Royal Navy celebrates 50 years of continuous at sea deterrent patrols

2019 is a landmark year in the history of the Royal Navy. For fifty years submarines have conducted Operation Relentless, carrying the UK’s nuclear deterrent to sea. To mark the achievement a series of high-profile public events will be held this year.

No single mission has been longer or more important for the RN than maintaining the deterrent of the over the past half-century. HMS Resolution conducted the first patrol in June 1968 and continuous patrols began in April 1969. Subsequently, there has always been one submarine from Clyde Naval Base carrying nuclear-armed missiles and ready to strike if ever called upon by the Prime Minister. This is the longest sustained military operation ever undertaken by the UK and being the ultimate guarantee of UK security is both an honour and a heavy burden on the RN. To keep a boat at sea and undetected requires a vast logistics infrastructure and supporting cast of civil servants, contractors and engineers. The reduction in the number of SSNs, frigates and the lack of maritime patrol aircraft has also heaped pressure on the RN to ensure adequate protection from adversaries anxious to detect, track and record the signatures of the deterrent boat.

On a typical 8-10 week patrol, the submarine’s crew of over 160 are cut off from the rest of the world except for short messages of 120 words which can be sent by families each week. The submariners are unable to send messages back. For the current generation that is used to permanent online connection and instant messaging this can be a challenge to recruitment and retention in the submarine service. The fairly predictable schedule and onboard routine of deterrent patrols can suit some people very well but it is not for everyone, submariners are a breed apart to whom we owe a great debt. To recognise the achievement of the deterrent force, services of thanksgiving in London and Edinburgh, a parade through Faslane and a new commemorative award for crew are planned. The First Sea Lord recently visited HMS Vengeance in Faslane and presented six submariners with the new silver pin.

CASD Silver pin

Until now, submariners who complete a single deterrent patrol have been awarded a pewter pin while those achieving 20 or more patrols presented with a gold pin. A new silver award has been implemented to bridge the gap between the two, being awarded after ten patrols.

The four R boats; HMS Resolution, Repulse, Renown and Revenge were equipped with the Polaris ICBM and conducted 229 deterrence patrols between them until they were retired in the 1990s. They were replaced by the larger V boats; HMS Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance which carry the Trident D5 ICBM. There are unsubstantiated rumours that during the mid-1990s, the chain of continuous at sea deterrence was briefly broken. This was because of problems with the ageing R class boats at the end of their working lives having serious technical problems that would not allow them to put to sea. During the overlap between the ‘R class’ boats were being replaced by the ‘V class’ boats, on several occasions, there was no choice but to conduct “alongside deterrent patrols”. Fortunately, this was in the post-Cold War period when the nuclear threat was at its lowest.

David Cameron’s decision to delay work on the replacement of the V boats by five years and extend their lives now risks a similar situation as they become harder to maintain, pending their replacement by the new Dreadnought class. The original plan for the deterrent force back in the 1960s called for five submarines which would have provided much greater resilience and reduced pressure on the CASD cycle. The four-boat force is sustainable but there is limited spare capacity. Any unforeseen problems with one boat may result in extended patrols for another boat and greater wear and tear on machines that are one of the most complex engineering achievements of mankind. The good news is that there seems to be the finance, tight management, pragmatism and long term-planning in place for the Dreadnought programme that should ensure these boats are delivered on time and in good shape. If only such determination and good sense was applied to all areas of defence procurement!

HMS Resolution

The first deterrent boat HMS Resolution, seen on initial sea trials in the Atlantic, 1967 (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

A cursory examination of European history reveals an endless cycle of war and destruction which suddenly ends in 1945. It is not that mankind achieved a new sense of enlightenment after WWII or as some laughably claim, that the European Union has given us peace. It is NATO, its nuclear weapons and the delicate balance of mutually assured destruction that has prevented more bloodshed and another world war. Nuclear weapons are horrific and their apparatus may appear sinister and expensive but their existence has arguably saved more lives than any other human endeavour. Our nuclear deterrent is therefore cheap at the price. We should recognise the innovation and skill of the thousands of people who have supported the deterrence force and the thousands of Royal Navy sailors who have sailed on more than 350 patrols since the late 1960s.