HMS Astute: Relic or Revolution for the Royal Navy

Contributor:  Kristoffer Pettersen
Posted:  08/11/2010  12:00:00 AM EDT
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It was the16th of February, 2010 when HMS Astute left Faslane, Scotland to initiate sea trials. Forty three months behind schedule and £900m over budget, the HMS Astute is the Royal Navy's inaugural launch of  a series of 7 nuclear submarines provided courtesy of international conglomerate BAE Systems. However, cynics now name the last of class 'HMS Abandoned' due to its unviable nature in the current economic environment.
 
Why bigger does not mean better
With a displacement of 7,800 tons submerged and a price tag of £3.5bn (for three subs) the HMS Astute is the largest and most expensive SSN programme the UK has ever undertaken. Sceptics are complaining that the behemoth SSN’s have outplayed their role in an asymmetric strategic environment.
 
Is it feasible for the UK defence sector to adequately safeguard its long term nuclear deterrence objectives with the HMS Astute? The worry among senior experts is that the HMS Astute will inevitably deflate the industry. By producing few submarines, the experience-curve effect initially described by Bruce D. Henderson will not be substantially employed to reduce cost. The fixed price offered for submarines of the magnitude of HMS Astute will not be adequate for any economy of scales to take effect, and the result will be an overpriced bespoke design which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will not be able to sustain.
 
The submarines turned out at Barrow-in-Furness are simply too few in number, too cumbersome and too costly for a sustainable industry. Furthermore, the lag time between each successor program in the UK submarine industry has further proven detrimental as it has been impossible to retain trained personnel in the Barrow yard. For the HMS Astute programme, the problem initially was overcome by subcontracting certain project elements to Electric Boat technicians, which is extremely cost-intensive.
 
Paradox in submarine development
The question remains: why are these boats so massive and costly, and why does demand remain so high for such vessels? The submarine industry worldwide seems to have separated in two streams within submarine construction - for the sake of this report termed 'European' and 'US' streams. It is evident from contemporary European designs that the main focus is reduced complements with a higher degree of automation with the express intent of cutting through-life costs.
 
Conversely, the new USS Virginia is a 7,800 ton design with a complement of 134. One reason for this harkens back to the USS Yorktown Smartship automation fail point experience, where a programming error caused the Ticonderoga class destroyer to lose propulsion power, further resulting in the project being summarily condemned. The UK submarine industry has traditionally had a close relationship with their US counterparts, thus relying on low automated systems with manpower intensive tasks.

The primary drivers accountable for the increase in displacement (and therefore cost) have been identified as being the Roles and Capabilities imposed on new submarine designs. The fourth generation nuclear submarines of the present era are very much a transitional design, moving from Cold War tactics to Asymmetric warfare. This transition has had the effect of increasing the number and variety of possible combat scenarios, therefore increasing the roles and capabilities the submarines must take on. It is thus not economically viable to impose increased roles and capabilities onto contemporary designs.

 
The verdict
If the UK is to meet a growing nuclear submarine threat in the Far East, the submarine industry must radically redefine its strategy of using Cold War designs for new roles. If new successor programmes are to be realized a new approach to submarine design is required. One option is to look towards the new French Barracuda class submarines which carry a high degree of automation and power density.
 
Also, the recent American interest in the Collins class and its successor programme, SEA 1000, dramatically illustrates that the US Navy is not reluctant to acknowledge the future potentialities that technologies like 'Air Independent Propulsion' (AIP) might produce in Diesel submarines. The future of the UK submarine industry relies on, indeed is beholden to, changes to the present strategic vision.
 
1st Engineer Kristoffer Pettersen is a submarine officer in the Royal Norwegian Navy and a graduate student at Imperial College London where he is studying procurement trends in European navies.
 
Kristoffer Pettersen Contributor:   Kristoffer Pettersen


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