One of our submarine orders is missing

There is deepening concern that the funds for the completion of the seventh and final Astute class submarine are not available. Failure to build this vessel would not only be damaging to the Barrow construction yard and its supply chain, but also to the protection of the UK, at a time when the undersea threat is increasing.

Until very recently government ministers talked confidently about the delivery of the final 4 Astute boats. (The first 3 have commissioned into the RN.) “Four Astute class and the first Dreadnought class submarines are currently in production.” (Defence Procurement Minister, Harriet Baldwin, 25 April 2017). Despite the stated plan for 7 boats, the emerging crisis in defence budget has raised concern that the £1.64 bn need to complete the 7th boat cannot be found. Barrow MP, John Woodcock asked the Defence Secretary on 25th January in Parliament to confirm that the boat would be funded. The answer was less than convincing. Although sympathetic, Gavin Williamson said it was “too early in the [Modernising Defence Programme] process to comment”.

The NAO report on MoD finances delivered last week says the ten-year equipment plan is somewhere between £4.9 bn and £20.8 bn short of commitments already made. The general lack of funds and potential cuts at the MoD are not a surprise but the axing of a submarine would be a big shock. The NAO discovered the full £1.4Bn cost of the Type 31e programme had not been accounted for, now it appears the funding for a submarine has not be put aside. This is indicative of the problems enveloping the MoD and why the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond who, as Defence Secretary, had a large hand in creating this situation, must provide a bail-out to the department.

Initial work on the 7th Astute class submarine actually started back in March 2014. This submarine has never been formally been allocated a name, although many have speculated she will be called HMS Ajax. In 2015 the National Audit Office reported on progress with Ajax to be “the fabrication of main sub units within the new assembly shop with the production of the gear case and assembly of the main machinery raft delivered to baseline.” It is known that contracts for some of the very long-lead items for Ajax have been already been purchased, including the reactor core, number H13 (from Rolls Royce, 2012) and heat exchangers (from DCNS, 2013).

Interminable delay and rising costs

“Subject to negotiations with the contractor, they [HMS Agamemnon and HMS Ajax] are expected to be handed over to the Royal Navy in 2023 and 2024 respectively.” (Armed Forces Minister, Lord Howe, November 2016). Since boats 4-6 are averaging 9 years from keel-laying to commissioning, Ajax should have had her keel laid before the end of 2015 in order the achieve her previously announced in-service date of March 2024 (to replace the last Trafalgar class boat HMS Triumph). With a programme of this kind, it would normally be expected that build times would be reduced as lessons were learned, but there has been surprisingly little improvement the time needed to construct an Astute.

The delays and issues with the first 3 Astute boats are well documented and can largely be attributed to loss of specialist skills after the Vanguard submarines were completed. There is much less transparency about why boats 4-7 have continued to experience delays. For the MoD and BAE Systems, difficulties and mistakes can be conveniently hidden behind the extra secrecy that surrounds the submarine and nuclear enterprise. Even the National Audit Office has been unable to fully understand and analyse the financial problems of the programme.

Astute class submarine build programme

HMS Astute commissioned in 2010 and if boat 7 is actually completed, will commission sometime after 2024 at best. It will have taken more than 14 years deliver the 7 Astute boats. This contrasts very poorly with the 7 preceding Trafalgar class boats, delivered with few problems over an 8 year period. Defence inflation runs ahead of baseline inflation adding dramatically to the cost of the later boats as delays have mounted. The first boat, HMS Astute cost around £1.2Bn. After very protracted negotiations, the £1.4Bn contract to build boat 6, HMS Agamemnon was signed with BAE Systems on 18 the April 2017. In 2015 boat 7 was forecast to cost £1.64Bn. The recent report on MoD finances by the NAO said that the cost of the final 4 Astute boats had risen by an alarming £365M in the last year. Rumours of serious flaws with the reactors and propulsion systems of the Astutes have circulated for some time but it had been promised that these issues had been resolved after boat 3. There are clearly significant further difficulties that are swallowing money and being kept from the public.

The last thing we should cut

As we have highlighted many times, the Royal Navy’s attack submarines (SSNs) are arguably Britain’s single most important conventional asset. The list of tasks for our SSNs grows longer. These include; protecting the deterrent submarine, trailing increasing numbers of Russian submarines close to the UK and in the North Atlantic, providing the only Tomahawk missile launch platform and gathering sensitive intelligence that often goes straight to the desk of the Prime Minister. It is our submarines that are by far the best deterrent to our adversaries on the high seas, representing the greatest threat to warships and other submarines. 7 boats is already an inadequate number and a further reduction would be a gross error. It would also be a colossal waste of money, as millions of pounds have already been spent on the initial stages of construction of boat 7.

The House of Commons Defence Select Committee recently heard evidence about the importance of the Arctic and North Atlantic to the security of the UK. When asked what are the main challenges for the RN in that area today, Professor Eric Grove said “maintaining the operational availability of a very limited number of submarines. There are not enough SSNs, there should be at least 8… when they work the Astute class submarines are magnificent, they have best ASW potential of any submarine in the world”. In current circumstances, Britain should be considering ways to increase the submarine force rather than reduce it, even if it must come at the expense of other capabilities.

If the Treasury fails to reduce the budgetary pressures on the MoD and tough choices are forced on the RN, then however reluctantly, cuts to the amphibious capability or the size of the F-35 buy must be made before reducing our submarine fleet. Without the capability to dominate the undersea domain, carrier strike or amphibious operations incur increasing risk.

Alarm that the boat will not be completed may yet prove to be unwarranted, although delayed delivery is now unavoidable, we call on government to formally name the 7th boat and sign the contract for her construction as a matter of urgency.

The unquestionable importance of attack submarines means this should be done now, abandoning or delaying boat 7 should not even be an option for consideration in the 3 – 6 month defence review process currently underway.