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
Prevarication leaves another crucial ‘capability gap’
Key assets for the Royal Navy are it’s Airborne Early Warning helicopters, i.e. search radar-equipped helicopters that can give the fleet much greater coverage than ship-based radar limited by the curvature of the earth. During the Falklands war this lack of coverage left the fleet in fear of Exocet missile and aircraft attack, with just seconds to react and it cost ships and lives. In a classic piece of British ingenuity the problem was solved by fitting a radar to a Sea King helicopter in just a few weeks. The much-loved, but now knackered Sea King helicopters will have to be retired by 2016. Despite being fully aware of this, the MoD project “Crowsnest” to develop a replacement has only just begun assessment phase. Almost certainly the solution will be to take some of the precious few (30) anti-submarine Merlin Mk2s currently in RN service and add radar in a very similar way to the current solution. Crowsnest is not expected to deliver until 2022, thus leaving the RN carrier(s) at sea without vital radar coverage for at last 4 years. Since 1982 the AEW helicopter has seen its role expanded and they have proved useful in Afghanistan and other non-maritime environments where their tracking and surveillance capability provides vital intelligence on the ground. It is the complacency & penny-pinching of successive governments that have, yet again, created a situation where the RN will have a another very significant ‘capability gap‘. Crowsnest’s lack of urgency is typical of so many MoD-managed programs and it is unclear why something that was solved in a few weeks in 1982 will take up to 10 years in the 21st century!
RAF plans to royally screw up the aircraft carrier project remain on track
Having succeeded in “advising” government to ditch catapults & traps for the aircraft carriers so the range of aircraft they carry will be much diminished, the RAF recently proposed the RN’s new 65,000 ton carriers should only “routinely embark 6 aircraft”. Whoever made that proposal is either an idiot or deliberately trying to sabotage the carrier project. The defence secretary later announced that he expects 12 aircraft to be routinely embarked, still a very silly number for a large carrier designed to operate at least 36 aircraft. As we have continually highlighted, the RAF now see the F35B as a replacement for their Tornado aircraft when in fact the F35B is really the successor the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR9. The F35B has “60% RAF ownership” and will probably be based at RAF Marham. It is not hard to imagine the RN will continually struggle to be allowed to operate the aircraft carriers main armament if the RAF have other plans. It is a crazy situation to build carriers then cripple them with bizarre aircraft operating arrangements. The F35B should be allocated to the Fleet Air Arm who fully understand what is involved in carrier aviation. If the RAF must maintain their questionable ‘deep strike’ role then they should lobby government to buy the F35A. A recommended read is the excellent article in the December issue of Warship International Fleet Review magazine by Commodore Steve Jermy who brilliantly explains the complexities of naval aviation and why in every carrier-equipped nation in the world (except the UK), the Navy owns and operates its aircraft.
Astute class subs – serious problems but still world-beaters?
Recently The Guardian gleefully reported on the many problems of the Astute submarine project. Late and over-budget, the Astute program can indeed find a place in the MoD’s Top 10 All-Time Greatest Procurement Fiascos. That said, there are now 2 boats 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 submarine construction is one of the most demanding engineering challenges known to man and it is unsurprising that the first of class has encountered problems. We can be confident that the problems are slowly being solved and Astute is amongst the quietest subs ever built, offers many new capabilities and has already impressed when tested against the latest US Virginia-class boat. The main concern is possibly with propulsion and a mis-match between her very powerful reactor and the drive train. However this kind of detail must remain highly classified and it’s impossible to speculate in an informed way.
The looming threat of Scottish independence
With referendum on Scottish Independence looming in 2014, the horrible possibility exists that the RN’s key submarine base at Faslane and primary warship builder in Glasgow will suddenly be in a ‘foreign country’. Although opinion polls seem to suggest that the majority of Scots will see sense and reject the idea, it would seem wise for the MoD to start making contingency plans. Apparently the ‘do nothing and hope it goes away’ approach is being applied by the MoD. (although one would hope the RN is at least looking at its options behind closed doors) In fact, the plan to transfer the remaining Trafalgar class subs from Devonport to Faslane is still going ahead. In the calamitous event of Scottish Independence, the nuclear deterrent would be in serious problems, although basing the entire submarine fleet in Devonport is a realistic possibility, the vast cost of replicating the weapons handling facility at Coulport would be a major obstacle and could even spell the end of the UK nuclear deterrent. There are lots of other nightmare issues to consider such as which defence assets and personnel would Scotland demand? Would the RN still build is warships in Scotland and are there any affordable alternatives? Franky independence would be an exercise in silly local pride, there is enough division and splintering in this world and we are better off and stronger together. Let’s pray the Scots vote no to what would be an disaster for them, the Royal Navy and everyone in the UK.
Portsmouth shipbuilding yard saga lurches towards disaster
We have been warning and campaigning against the closure of BAE Systems shipyard in Portsmouth for several months. All indications are that BAE seem set to announce the yard will close very soon. Due to a total lack of coherent industrial strategy on the part of this government and its predecessor, when the aircraft carrier work is complete the yard will have no work (at least for several years until the leisurely-paced Type 26 frigate programme starts). The yard is ideally suited to building small, relatively cheap Offshore Patrol Vessels which the RN really needs. Instead of placing an order for a couple of OPVs to fill the gap in work, government complacency and dogma dictates they will let the yard close. Ministers talk of there being “no business case” to keep the yard open – of course there is no business case if their main customer won’t even place a small order! Besides, the importance of an island nation’s ability to build warships goes beyond short-term business arguments. This pathetic laissez-faire approach to vital national strategic assets is indefensible and hard to understand, given the relatively small mount of money needed to keep it afloat. The financial argument does not even add up as it will actually cost more to close the yard than the cost of a couple of small ships!
Economic problems – more defence cuts on the way?
With the UK economy showing no signs of recovery and public borrowing not significantly reduced, apparently the armed forces may face another round of cuts. Defence has been cut, cut & cut again even in “good times” under Blair & Brown and there is absolutely nothing left to cut without really endangering UK security. Most politicians pay lip service to the fact that the first duty of Government is to afford protection to its citizens but the reality is that defence is a low priority for them as they have a short-term focus on re-election. Most politicians simply assume there are no votes in defence (apart from dishing out employment-related equipment contracts). It is shabby political cowardice & dereliction of duty on the part of government not to ‘ring fence’ the already inadequate defence budget, like it has with more politically-sensitive budgets such as overseas development, education and health.
Remember Timmy MacColl
Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl failed to return to his ship HMS Westminster after a night out when the ship was docked in Dubai in May this year. Despite exhaustive searches, nothing has been seen or heard of him since. Our thoughts go to his family and children as they face their first Christmas without him. www.bringtimmyhome.co.uk
Some Christmas cheer
Despite all the problems there are many reasons for the RN to remember 2012 with some satisfaction. The failure of G4S to provide sufficient security guards for the Olympics meant the armed forces stepped in and did a brilliant job, the unintended side-effect was a big PR boost for the forces fed by the feel good factor around a highly successful Olympic games. The RN also did a fine job in providing the security cordon around the Olympic sailing events off Dorset. HMS Daring made her debut as the first Type 45 deployed to the Gulf and operated successfully with the US fleet. Despite the ridiculous hysteria about her deployment from Argentina, HMS Dauntless completed a lengthy Atlantic tour although she was only in the vicinity of the Falklands Islands for a few weeks.
The major RN exercise of the year was Exercise Cougar 12 which saw the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) deploy to the Mediterranean. The most notable feature was jointly working with the French Navy. (Our new best friends in a shot-gun wedding of convenience brought on by austerity?) The RFTG concept was proven although rumors the ships could be deployed to the Syrian coast for an evacuation or humanitarian operation proved unfounded. Notable was the absence of any RFA tankers or stores support ships. The RFA is so busy covering important jobs that are really the work of now non-existent warships, that there was not a single one available for this major exercise. On a positive note, 4 new RFA tankers were ordered from South Korea although this rather good news was lost in the hysteria surrounding their construction abroad. The Type 26 Frigate programme reached another encouraging milestone as the latest design was revealed it also seems possible that some foreign orders or collaboration maybe possible which could help keep costs down, however it will be at least 2020 before the first ship is delivered to the RN and the numbers have yet to be decided.
The Royal Marines continue to serve in Afghanistan with 40 Commando currently in theatre. Keep safe and best wishes for 2013 to all RN and RM personnel, particularly those serving overseas and away from family this Christmas.
- 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
- 10 good reasons UK should NOT take military action in Syria