Respected naval author Iain Ballantyne recently published Hunter Killers telling the incredible, true story of the Royal Navy ‘s submarines confronting the Soviet Union. The exploits of RN submarines in the Cold War is a story that needs to be told, not just to honour the men involved but to support the case for investment in submarines today. The RN submarine force is now in a parlous state, and one senses frustration amongst serving submariners that, by the very nature of their work, they can’t talk about much of what they do. Intentionally out of sight and often forgotten, there is a lack of public and political appreciation of what great national assets our submarines are.
Hunter Killers – reviewed
The story starts in the aftermath of WWII when the RN was applying lessons from captured German submarine technology, pushing to give diesel submarines (SSKs) greater underwater speed and endurance. Meanwhile the, then backward, Soviet navy was embarking on a race to become a naval giant which would see it fielding a vast and fearsome array of submarines by the mid-1980s. The author neatly paints in the political and historical backdrop to operations without hampering the flow of the submarine stories which will keep you gripped. While the world was often focused on the superpower space race, a more exciting, secret and ultimately more consequential duel was being fought in inner space. As submarine-launched nuclear weapons proliferated during the 1960s, NATO forces aimed to track and record as many Soviet submarines as possible. The Soviets built ever-increasing numbers and varieties of ballistic missile (SSBN) and attack subs (SSNs). The RN and even the US could not hope to match the sheer quantity but were far ahead in technology and in particular, the quality of the crews. The technological edge was largely maintained until undermined by the 1980s through the work of naval spy rings in the UK and the US. Also weaved into the narrative is the development of the RN’s submarines. From the first nuclear powered HMS Dreadnought, followed by the Valiants, Churchills and the world-beating Swiftsures. Also the very efficient Polaris programme to get the UK nuclear deterrent to sea and a glimpse of the wide-ranging operations of the diesel Oberon class are covered.
Although the books They Come Unseen and the US equivalent, Blind Man’s Buff gave fascinating glimpses into this world of undersea duelling, being published more than a decade earlier, they lack the level of detail Hunter Killers reveals. The book is mainly based on the tales of a few key RN submarine commanders who talk candidly about their experiences for the first time. What is clear is that for most of the Cold War period RN submariners were effectively operating on a war footing, on occasions taking extreme risks in getting close to other submarines, operating in the Barents Sea and penetrating Soviet waters. The book details many amazing operations some of which were supreme triumphs as well as some near disasters. The collision of HMS Warspite with a Soviet submarine (1968) rolled her over to 65° and traumatised many of the crew. HMS Sceptre sustained severe damage in another collision (1981) which ripped off her forward casing and part of the fin. For all the publicity around RN submarines operations in the Falklands War, most submariners regard their exploits in Northern waters as more daring, demanding and rewarding.
Make no mistake, the constant pressure on the Soviet navy from the RN and USN not only acted as an ongoing deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons but helped win the Cold War. The intelligence gathered was invaluable in keeping NATO ready to strike back in the event of Soviet aggression. The Soviet response to Western superiority was to try to out-spend them, ultimately bankrupting and hastening the collapse of the Communist bloc. The book concludes fittingly with specialist intelligence-gathering Frigate HMS London, commanded by a submariner entering Murmansk for a friendship visit with the old foe at the end of the Cold War. The author was aboard and witnessed the ship having to take avoiding action to dodge a ‘friendly’ practice torpedo fired at the ship by a Russian sub! This book is a ‘must-read’ for naval enthusiasts and historians, it will probably become required reading even for serving personnel. There is no better book on the submarine aspects of the Cold War.
Precious few hunter killers in the 21st Century
As has historically has so often been the case, victory was the reward for the Royal Navy’s dedication and sacrifice in the Cold War. With scant gratitude or foresight, politicians in the early 1990s, foolishly thinking that the era of conflict was over, started slashing defence spending. This foolishness has continued pretty much until the present day and the RN submarine force has declined proportionally, losing all its SSKs and now down to around just 7 SSNs. (See previous post for more on this sorry tale). Today the RN’s attack submarine force has its hands full with a wide variety of tasks. Its primary job of escorting and protecting the nation’s nuclear deterrent carried aboard the SSBNs ensuring they are not trailed by other subs remains. On top of that, the advent of the submarine-launched Tomahawk missile means the UK tries to keep at least one boat East of Suez ready to launch Tomahawks and this commitment is a big stretch. There are many other very useful tasks that RN subs undertake on a daily basis – gathering intelligence on potential foes (and probably allies too), listening to communications, photographing coastal installations and providing information back to the UK on criminal, terrorist, and military activity. While they may not have to take quite the risks they did against Soviet submarines, tracking and recording the unique acoustic signatures of other submarines and warships helps maintain a data library vital to a submarine operations. In the event of a future naval conflict it is likely submarines will pose by far the greatest threat to the vulnerable merchant ships that the UK is so dependent upon. The Cold War may appear to be over but Putin is determined to restore superpower status to Russia and is building new generations of SSNs and SSBNs. At a time when many nations across the world are investing in greater numbers of new submarines, particularly quiet SSKs, the case for building more than the 7 Astute class submarines planned, or even some conventional submarines, is stronger than ever. Meanwhile the RN does what it has always done and make the best of its very limited resources. A sign of the RN’s professionalism is that despite constant dangers, calculated risks and daring operations, the RN has not lost a submarine at sea since HMS Affray in 1951. Furthermore it is an incredible achievement that no Royal Navy SSBN has ever been detected since patrols began in 1968.
As a footnote to the amazing story of the RN’s Cold War efforts, every single one of its retired nuclear submarines remain intact today. Currently there are 7 decaying hulks in Rosyth and a further 8 in Devonport with more decommissioned T class subs coming soon. The MoD has been dismally slow to dispose of these vessels, which have been hanging around far too long and pose a small risk of radiation leaks. A plan to dismantle them in both locations looks to be inching slowly forward. On top of a string of reports of minor failures on nuclear safety in recent years, an electrical failure at Devonport in 2012 created a serious risk of a nuclear incident with reactors deprived of coolant supplies. This kind of incompetence and negligence puts lives at risk and gives CND, the Greens etc a field day to undermine our nations defence. This must be a top priority for the MoD and its contractors. There can be no shortcuts, no economies and no excuses on nuclear safety of RN submarines and their supporting infrastructure.
Related online resources
- Iain Ballantyne website
- Cold War cat and mouse games put us on red alert says submarine commander
- HMS Conqueror’s biggest secret: a raid on Russia
- Decision to test the dismantling of nuclear submarines in Rosyth ‘right’
- Second Russian nuclear submarine spotted off US coast in three months
This is a quick post about the more obvious reasons UK involvement with military intervention in Syria is a bad idea. The world has been sickened by the use of chemical weapons on 21st August and this brutal civil war has already been slaughtering civilians for sometime. There is an understandable pressure to “just do something” to stop this evil but Britain would do far better to learn from our recent mistakes, exercise caution, pursue diplomatic channels and focus direct action on humanitarian support, not least for the huge refugee crisis created by the conflict. The UK should not be tempted to use it’s rather limited forces for the following reasons: (most reasons are also applicable to the United States).
- We have no common cause with either side in the conflict. We do obviously not want to support Assad’s murderous regime backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah but more importantly we do not want to assist rebels some of which have with links to Al-Qaeda who want to create a militant Islamist state. This is not a simple case of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and there are also sectarian issues we don’t even fully understand. We cannot even be sure the chemical attack was carried out by the regime – it could be a desperate ploy by rebels to produce exactly this response.
- Whatever level of action we take, whether it’s firing off a few Tomahawk missiles or sending in troops it will result in further civilian deaths. Although we may aim at ‘military’ targets there is always ‘collateral damage’ in fact the regime may even force civilians into military installations as ‘human shields’. Will the long-suffering people of Syria welcome yet more ordnance raining down on their country, however carefully targeted?
- The most obvious lessons from the tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we should not get involved in a war without a planned exit strategy and a realistic hope of post conflict nation-building that serves both the people of Syria and long-term regional stability – a very tall order.
- We will not be thanked. Our motives for involvement maybe honourable – to protect the civilian population and end the conflict but the Arab world and probably most Syrians won’t see it that way. To them it will be another Western invader melding in their affairs and seeking to gain more influence and power in the region. We will probably emerge even more hated and despised – further western interference in the Middle East is also another recruiting cry for terrorists.
- We may trigger a much wider conflict. After the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the Middle East is already very unstable. Like all cynical Arab leaders under pressure, Syria is threatening to attack Israel in the event of western intervention. How far the conflict would then spread beyond the borders of Syria is hard to say.
- We are broke and over-stretched. We face a large national deficit and another military intervention, even if it proves to be as ‘simple’ as Libya will cost £ Billions we cannot afford. After lengthy engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq our forces need time to recuperate and restructure. (Laughably the 2010 defence review promised “no new conflicts before 2015″. Rather like reducing your house insurance on the basis you don’t plan to be burgled in the next 5 years). Further fanning the flames of conflict in the Middle East is also likely to push up oil prices further impeding the economic recovery.
- It is not in our national strategic interest. Apart from the humanitarian concern and desire to stop the war, there is no direct benefit to getting involved. To be pragmatic, in Iraq part of the reason we were involved was to safeguard oil supplies. In Afghanistan we were supposedly confronting terrorists who threatened the UK. In Syria we may even end up assisting those with similar ideology to those same terrorist groups.
- Syria is a properly armed nation. Syria is not like Libya or Afghanistan. Although it has virtually no navy, the country is well defended with modern weaponry, up-to-date air defences, mobile missile batteries, a large army with heavy armour and of course, a large stockpile of chemical weapons. Going to war with such a nation should not be done lightly.
- We risk serious conflict with Russia. Stuck in his ‘Cold War’ mentality, President Putin sees Syria as a ‘client state’ and key to their influence in the region. They maintain a small naval base at Tartus and want to keep Assad in power. The Russians are the main obstacle to diplomatic progress at the UN and don’t care about the sufferings of the Syrian people so long as they keep their foothold. They will not be happy with Western intervention and have a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean. Whether Russian forces would actually fire on Western forces is not something we want to put to the test.
- Defence cuts mean any UK military contribution would be ‘token’ rather than decisive. (see below).
UK military options
Obviously to have much effect, any military action in Syria would need to be led by the US with the UK as a very junior partner (Sound familiar?). So what could the UK bring to this ‘party’? Not much.
Since 2000, submarine-launched cruise missile strikes have been the initial way conflicts involving the UK have begun, usually against air defence and command facilites. Despite being one of the most effective and relevant weapons, we only have submarine-launched Tomahawks available. Our tiny submarine force allows 1, probably 2 SSNs deployed in the area. We have been saying for the last 5 years that government should be prioritising fitting of this most potent and critical weapon to the Type 45 destroyers. We need to invest in a large stockpile of Tomahawks and a diverse range of firing platforms. If the cost of fitting them to Type 45s is too much then mounting them onto the decks of an RFA or merchant ship might even be a cheaper temporary alternative.
Despite the Cougar 13 task group being conveniently positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean, it has limited potency. HMS Illustrious carries only helicopters and, thanks to axing of the Harriers has little offensive power other than to support an amphibious operation. Even if we still had Harriers, their lack of stand-off missiles would involve very dangerous conventional bombing in the face of effective air defences. The Cougar task group is really optimised for a small amphibious operation or maybe a civilian evacuation, rather than striking inland. If we were mad enough to send in troops, an Amphibious operation on Syria’s 100 miles of crowded coastline would be near-suicidal, never mind than Syria has mobile coastal anti-ship missiles .
It would seem that the Cypriot government is apparently lukewarm about allowing British aircraft to be deployed to RAF Akatori to launch strikes on Syria. This again demonstrates the limitation of land-based airpower, often being dependent on permission from unreliable foreign states to get near the scene of the action. The restoration of RN carrier strike capability around 2020 can’t come fast enough. Maybe like in Libya, we will be treated to the ridiculous circus of small numbers of in-flight refuelled RAF aircraft making 5,000 mile round-trips from the UK to launch Storm Shadow missiles.
Dave please don’t do it!
- Navy ready to launch first strike on Syria (Telegraph)
- UK Gathers Warplanes, Military Hardware In Cyprus Base Near Syria (eurasiareview.com)
- Expert expects Syria attack from ships, not Cyprus base (famagusta-gazette.com)
- Syria, 2013 – Iraq, 2003: Along The Same Lines (voiceofrussia.com)
- Hague threatens to bypass UN Security Council – Irish Times (irishtimes.com)
- The case for building a British hospital ship
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War