Attack submarine force: sinking below critical mass?

Nov 25, 2011   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog, Featured  //  12 Comments

HMS Astute, Royal Navy attack submarine

HMS AstutePhoto: Defence Images via Flickr

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).

HMS Trafalgar Decommissioned 2009
HMS Turbulent OPERATIONAL - Returns from deployment Dec 2011, decommissions late 2012
HMS Tireless OPERATIONAL - Due to decommission 2013
HMS Torbay Went into refit mid 2011
HMS Talent In refit until 2012
HMS Trenchant OPERATIONAL – Completed 2yr refit Jun 2011
HMS Triumph OPERATIONAL - Deployed East of Suez for 7 months Oct 2011
HMS Astute Still completing very lengthy trails but should be operational soon
HMS Ambush Building and due to commission in 2013 (trials should be quicker than Astute)
5 other Astutes under construction, the last of which is due commission in 2024

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.


  • […] in the water and the Astute class is beginning to deliver on the huge potential it always promised. These boats will be a great asset to the nation and the Royal Navy and ultimately are worth the cost and unfavorable media coverage. Nuclear […]

  • […] and balance of the RN’s future fleet. (We remain every bit as concerned about the size of the submarine force and the decline in frigate and destroyer […]

  • Am I correct the problem is part political, part financial and part construction or resource.
    Difficult to deal with the first but the finance part could surely assisted and dealt with if we exported some to very friendly nations?
    It seems inevitable this would mean a bottleneck with construction. Could it not be assisted by using the same techniques we have seen used for the aircraft carriers ie dispersing the making of the parts and assembling them in one place?

  • Ideally, one of the Vanguard boats should be converted into an SSGN like the Americans did with their Ohio class submarines

  • I’m not a naval professional, nor a UK national, but I too am interested in seeing a strong RN submarine service. That said, I’m not convinced that bemoaning the lack of SSKs is worth the time. If the SSK is any good at all, the sensor and weapons fit would have to be just as good as an SSN’s–and cost as much. The only cost savings comes from not having the nuclear plant. But having a diesel plant means that the SSK is forced for life into being only a training submarine, or staying mostly close to home, or deploying very slowly. From an engineering perspective, putting all that top-flight kit–sonars, Tomahawks, etc.–into a diesel submarine is a bit like fitting modern air-to-air missiles to a piston-engined aircraft rather than a Typhoon or a Gripen. Sure a Spitfire with Sidewinders would have its uses–and be far cheaper–but would it really be a sound long-term defence investment? Other navies buy SSKs not because they really want them, but because they can’t possibly get SSNs.

    • Charles. I fully agree the nuclear submarine is superior in most ways and I dont think anyone is advocating replacing SSNs with SSKs. In an ideal world The RN would have SSKs in addition to its nuclear fleet. The SSK is actually better for shallow water operations, being smaller and quieter. They are considerably cheaper to operate and would make sense for training roles, special forces operations and protecting the SSBNs, thus freeing up the SSNs for their main roles. Of course in the current climate obtaining SSKs are unrealistic as the RN has other ore pressing things to spend its shrinking budget on.

  • Shouldn’t the main thrust of any future naval procurement be on submarines for all the reasons in this post and the additional one: surface ship operation in littoral waters anywhere near potential enemies like Iran or China is now impossible because of masses of shore based anti ship missile of every shape and size easily concealed and dispersed in commercial containers. Or am I missing something? Submarines are also best for blocking others sea lanes and as mentioned SSKs are the best anti-sub asset along with helicopters, frigates being too damn noisy and vulnerable. What do you think?

    • I broadly agree Eds, in major state-on-state naval war the safest place to be is on a submarine and as stated in the post they are really the most potent and important capital ships of the RN. However surface forces have not yet had their day and submarines cant do everything that the skimmers do. A balanced fleet is needed.

  • I hope to offer a view beyond arguing to arrest the tide of a shrinking navy. The government has chosen to make Defence cuts on behalf of the taxpayer. Cuts result from a review of national ambition, and a structured force to meet that (reduced) national ambition.

    The shortfalls in SSN availability are widely understood in Defence and are the compound impact of:

    - Shipbuilder’s delays to Asute class – predominantly resulting from industrial impact of not buidling any boats for a number of years & loss of skills.
    - Defence delaying delivery drumbeat to: make savings and also to avoid the industrial impact above biting again (for Successor SSBN).
    - Inability to significantly further extend in-service boats.

    UKDP is for a class of 7 Astute Class SSNs, this was confirmed (for the first time) in SDSR. Current shortfalls are recognised, the impact is the long deployments highlighted in this article. However, it is not budgetarily possible to: build more SSNs (nor is there time before Successor SSBN), extend the current class further (beyond a few months here or there) or go back to an expensive mixed flotilla of SSKs & SSNs. The trouble with the submarine & nuclear programmes is that they must be fixed and steady to allow the best value for money (in a very big ticket programe anyway); change costs money (either delay, growth or shrinkage).

    Helpful to highlight the plight of the programme but sadly not much to be done.

    • Thanks for your comments Richard. I totally agree that the lack of submarines is the result of long-term problems and poor decisions by a succession of governments. It is also true that sadly there is little that could be done in the short-term, even in the unlikely event that government woke up and provided new funds. However some of these problems could be avoided in future if government committed to a regular drumbeat of orders so that industry could plan and prepare. The taxpayer would get better value for money and the RN would get the subs its so badly needs.

      “Defence planning” maybe for 7 SSNs with around 4 operational – this is all that is realistically achievable under current conditions but really the RN needs 8-10 SSNs to avoid chronic over-strech and lack of reserves for unforeseen events. Personally I consider this issue of higher priority for the RN and of even greater concern then the carrier programme and Type 26s etc.

  • I often wonder why the UK went all nuclear with the sub force.I know you can’t beat a SSN for versatility but for an SSK would be no handicap for most deploments and would i’d imagine cost a lot less with cheaper running costs as well.

    • Totally agree Brian. The RN was forced by John Major’s government to make a choice between SSNs and SSKs and understandably got rid of the Upholders. Ideally the RN would be buying around 6 of the excellent AIP SSKs maybe from Sweden or Germany but unfortunately in the current financial and political climate that is pie-in the-sky wishful thinking. SSKs are much better for shallow water operations, special forces ops and ideal to use in training – running persisher courses or ASW practice for the surface fleet. Much cheaper and simpler to operate they could really take alot of pressure of the SSNs and it is a real shame the RN was forced out of the SSK business.

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