Nuclear submarines: the key UK defence asset
The submarine force is the arguably most important of the RN’s assets. Not only do the 4 Vanguard class subs (SSBNs) carry the UK nuclear deterrent but the attack submarine force (SSNs) are the only vessels able to launch the Tomahawk land attack missile. Of all the problems facing the RN at present, the recent rapid decline in SSN numbers is the area for greatest concern. The SSNs are really the modern-day capital ships – equivalent of the battleships of old. Only the most powerful nations are able to build and operate them and they are the key to denial of the sea to the enemy. With long endurance, stealth and a variety of weapons they are a threat to all surface ships and are also the most effective way to hunt other submarines. They are able to provide covert surveillance and intelligence gathering while remaining invisible and undetected for weeks on end. During the Falklands War, SSN HMS Conqueror was able to easily sink an Argentine cruiser and the submarine threat kept the remaining Argentine fleet in port. Throughout the Cold War the RN SSN fleet was mainly involved in successful operations to track the Soviet SSBN fleet and provided vital intelligence about the Soviet Navy. Much of what they did remains secret but their achievements were significant. In recent times Royal Navy submarines have fired Tomahawk missiles during the Balkan conflict (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011). A Royal Navy submarine is always on patrol East of Suez and maintaining this ‘Duty tomahawk firer‘ ready for action in support of UK interests in this volatile part of the world. Precisely what this submarine does in the Red Sea, Gulf or Indian Ocean areas can often only be guessed at, but providing useful intelligence about a variety of foreign navies is an obvious task.
An elite service
Royal Navy submariners are an elite ‘service within a service’. Operating a highly complex vessel in a very hostile environment, they must endure cramped conditions and have a all-round technical knowledge beyond just their own specialisation. The attractions of extra pay and an exciting career, often seeing more action than their ‘skimmer’ counterparts in the surface fleet suit many. However the increasingly lengthy periods away from home is hard to take even for the most dedicated. When HMS Triumph returns home on 2012 she will have been away for 13 out of the last 17 months. HMS Tireless completed a 10 month deployment earlier this year while HMS Turbulent will return home in December after 9 months away. The problems for crews and their families is obvious. Even in times of recession, recruiting, training and then retaining experienced and competent submariners is a serious challenge exacerbated by the constant pressure to go to sea.
The thin black line
A quick survey of the boats at present reveals there are a maximum of 4 boats fully operational. Of these one is stationed East of Suez while one is being prepared or on the way to relive her. Allowing for time alongside for maintenance, leave etc there is probably only 1, or occasionally 2 boats available for other tasks (such a protecting the Vanguard submarines).
A turbulent procurement history
Building effective nuclear submarines is one of the most challenging engineering tasks imaginable – more complex than the space shuttle, it requires specialist expertise and infrastructure. The reasons for the shortage of boats is complicated. It is not just a matter of lack of funds but also a failure in industrial strategy. The successful Trafalgar class submarines were developed from their predecessor, the Swiftsure class (the last of which HMS Sceptre decommissioned in 2008). Due to the construction of the Vanguard SSBNs and lack of money, the proposed replacements for the Swiftsures were never ordered and a new design – the Astute class has become the replacement for the Trafalgars. The failure to replace the Swiftsures ensured the RN’s SSN fleet would almost halve. The RN did have 4 new conventional submarines (SSKs) – the Upholder class built in the late 1980s but they only served for 3 years before being hastily axed in 1994 as part of the illusionary “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. The RN has always said in needed at least 8 Astutes but by 2005 it was clear that the government would only fund 7 boats. By the mid 1990s the last of the 4 SSBNs were being completed at Vickers / BAe Systems at Barrow (who are now the only UK submarine builder) and there was a gap in work for many of the staff and vital expertise in submarine design was lost. In addition, problems with computer-aided design meant that in 2004 BAe Systems had to go cap in hand to Electric Boat in the US to request technical assistance. This was an effective cure that helped the programme get back on track but by November 2009 the project was still 57 months late and 53% or £1.35 billion over-budget (more than the cost of an entire boat). The early design issues still affect the programme, for example no one noticed they had forgotten to allow space for the galley in the original design so the senior rates mess had to be cut in half to fit it in. The first 3 boats will be much the same but design changes have been made from boat 4 (HMS Audacious) onwards. Although HMS Astute was ordered in 1997, she was not launched until 2007 and commissioned in 2010, a full 13 years later. Astute’s arrival has been further marred by an unfortunate grounding incident off the Isle of Skye in October 2010 and a fatal shooting incident on board while berthed in Southampton in April 2011. The delays and budget problems of the Astutes are in stark contrast to the 7 Trafalgars which commissioned from the mid 1980s through to the early 1990s, delivered on time with little fuss or controversy, and more or less on budget.
The Astutes – world-beaters?
Despite the problems, by all accounts the Astute class submarines will be the best SSNs in the world (only the US Virginia Class may be able to match them). HMS Astute has recently conducted deep-water trials off the US coast including successfully firing a Tomahawk missile. She does not have traditional periscopes but has sophisticated optics, TV and digital cameras that can pop up, very quickly sweep round and then the command can review the images at leisure. With the Type 2076 sonar array and even quieter running than the Trafalgars, Astute’s ability to detect others while remaining undetected herself is exceptional. She also has more space to carry weapons, up to 38 Tomahawk missile and/or torpedos compared to the 30 of the Trafalgars. She will not require costly mid-life nuclear refuelling and although larger than the Trafalgars, has more automation so needs a smaller crew, reducing running costs. Much like the surface fleet, the future of the RN submarine force will be a very few top-quality eggs in a few very expensive baskets. Nevertheless, if you are a terrorist in a training camp or a hostile warship or submarine commander, the Astute submarine-equipped Royal Navy will be causing you sleepless nights.
- Navy ‘will not have enough submarines to protect UK (Telegraph)
- Navy’s HMS Astute test fires cruise missiles (ITN)
- HMS Astute is exceptional says her CO (BAe Systems)
- Astute class – detailed history and background (Navy Matters)
- HMS Ambush completes its first dive (Daily Mail)
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