The Lowdown Hub

Inside the secret world of Britain's nuclear submarine industryThe costly struggle to manufacture.

The Astute is the latest class of nuclear-powered fleet submarines in service under the Royal Navy CREDIT: CPO Phot Thomas McDonald/Royal Navy

In the secretive world of submarines, it’s almost impossible to get anyone intimately involved with their construction or operation to talk about the capabilities of the multi-billion pound vessels.

One exception to that rule is Ryan Ramsey, who served 23 years in the Royal Navy, including three commanding nuclear attack submarines HMS Turbulent.

He did a spell as “Teacher”, the instructor who leads the Royal Navy’s world-renowned “Perisher” course that prospective captains of British submarines must pass to take control of the service’s most-feared vessels. “Britain’s Astute attack submarines are as good, if not better, than anything else out there,”

Ramsey says.

While the vessels it produces may be world-class, the £11bn Astute programmes for seven nuclear-powered attack submarines has not been an easy one. This was something that was ignored in the excitement over the announcement of the Aukus trilateral pact between Australia, the UK and the US earlier this month. Under the agreement, the countries agreed to share defence secrets to counter China’s growing threat. The first technology to be offered is that needed to build and operate nuclear submarines, with Australia abandoning a A$90bn (£48bn) contract it had agreed with France’s Naval Group for 12 diesel-electric vessels.

It’s being seen as presenting an opportunity for the UK’s submarine industry – which largely consists of BAE Systems producing the vessels, Rolls-Royce delivering their power plants and Babcock servicing them – to offer its expertise Down Under. But that expertise has come at a price for the British taxpayer. The first Astute submarine was four years late, £2bn over budget and dogged by problems as it entered service. Those issues stemmed from a gap between work on the seven Astute starting, and the completion of previous generations of UK submarines – the Trafalgar class that Astute replaced – and the larger Vanguard nuclear missile boats. Sub-par start

Rich Scott, the naval consultant editor at defence specialists Jane’s, says the submarine experience was lost between the last Vanguard-class vessel being built and their replacements that morphed into the Astute.

The Astute was born in the mid-1980s when Britain began seeking a successor to the Trafalgar class, the last of which was launched in 1991. However, the end of the Cold War meant cheaper options were sought and in the mid-1990s a tender was won by the company that became BAE Systems, with construction starting in 1999. In the meantime, the Vanguard missile submarines were built between 1986 and 1999, with work on the final boat slowed by indecision on whether it should actually be ordered. The impact of losing a high tempo of work was highlighted in employment numbers at BAE’s shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, the home of UK submarine construction. The workforce fell from 14,000 to 3,000 between the 1980s and late 1990s and skills were lost. The situation was complicated by the yard’s ownership changing three times over the period before ending up with BAE, with the loss of skilled management in the churn. Ian Waddell, general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding, says: “It was a horrible, horrible experience having to relearn those skills as we did with Astute.” Examples of where craftsmanship went include specialist welders whose skills were in demand in other sectors. Perhaps the most visible indicator of how workarounds were sought is the shape of Astute itself.

Rather than the sleek, teardrop design of other submarines, it has a bloated aft. This is attributed to it using Rolls-Royce’s Pressurised Water Reactor 2 from the larger Vanguard-class vessels, rather than designing an entirely new power plant. While this saved money, it is also attributed to a lack of nuclear expertise and meant the Astute hull had to be expanded to accommodate that reactor. Although the closely held nature of submarine construction means no one will go on the record about it, insiders say this compromise created other issues.

Attack submarines like the Astute are built for bursts of high speed, while larger missile boats such as Vanguard spend their time slowly patrolling. Comparisons have been made to putting the engine from a lorry into a sports car, throwing up problems in how to get the performance needed for Astute from such a setup.

“You can’t just start up nuclear submarine engineers,” says a source close to Rolls, adding the company had to go into universities to pick promising undergraduates and train them to create a new crop of experts. “The problem is there aren’t a lot of transferable skills into submarine reactor design, but there are a lot out of it.”

Defence think-tank RUSI has described the skills shortage in the area as a “massive, long-identified and generational challenge that can’t be fixed overnight”. Trevor Taylor, its director of defence industries, adds: “It’s been a wake-up call on how difficult and expensive regenerating the capability to build these complex systems is.”

HMS Astute is 97 metres long and can carry a crew of 100 CREDIT: Will Haigh

Hardly shipshape

And if the process of actually designing and building submarines wasn’t complex enough, extra levels of difficulty were thrown in by politics and worries about value for money. “When Vanguard was being built by VSEL [now part of BAE], it became unpopular within the MoD as it was seen to be making excess profits from the programme,” says Scott. A drive for savings meant “cost-plus” contracts – where industry charged a percentage of profit on top of the cost of the work – was abandoned.

Scott says: “This prompted a new acquisition strategy in the 1990s - a move to prime contractorship, with the much greater risk being pushed onto the industry. It has been described as like the MoD throwing a train set over a garden wall and into someone else’s garden expecting it to land and be reassembled more efficiently – but the result was anything but that.”

The National Audit Office laid into the failings of the Astute programme. It noted that the MoD had learned the dangers of creating a gap and slowed down Astute construction so the experience would not be repeated when it came to starting work on the replacement for Vanguard. However, this came at a cost of hundreds of millions, with the NAO pointedly noting that “in procurement terms, this equates to substantially more than the cost of acquiring a further boat”.

The spending watchdog also said that this meant Astutes were on average more than two years late, creating further costs as older vessels they were due to replace had to have costly extensions to their service lives.

Scott says the creation of the “Submarine Delivery Agency”, which takes a long-term view, is another consequence of previous problems and a realisation that the skills needed to build the boats are not “something that can be turned on and off. It understands trying to smooth out the peaks and troughs of demand, to give predictable loading so industry and the MoD can plan and invest against that”.

Once in service, Astute suffered problems, with leaks because of poor design and construction that insiders say threatened to sink the vessel before being resolved, along with electrical and temperature problems.

Some have questioned whether the first in the class is an “unlucky ship”. HMS Astute very publicly ran aground off Scotland in 2010 and suffered a tragedy a year later when a sailor fatally shot an officer on board. Maintenance role What Australia might want to buy from Britain is unclear. Taylor says work on the Rolls reactors is finished and would be expensive to restart, although Canberra could be interested in its successors.

Geographical reasons mean Australia is more likely to operate with the US Navy when it eventually does get its new submarines. Scott believes this may tip it towards US-based designs, making it easier for them toward together.

He says opportunities may come for the UK industry in maintaining rather than designing and building submarines. “We’ve got a small fleet like they will have, rather than the [almost 70] the US has,” Scott says. “They could learn from us about how to manage and sustain a nuclear enterprise that is at a completely different scale to what the US has.”

But before criticising Astute too harshly for delays and budget overruns, it’s important to consider the incredibly challenging task they are asked to achieve, says Taylor. “The Royal Navy is pretty happy with Astute, it’s quiet and they are confident they can find opponents and can’t be found themselves. A submarine that’s on time and budget but is noisy is no good to anyone.”

Perhaps the final word should go to someone who has operated British nuclear submarines in the face of the enemy. Ramsey says: “When I was commanding HMS Turbulent she was 28 years old and on the frontline, regularly beating the opposition, and that’s down to the quality of engineering and build. Submarine services’ reputations are built on the skills of their crews but they can only do that if they have the equipment to operate.”

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