Attack submarine force: sinking below critical mass?

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

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 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. Lack of boats exacerbates the constant pressure to go to sea making recruiting, training and retaining experienced submariners a serious challenge, with an especially acute shortage of nuclear engineers

The thin black line

A snapshot of the RN’s seven active SSNs in February 2014 reveals there are a maximum of four boats available, even if you count HMS Ambush which has yet to deploy operationally. A standing commitment requires one SSN always on patrol East of Suez, gathering intelligence and ready for action in support of UK interests in this volatile part of the world. Allowing for time alongside for maintenance and leave, there are probably only one, or occasionally two boats available for other tasks other than ‘East of Suez’ such a protecting the SSBNs or conducting ‘Persisher’ (Commanding officer training).

HMS Triumph – In UK Waters.
HMS Tireless – Deployed East of Suez and later sent to join search for missing Malaysian airliner. Decommissioned June 2014.
HMS Talent – returned from long patrol January, in six-week maintenance period in Devonport .
HMS Torbay – recently completed major two-year refit at Devonport – on sea trials.
HMS Trenchant – completed eleven month patrol in May 2013. In major refit at Devonport.
HMS Astute – Finally began first operational patrol in February 2014. Has been conducting CHALFONT trials (dry deck shelter, which allows special forces to deploy whilst submerged)
HMS Ambush – Formally commissioned March 2013, should become operational very soon if trials successful.
HMS Artful – Finally rolled-out of construction hall in May 2014 delayed by concerns over the structural safety of the dock. 4 other Astutes at various stages of construction – the last, HMS Ajax, should be delivered around 2024

A turbulent procurement history

Building effective nuclear submarines is one of the most challenging engineering tasks imaginable, requiring 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 stated it needs 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 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 enough 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 did not commission until 2010, a full thirteen years later. A grounding incident in 2010 and a fatal shooting aboard in 2011 have not helped what has been an exceptionally difficult introduction into service for the first of class. Details of Astute’s many technical problems are of course classified but it is known that a mis-match between the powerful rector and under-size steam turbines means she cannot reach her full design speed. In March 2014 it was admitted there is a problem that may reduce the life expectancy of the Vanguard and Astute class’ PWR2 reactors, possibly requiring costly mid-life nuclear refueling, something the new design was supposed to avoid. 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, Astute class submarines will eventually be amongst the best SSNs in the world. HMS Astute has conducted deep-water trials off the US and was successful in exercises pitted against a US Navy Virginia class submarine. The Astutes do not have traditional periscopes but has sophisticated optics, TV and digital cameras that can pop up, sweep round and record high-resolution images the command can review at leisure. With the Type 2076 sonar array and even quieter than the Trafalgars, Astute’s ability to detect others while remaining undetected herself is exceptional. She also has more space to carry weapons but requires a smaller crew than the Trafalgars.

While the RN’s submarine force has some outstanding people and exceptional boats, it has lost ‘critical mass’, so overstretched that its potency is degraded. Furthermore there is little prospect of a remedy in the next decade. 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 class submarines maybe causing you sleepless nights.

Based on an article originally written in 2011, updated and featured in “Warships International Fleet Review – Guide to the Royal Navy 2014-15”