talent made the headlines when she suffered minor damage after “colliding with ice” in 2015. She was undergoing major refit in Devonport during 2016.

When HMS Torbay decommissions, the RN will be down to six SSNs at least until HMS Audacious is operational. Audacious is effectively a “Batch 2” Astute with significant design changes and upgrades that rectify some of the issues with the first 3 boats. The MoD reported that her commissioning had been delayed 10 months until November 2016. Sources in Barrow suggest the delay, caused by late deliveries of electrical components and materials may be reduced to 4 months. Either way, the new boats are needed at sea as soon as possible.

Conclusion

Let us not pretend everything is fine. The RN’s SSN force is far too small and fragile. The legacy of flawed government policy, funding cuts, industry cock-ups and MoD mismanagement going back more than two decades is being felt on the frontline. There is a small army of politicians and Civil Servants who should be on trial for the gross negligence that has created this mess. With their hands tied by circumstances beyond their control, those serving today (and many of the civilian workers in the supporting infrastructure) should be commended for continuing to get submarines to sea. RN submariners retain an outstanding reputation for skill and aggression and the service does not compromise on nuclear safety. While it is obviously not quite business as usual, we can look forward to Trafalgar class submarines at sea again soon and their eventual replacement with the outstanding Astute class.

 

Main Image: HMS Torbay. Photo: Thomas MacDonald via Flickr
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