14 Aug 15. At 7,400 tonnes, it was with a great deal of understandable pride that the workforce of BAE Systems at Barrow-in-Furness waived HMS Artful, the latest and most technologically advanced nuclear-powered attack submarine, away as she sailed off to begin sea trials ahead of commissioning into Royal Navy service late next year.
Laid down in March 2005, launched in May 2014 and having made its first ‘dive’ in October last year HMS Artful is the third of what will eventually be a class of seven vessels to be used by the Royal Navy to defend UK interests at home and overseas. The fourth of class, HMS Audacious was laid down in March 2009 and that of the fifth and sixth Astute class vessels, HMS Anson and HMS Agamemnon, in October 2011 and July 2013 respectively. The seventh Astute class submarine, as yet not officially named as far as I am aware but thought likely to be HMS Ajax, has yet to be formally ordered although early fabrication work has already commenced. Larger than the seven Trafalgar Class nuclear powered submarines that they have been designed to eventually replace and that had been built between 1977 and 1991, the seven Astute Class attack submarines may be regarded as being the most advanced and powerful to enter Royal Navy service.
Armed and equipped with Raytheon Tomahawk Block 1V land attack cruise missiles fired from six 533mm torpedo tubes that have a range of up to 1,000 miles and maximum velocity of 550 mph Astute is formidable in terms of capability. Astute also carries Spearfish torpedoes and mines together with a countermeasures suite that includes decoys and electronic support measures in the form of Thales Sensors Outfit UAP(4), a system that has two multifunction antenna arrays mounted on two non-hull penetrating Thales Optronics masts. Thales is also responsible for sonar systems and Raytheon for supplying the naval transponder Successor IFF (identification friend or foe) system. Astute is powered by Rolls-Royce PWR 2 pressurised water reactors. The long life core is designed to ensure that refuelling is no longer necessary during the service life of the submarine.
The departure of HMS Artful from Barrow-in-Furness marks the end of the manufacturing process at what is, having previously visited the site, a formidable engineering based manufacturing operation. To say that Barrow was merely impressive would be an understatement and more investment is now going in ahead of planned Trident SSBN replacement programme known as ‘Successor’. Back to HMS Artful and following completion of sea trials next year, the start of which marks the beginnings of a long and important career for the vessel in Royal Navy service, Artful will have her work cut out in both the defence and projection roles.
Britain has a long and superb history of submarine design and manufacturing expertise and whilst it would be wrong to ignore that the programme has had some difficult issues to overcome along the way, we may regard the Astute Class vessels as being the very best that BAE Systems has ever built. Indeed, in terms of technological expertise and sophistication Astute capability is in a class all of its own.
It is not only to the 3,700 members of the BAE Systems work force engaged on the Astute Class submarine build programme, the many design and project engineers that have turned a concept, design and build programme into a delivered capability success; the 400 plus supply chain companies that have and are involved in the programme but also those involved at DE&S at the sharp end of the procurement programme itself that we have to thank for achieving the success of delivering HMS Artful over for sea trials to begin.
Worth noting too that already HMS Astute, the first of class vessel, has completed in excess of 27,000 miles in her first eight months of operation spent mainly in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. She has also taken part in counter-smuggling operations and, as all Royal Navy vessels clearly do, contributing to defence diplomacy in Gulf region. The second of class, HMS Ambush has, since she departed Faslane on her inaugural deployment last year been to Brazil ahead of commencing exercises in the North Atlantic.
The Astute class submarine programme is but one example of a massive £163 billion plan by the Government to ensure that our armed forces have the equipment they need. We may sometimes argue that this is not enough but we should also be thankful for what we have got and what our superb armed forces achieve. At a reported cost of around £1bn per vessel Astute does not come cheap but in terms of the work that these vessels are required to undertake they represent not only extremely good value but also a key element of overall UK defence capability. Underwater warfare capability plays a vital role in UK defence. It is absolutely essential to our protection and in a world in which technology leads, we are fortunate to have in Astute Class Royal Navy submarines a capability that combines all the required qualities of stealth, endurance, flexibility and freedom to operate quickly and efficiently in support of national defence, NATO and that of our allies.
Based at the Babcock International operated Devonport and Faslane dockyards the Royal Navy today has a compliment of 4,500 submariners that are employed supporting the sub-surface submarine fleet. The Ship Submersible Nuclear fleet (SSN) fleet currently consists of Trafalgar Class (the last of which is expected to be decommissioned in 2022) and Astute Class vessels. These are to be considered as being a vital part of the Royal Navy capability. So too of course is UK nuclear deterrent capability currently operated by four Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN’s) Vanguard Class Trident submarines.
Vanguard Class Trident SSBN capability will in turn be replaced by what is known as ‘Successor’ for which the current intention is that this should move to ‘Main Gate’ sometime during 2016. To be built by BAE Systems with its programme partners, Rolls-Royce and Babcock International, work on the concept design phase that has been taking place since 2007 is now complete. With the outline of the submarine design now selected the Successor programme has moved into the Assessment Phase, a major stage in the design and development in respect of overall capability requirement and decision.
Back to Astute class and HMS Artful. The largest and most capable and widely deployable attack submarine to have ever been operated in the UK the versatility that Astute Class vessels provide is key to the ability of the Royal Navy to be able to operate and deploy technical excellence across all parts of the globe and, if necessary, at very great depths. Missions include the core anti-submarine role, operations against diesel-electric submarines, the strategic coercion role, escort tasks for the planned carrier task force and if necessary, the Trident strategic deterrent submarines, deep strike using Tomahawk missiles as previously described and last but not least, intelligence gathering.
The contribution vessels such as these make to power projection is enormous and the enduring capability they provide formidable. It is good to see another Astute Class vessel heading out to sea and yet another success emerge from the excellent BAE Systems facilities at Barrow in Furness.
CHW (London -14th August 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785