Return to the Arctic, another task for the threadbare submarine force

Two Royal Navy submarine officers recently participated in the US Navy’s ICEX 2016. Two American attack submarines (SSNs) navigated under the Arctic ice and surfaced where a camp was established on an ice floe. Shortly after the exercise concluded it was announced that an RN Trafalgar class submarine will conduct under-ice operations in the Arctic in the near future. Although a strategically wise decision, this is another pressure on the RN’s stretched SSN fleet which numbers just 7 boats.

The RN has not sent a submarine to the Arctic region since 2007 when there was an accidental explosion aboard HMS Tireless while operating under the ice which killed 2 sailors. The accident was caused by faulty equipment and nothing to do with being in the Arctic. Tireless was fortunately able find a polynya (hole in the ice cap) to surface and the dead and injured were airlifted out. The reason the RN ceased sending submarines to the Arctic was the diminished threat from Russia at the time, a greater focus on operations East of Suez and fewer available boats.

Aware that NATO was often able to track its missile submarines, in the 1980s the Soviet navy developed the concept of ‘ice bastions’. Their SSBNs would hide under the ice where they would be far more difficult to detect and destroy. The water column and acoustic conditions under ice are quite different to the open ocean. NATO began sending SSNs under the polar ice cap to gain experience of this new environment so that Russian SSBNs could not assume immunity from attack. Russia is slowly building a new generation of SSBNs which it doubtless also plans to operate under the ice. Shrinking polar ice has also presented greater opportunities to exploit the region. The Russian government submitted a claim to the UN to expand its Arctic territory by more than 460,000 square miles in 2015. Russia is vastly expanding its military and scientific efforts in the Arctic where it is keen to stake claim to the potential mineral and oil resources from the sea bed. Against this backdrop it would seem prudent that the RN rejoin the US in its efforts to regenerate an under-ice submarine operating capability.

Resources don’t match tasks

Royal Navy attack submarine force 2015 2025

*Dates are approximate and based on 2014 MoD statements **Name of boat 7 not yet formally confirmed

Below is a summary of some of the ‘peacetime’ functions that the submarine service will be expected to undertake. There are plenty more very useful missions that are not in the public domain and it is obvious that additional under-ice operations will be at the expense of other tasks, possibly even the East of Suez patrol.

  • Protection of the deployed UK nuclear deterrent submarine
  • Patrols East of Suez (with main function of ‘Duty Tomahawk boat’)
  • Patrols in the South Atlantic
  • Tracking of foreign submarines in UK, Atlantic and northern waters
  • Specific intelligence gathering and special forces support tasks
  • Protecting the Queen Elizabeth class carrier battle group
  • Participation in NATO ASW exercises
  • Submarine personnel training (eg. ‘Perisher’ course)
  • Surface fleet ASW training


As the chart above shows, the RN currently has 7 boats, although this will drop to 6 for some periods until 2024. The Astute class have suffered from very lengthy delays and technical problems but now seem to have turned the corner. According to the National Audit Office, a major propulsion problem that prevented them reaching their design top speed has now been overcome. HMS Artful completed sea trials in less than 6 months, a considerable improvement on the preceding 2 boats and an indicator that delivery programme is getting into its stride. The remaining Trafalgar class boats have served the navy well but will have to keep going beyond their 30th birthdays and require increasing time undergoing maintenance. Currently the actual number of boats available for operations at any one time may vary between 2 and 3.

By the mid 2020s, assuming the Astutes ultimately prove reliable and the manpower is available, the RN might manage 4 SSNs at sea on a good day.

Reactor problems raise more questions over availability

In theory the new Astute class submarines should have good availability, needing less maintenance and avoiding an expensive mid-life refuelling that can require several years out of commission. Unfortunately there is a serious question mark over the core H PWR-2 that powers both the Vanguard and Astute class submarines. In January 2012, low levels of radioactivity were detected in the cooling water surrounding the core of the PWR-2 test-bed at the Vulcan Nuclear Reactor Test Establishment at Dounreay. It is believed this has been caused by microscopic leaks in the cladding that surrounds fuel elements. The test-bed is run much harder than an actual submarine reactor. It is not a major safety issue and no problems have been found in operational reactors but it has been deemed sufficiently serious that the government wisely decided to spend £150M refuelling HMS Vanguard. She arrived in Devonport in December 2015 for what will be a 4-year refit. It is not yet clear whether the problem detected at Dounreay is a systemic weakness in all PWR-2 reactors or just a one-off. Examination of Vanguard’s reactor in the near future should help reveal the extent of the problem. If all PWR-2 reactors are found to have this weakness then the other 3 Vanguard class and some, or all of the Astute class may all need mid-life refuelling. This has potentially big impacts on submarine availability, costs and the supporting infrastructure at Devonport and Rolls Royce’s reactor manufacturing plant at Raynesway.

Rather like the former Pyestock National Gas Turbine Establishment, Douneray was shut in 2015 on the grounds that future submarine reactor prototyping and testing could mostly be achieved by computer modelling. Although obviously saving huge costs, a computer model is only as good as the data it is given. Would a computer model have predict unexpected microscopic cracks in metalwork that real world testing did? A land-based test reactor that forestalls problems in operational reactors was clearly a very prudent investment and its closure is not reassuring. The extensive infrastructure required to design, build and operate nuclear submarines is roughly the same whether you have one submarine or many so it is another source of regret that the RN has ended up with so few boats.

Long-term concerns

The 7 boats of the Trafalgar class were commissioned in just 8 years between 1983-91. The Astute class will take more than 14 years between the first and last boat. Assuming the PWR-2 is not refueled, it has a design life of 25 years so it is likely that the first Astutes will need a major life extension because the next generation SSN is unlikely to be ready for sea in 2035. The Trident Successor programme will utilise much of the submarine building capacity and available funding between 2021 and 2037. Either construction capacity must be expanded, HMS Astute run on for 30+ years or SSN numbers fall even further.

One solution to the RN’s lack of boats would be to purchase (or build under license) some small and relatively cheap conventional submarines from Germany. If we could ignore the political storm that could arise from buying German U-boats, the lack of funds and shortage of manpower it would be a fine idea. A fleet of 6 highly capable AIP SSKs would be well-suited to operating in home or northern waters, and would free up the ‘big-hitting’ SSNs to conduct power projection and high-end missions such in challenging environments such as the Arctic.