So, a long ago retired two-star Royal Navy Officer, Rear Admiral Rear Admiral (Ret) Philip Mathias who I believe was for a period during the 1990’s Director of Nuclear Propulsion appears from seemingly nowhere to tell ‘The Times’ newspaper that “the UK’s Submarine Delivery Agency has a poor record of delivering submarines on time, with BAE Systems delivering Astute class submarines late, and Babcock’s refit of HMS Vanguard taking more than seven years. Additionally, he notes, none of the UK’s 22 decommissioned nuclear submarines have so far been dismantled, resulting in extra cost and loss of submarine availability”. This at the very least deserves a minimal response with facts and very briefly, I will attempt to do this here.
It is of course very easy to criticise the organisations responsible for developing and building highly complex maritime military capability, to state the obvious and yet, incorrectly allude and draw the wrong conclusions. Thus, know and understand the history first and when alluding to who may be at fault, it is useful to at least check facts and history first before pointing the finger of blame. Yes, the Astute programme has suffered various delays and complications but before pointing the finger of blame at the UK Submarine Delivery Agency and/or companies involved, the retired Rear Admiral who was, I believe, a former Director of Atkins, would do better to read and understand the long and complicated history of the Astute programme before drawing to potentially damaging conclusions.
I will not detail in full the various design skills and build complications that emerged during the long and extremely complicated Astute programme competition, development and build process but here are some brief facts. In July 1994 the MOD issued a draft invitation to tender for Astute class submarine – one that would form a competition between GEC-MARCONI/BMT and VSEL/Rolls-Royce.
Neither GEC Marconi or BMT had specific experience of building any form or submarine but VSEL which had been relatively recently privatised and had produced many submarines at its highly invested Barrow-in-Furness shipbuilding facilities, and Rolls-Royce had both built excellent reputations in nuclear submarine design and construction. Bids from both consortiums were submitted midway through 1995.
As the defence arm of GEC, the GEC Marconi subsidiary – Marconi Electronic Systems (later Marconi Defence Systems) had long been considered as the ‘crown jewels’ of the GEC ‘empire’ created by Arnold (Lord) Weinstock and of which company he was ‘Managing Director’ from 1963 to 1996.
With GEC one of several very large engineering companies that was on my list of companies to follow and make investment related comment on during my years as an analyst, I had come to know Arnold Weinstock very well, particularly during the last few years of his tenure as GEC MD.
Weinstock was a tough cookie, as stubborn as he was also extremely clever and when he set his mind to it, he was determined to succeed. As he later told me over dinner one night, in the Astute competition he saw an opportunity to effectively kill off VSEL by starving the company of work and subsequently, buying a highly invested submarine building facility on the cheap.
Although no final decision as to preferred bidder status was made until December 1995, it was increasingly clear during the early months of 1995 that the MOD was favorably disposed to the GEC-Marconi/BMT design and given this, GEC Marconi which had no specialist submarine building facilities of its own seized the opportunity by making a hostile bid for VSEL (formally Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering). With little to offer in the way of defence against the bid, VSEL became part of GEC-Marconi later that same year. Following ongoing negotiations between GEC-Marconi and the MOD final contracts for the Astute programme were signed during March 1997.
In November 1999 the then British Aerospace acquired the Marconi subsidiary and that included all GEC Marconi defence activities. From this was formed the present-day BAE Systems and which has subsequently gone from strength to strength.
That the Astute programme suffered issues, problems and delays through the subsequent development and build programme can hardly be denied but having taken the programme over when it acquired Marconi Defence from GEC, be in no doubt that BAE Systems has subsequently delivered superb Astute capability to the Royal Navy and that while the Astute programme comprising seven boats is not yet complete, the company is already building Dreadnought class submarines that will ultimately replace the Vanguard class boats that continue to operate the continuous at sea nuclear deterrent capability.
Let us not forget either that by the time of the contract award close to twenty years had passed since the Vanguard class nuclear deterrent submarines had been designed. During that time and as last of the four Vanguard class submarines entered service, the skilled workforce at the VSEL (subsequently BAE Systems) Barrow in Furnace shipyard had shrunk from 13,000 to just 3,000 due to lack of MOD orders for submarines of the Royal Navy. Along with it had gone key design and engineering and technology skills had been lost. These would take years to rebuild and replicate and the hope is that never again will the UK allow sovereign build capability to be weakened as it had been in the 1990’s.
As to the mention of significant delays in respect of the decision to ‘refueling and refit’ of HMS Vanguard at Devonport by Babcock International all that I will say is that when you are undertaking a second and previously unplanned refueling of a submarine that was commissioned as long ago as 1993 in order to further extend its planned life you are bound to hit a mass of obsolescence issues.
As to the large number of decommissioned Royal Navy nuclear submarines this is not a company issue – it is and always has been a UK Government issue and one that will take many years to address.
CHW (London – 15th March 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785