HMS Audacious yet to begin sea trials, risking further decline in Royal Navy submarine numbers

Construction of HMS Audacious has fallen yet further behind schedule. From the limited public information available, here we briefly asses the situation.

As recently as February 2017, the MoD said it expected HMS Audacious to enter service in November 2018. More than two years later it is clear something is amiss. It is now June 2019 and Audacious remains afloat in the dock at Barrow and yet to put to sea, 12 years after her manufacture started.

In late 2018, HMS Magpie was dispatched to survey the Walney Channel at Barrow, supposedly in preparation for the submarines’ imminent departure. Sources at a company involved in supporting Audacious on sea trials stated in October 2018 that they expected to be called on to assist “next Spring”. Responding to enquiries today, the MoD is only able to confirm Audacious will commence sea trials “this year” which could imply next week or months away. As for boat 5, HMS Anson, the MoD is even more vague, saying she is “expected to enter sea trials in the early 2020s.”

The delays to HMS Audacious risk the RN’s attack submarine force declining even further, at least temporarily, down to just 5 boats. Whether the current 6-boat fleet can be maintained is now probably dependent on the oldest submarine, HMS Trenchant, being kept going beyond her planned decommissioning this year. Even if HMS Audacious started sea trials tomorrow, it will take many months to rectify the inevitable snags, be commissioned and then work the boat up to be fully operational.

When asked if HMS Trenchant’s decommissioning might be postponed, the MoD issued their stock answer; “The planned out-of-service and in-service dates for Royal Navy submarines are withheld as disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces”. This is a significant change in policy, back in 2013 the Defence Minister was happy to publish out-of-service dates of nuclear submarines. One might conclude the sudden shyness about discussing the strength of the submarine force has everything to do with obscuring increasingly embarrassing delays and little to do with operational security.

According to the written answer to a Parliamentary question given in 2013, HMS Trenchant was due to go in 2019. (It should be noted HMS Tireless and Torbay retired in 2014 and 2017 respectively as scheduled and in line with the dates given in the written answer.) HMS Trenchant completed a 3-year refit in April 2017 described as “the largest and most complex ever undertaken at Devonport”. After such a considerable investment was made in the veteran boat it is possible, although launched 33 years ago, she could manage to continue to serve beyond this year. This would mostly be dependent on the material state of her hull and how much life is left in her reactor core.

Audacious successfully completed her first trim and basin dive in the Devonshire Dock in January 2018. (Photo: BAE Systems)

HMS Audacious is in effect a ‘batch II’ boat with some significant internal changes and improvements building on lessons learned from the first three boats. Details are sketchy but some of these upgrades have already been de-risked and back-fitted to boats 1-3, especially to the combat system and electronics taking advantage of their open architecture. The batch II design is supposed to eliminate some complexity and utilise more commercial off the shelf (COTS) equipment.

It is acknowledged that the submarine supply chain has struggled due to lack of continuity and the MoD has lost some expertise in this procurement speciality. Other than these background issues, the precise reasons for the delays and spiralling costs remain conveniently hidden behind the blanket of secrecy surrounding the submarine programme. There is little justification for the deafening silence about problems with what is arguably the most critical conventional UK defence asset and the taxpayer deserves a proper explanation. It is the failures of the construction programme that is ‘prejudicing the capability of the Armed Forces’ and it is not as if our adversaries cannot easily decern for themselves our inadequate number of submarines. Creating public pressure for the RN to get the submarines it needs in a timely manner could, however, be politically inconvenient.

In the 1960s and 70s, British industry was consistently turning out nuclear submarines in around 4½ years at a time when it was plagued by dire industrial relations and supposed inefficiency. While in the 21st Century, despite the benefits of digital technology and automated tools it is taking about twice as long to build an SSN. There are undoubtedly dedicated people at Barrow doing their best in partnership with DE&S and the Navy to get Audacious to sea. The story of the Astute class submarine procurement is long, complicated and a lesson in what happens if you allow your skill base to erode. But by now we might expect the acknowledged historic failures of the programme to be firmly in the past and it is hard to understand why the construction time of the later boats is little better than the first.

This was the plan for the SSN building programme, at least until recently, but expect the in-service dates of the later Astutes to move to the right.

Audacious was rolled out of the Devonshire Dock Hall and lowered into the water for the first time in April 2017. (Main image BAE Systems)