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Vital Importance of HMNB Clyde By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.




Located approximately 25 miles from Glasgow, Scotland on the northern shore of Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute – a sheltered sea loch that opens out onto the River Clyde – Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde at Faslane is the home base of the UK’s Nuclear Submarine Deterrent Capability. However, with substantial investment in infrastructure development work now well underway, HMNB Clyde is to become the Royal Navy’s Submarine Centre of Excellence.

HMNB Clyde, most often referred to as Faslane, is arguably the most important military base in the United Kingdom. Secluded, secure and well defended, Faslane sits aside deep and navigable waters of Gare Loch offering ships and submarines easy access through the River Clyde out to the North Atlantic and beyond.

The home base for the UK’s Vanguard class Nuclear Deterrent Submarine fleet and for three already commissioned Astute Class hunter-killer submarines. When built, all seven of the Royal Navy Astute class submarines will be based at Faslane. Ahead of this, HMNB Clyde is also home to two of the remaining four Trafalgar class hunter killer submarines that are due to be replaced by Astute Class vessels in the mid 2020’s. By that time Faslane will be home base to all Royal Navy nuclear powered and nuclear armed submarines – 7 x SSN’s and 4 x SSBN’s.

A Level One Nuclear Security site, one that in fact comprises two authorised Nuclear site locations (the other being RNAD Coulport located two miles west of Faslane beside Loch Long) HMNB Clyde is responsible for Nuclear Weapons Storage and Processing, is the integrator of all Naval Base enabling functions, the Maritime Operating Centre for Ex Joint Warrior, FOB for Nato units operating in the North Atlantic Base and home of the Faslane Flotilla. 43 Commando Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines are also based here along with the NATO Submarine Rescue System.

HMNB Clyde which is one of three main Royal Navy operating bases in the UK (the others being at Portsmouth and Devonport) is without doubt the busiest UK military base that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. After 24 years, it was a delight for me to return to the base in December as guest of the Head of the Submarine Service, Rear Admiral John Weale. May I express my sincere gratitude to Rear Admiral J Weale OBE and all senior Royal Navy staff involved during this very interesting visit.

Not surprisingly, I was struck not just on how this vitally important Royal Navy base has changed and expanded but also the size and extent of the huge infrastructure development now underway in order to eventually accommodate all seven planned Astute class nuclear powered hunter killer submarines and eventually, the larger Dreadnought Class  SSBN’s [Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear] submarines that are currently being developed by BAE Systems at Barrow in Furness and that are intended to replace the existing fleet of four Vanguard class SSBN’s in the 2030’s.

This is all about sensible medium and long term planning and development. The overall size of the HMNB Clyde base is limited by geography and this is a case of making the very best use of all available space. To facilitate the requirement to expand and modernise HMNB Clyde is working through a 10 year £1.3 billion development programme aimed primarily at upgrading infrastructure and putting in place all the elements required to make Faslane the Submarine Centre of Specialisation whilst at the same time maintaining a full operational capability requirement.

This large and incredibly important development programme being led by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) who in turn have put together a dedicated team of specialists who, working with local government and other organisations, have developed the ‘Clyde Commercial Framework’. This in turn has been supported by procurement specialists from Mott MacDonald and Jacobs, the result being that three companies were chosen to take the various structural development plans forward – Messrs Morgan Sindall, Volker Stevin and Kier Graham Defence.

Restructuring of HMNB Clyde requires also that the base is able to accommodate an increased numbers of personnel both military and those working with Babcock International who are the MOD’s commercial partner responsible for providing highly specialist engineering support services. At HMNB Clyde Babcock are responsible for providing management of critical infrastructure and nuclear facilities, delivering operational maintenance, upgrades and repairs to support Royal Navy vessels including Vanguard, Astute and Trafalgar class submarines and also foreign naval vessels.

When all aspects of this very impressive infrastructure development plan are completed HMNB Clyde will have been restructured as the UK’s Submarine Centre of Specialisation, one that will include all Submarine Training Capability, Submarine Escape Rescue, Abandonment and Survivability and Trident Training Facilities all on one base.

As mentioned, Faslane is also home to 43 Commando Royal Marines plus a number of lodger units including Flag Officer Sea Training Scotland, Northern England and Northern Ireland (FOSNNI), the Northern Diving Group and it serve to act as the Scottish Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence Police and Guarding Agency. Neither should the importance of HMNB Clyde in regard of the local economy be lost as in addition to the 4,000 service personnel and their families the base also serves as an employment centre for over 4,000 highly skilled civilian workers largely employed by Babcock Marine.

Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) 

Complete with the Trident missile system the UK’s fleet of four Vanguard class submarines form the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent force. Each Vanguard class submarine is armed with up to 16 Trident II D5 SLBMs, carrying up to 8 warheads each. HMS Vanguard, the first of class vessel armed with the Trident missile system, arrived on the Clyde in 1996 in order to take over deterrent patrol duties from Resolution Class (Polaris) vessels. Nuclear powered, Vanguard Class reactors convert water into steam in order to drive the engines and generate electricity.

Having committed to having a ‘Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) in 1969 what is now known as Royal Naval Base Clyde has been the home base for UK nuclear submarine deterrent capability ever since. The first generation Polaris nuclear powered and armed submarines – HMS Resolution, HMS Repulse, HMS Renown and HMS Revenge conducted the CASD role until these were replaced by the four Vanguard class nuclear submarines, HMS Vanguard, HMS Victorious, HMS Vigilant and HMS Vengeance currently in service. In turn, these four vessels are planned to be replaced by a fleet of four Dreadnought class submarines now under development by BAE Systems and its partners.

Trident missiles can be fired at targets up to 4,000 miles away, these being ejected by high-pressure gas before the rockets fire when the missile reaches the surface. At its fastest, a Trident missile can travel at over 13,000 miles an hour and each submarines on patrol has the capacity to carry up to 40 nuclear warheads and up to eight operational missiles. Vanguard class submarines also carry Spearfish torpedo. Weighing just short of two tonnes, Spearfish is capable of blasting enemy submarines or ships out of the water. At full speed, Spearfish can attack at target up to 14 miles away or at low speed, this increases to more than 30 miles. The weapon is guided either by a copper wire or closes on to its target using its inbuilt sonar, delivering a 660lb explosive charge. That detonates either when it strikes the hull of an enemy submarine, or via an acoustic proximity fuse underneath the target.

The Continuous at sea deterrent (CASD) operated by the Royal Navy has been the single most important aspect of UK defence for 50 years. It remains just as important today as it did back in 1969 and governments have never wavered in their commitment to maintaining CASD. Interpreted CASDF means that at any one time, 24 x 7 x 365 days a year, one of the Royal Navy’s four strategic Vanguard class submarines carrying the nation’s ultimate weapon is on patrol somewhere in the seven seas. Deterring conflict and protecting the nation 24 hours a day it is I believe worth repeating that since April 1969 the Royal Navy’s ballistic missile vessels have not missed a single day on patrol – a remarkable achievement this certainly is.

Royal Navy Presence and Geo-Politics

Royal Navy presence on the world stage continues to send a powerful message that the UK remains committed to global affairs and, where applicable, to providing a stabilising influence. The importance of preventing conflict on the high seas and to protect the flow of international trade on which the nation depends has never been greater and presence internationally plays a huge part in this. When and if diplomacy fails, it is vital that the UK is ready to protect its interests and those of our allies. As a member of NATO and the United Nations, the UK also acts to support the enforcement of UN resolutions and come to the aid of our allies wherever it can. The Royal Navy has and continues to play a vital role halting drug trafficking on the High Seas and to quickly support calls for humanitarian aid and support. Together with the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy plays a vitally important role but of all the many roles that the Royal Navy conducts, there is none more important or vital than the CASD.

For the Royal Navy Submarine Service being beneath the sea and unseen means that very little if any detail of missions and mission success gets into the public domain. This is perfectly understandable and right but the reader should be under no illusion of the vital unsung tasks that are undertaken by submariners in the Royal Navy and the importance of the work they do.

In respect of the many challenges that we face today the importance of the HMNB Clyde has never been greater. A resurgent Russia, populist governments and a worsening geo-political environment serve to remind that strong defence is not option, it is an absolute requirement. Add to these a number of emerging security threats such as those created by Security Culture and Social Media, Insider Threats, Unmanned and autonomous vehicle systems and what is often described these days as ‘the Internet of Things’ and that includes hacking security at HMNB Clyde is extremely high.

Royal Navy Submarine Service

The Royal Navy Submarine Service (motto ‘We Come Unseen’) is often justifiably referred to as the ‘silent service’ due primarily to the requirement that submarines operate undetected.  The Royal Navy Submarine Service is cutting edge UK defence capability and we should never underestimate that submarines are designed to provide qualities of stealth, endurance and flexibility in abundance. It is these formidable characteristics that afford them unparalleled freedom to operate worldwide.

Highly invested and responsible for the operation of 4 x Vanguard class SSBN (Ship, Submersible, Ballistic, Nuclear submarine) and 7 x SSN’s (Ship, Submersible, Nuclear submarines) of two classes – Astute class which as previously mentioned, will eventually comprise a total seven boats (HMS Astute and HMS Ambush are now fully operational, HMS Artful is commissioned and HMS Audacious is due to leave BAE Systems Barrow in Furness yard during 2019 leaving three further Astute class hulls in-build and three remaining Trafalgar class vessels (HMS Talent, HMS Triumph and HMS Trenchant) which the later Astute class vessels will replace – HMNB Clyde base together with other submarine infrastructure located around the UK – most of which will eventually be rehoused at Faslane – means that the Royal Navy Submarine Service today is responsible for approximately 6,800 personnel of whom 4.500 are military. That number is expected to rise to 8,200 personnel by 2020.

To suggest anything other than that due to logistics and location that the HMNB Clyde is anything other than complex in respect of site logistics and size would be inappropriate. Affordability is key of course but base size limitations and the increased infrastructure requirement, the delivery of all this within multiple overlapping Regulatory/Statutory and Safety frameworks makes the work much harder. HMNB Clyde will be responsible for operation of the next generation ‘Dreadnought’ class SSBN’s submarines and all the above issues particularly those of limited footprint, complex site logistics, safety and security requirements as a ‘Nuclear’ site are issues in themselves.

On top of these the Royal Navy Submarine Service faces other challenges too. Fleet time engineering sustainment comes high on the list of a base that has unique strategic facilities and capabilities such as those required by the Royal Navy Submarine Service. SSBN and SSN Submarines require ‘shiplift docks, explosive handling jetties, specialist berths workshops not to mention a highly specialist workforce and reliable power.

Other issues include Force Generation, Manpower, Recruiting, Retention of and the need to train sufficient numbers of submariners for future force generation, sustaining complex weapon platforms at sea, technical challenges including ageing hulls and extending commissions, resource and affordability contraints, bring new platforms into service and for instance, transitioning from Trafalgar Class to Astute Class submarine capability and sustaining support infrastructure.

Add to these formulation work required in order to create the Submarine Centre of Excellence at HMNB Clyde, one that when completed will include a single collocated submarine training system based within the single integrated submarine operating base. That said, I have been very impressed by approach taken by those charged with leadership and it is clear that determination to succeed is writ large over the faces of all involved in the ensuring the future of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.

With four new Dreadnought Class SSBN’s planned to replace the four existing Vanguard Class boats from 2028 in order to accommodate these larger submarines reason in part why a considerable amount of infrastructure related work is already under way right across the Faslane base.

Much has already been completed and I was able to see for myself that while there si much work still to do that accommodation for submariners has dramatically improved. Together with state-of-the-art submarine training facilities planned and that will not only improve training delivery but also increase efficiency and, given that future training will be primarily achieved at one single location as opposed to the current system of using various locations around the UK, reduce cost.

Babcock International

As the MOD’s commercial partner at HMNB Clyde, Babcock International is hugely important in regard to base efficiency and operation. The company is held in high regard by the Royal Navy and is responsible for providing highly specialist engineering support services, including the management of critical infrastructure and nuclear facilities. The company also delivers operational maintenance, upgrades and repairs in order to support Royal Navy vessels, including the Vanguard, Trafalgar and Astute-Class nuclear submarines based in Scotland.

The waterfront activities at HMNB Clyde also include requirement to support naval surface ships, with responsibility for managing engineering work on base-ported Mine Countermeasure Vessels and carrying out emergency and scheduled maintenance on other visiting Royal Navy and foreign naval vessels. In order to keep the naval base running safely and efficiently, our teams provide a comprehensive facilities management service that covers building management, housekeeping and grounds maintenance, berthing and radioactive waste processing. Babcock International’s Logistics function manages over £350 million worth of MOD-owned stock, providing local and national freight transport services. We provide accommodation services for up to 3,050 Royal Navy personnel every day, serving up to 1,000 meals in a 24 hour period from wardrooms, messes and restaurants and managing a fully equipped conference and personnel support facility.

The Future

Importantly, along with improved infrastructure to support base functions and people together with plans to enhance training and fleet time engineering consideration aimed at providing long-term stability for submariners and their families has not been overlooked. One example of this is the SM Centre of Specialisation which, when fully operational, will mean that submariners will be based in one location throughout their careers.

In respect of manning the aim is to recruit, retain and sustain. The underlying message across the Faslane base environment is to create conditions by which submarine manpower can be generated and sustained in order to ensure continued delivery of current operational commitments.

In respect of Submarine Capability I suspect that 2019 should be seen as being a year of delivery. Astute class submarine HMS Audacious and Trafalgar class submarine HMS Talent will now both be based at HMNB Clyde

Faslane (HMNB Clyde) History

Constructed originally during World War Two as a deep water Emergency Port designed to provide an alternative to Liverpool, Bristol and London ports and also, remoteness from the possibility of German bombing raids, construction of the Royal Naval Base Clyde at Faslane started 1940 with completion occurring in 1942. However, in April 1946 much of the northern part of the site was leased for shipbreaking purposes to the Metal Industries Company and the Naval Port was closed later that year.

In 1954 a shore support building for hydrogen peroxide type submarines testing was built, a structure that still exists today and was recently in use to supply power to the modern submarine fleet. Large Submarine Depot ships were frequently based in the Loch in tandem with a floating dock although the latter was disposed in 1958 with Royal Navy personnel being accommodated from that time in local ‘houses’.

In 1960 studies began as to the suitability of Holy Loch to become a base and refit facility for the Atlantic Force United States Navy Ballistic Missile Submarines. Holy Loch which is adjacent to Faslane on the Firth of Clyde had been the Royal Navy Submarine base during WW2 and the base was established in 1961. Holy Loch continued to serve as a US base until 1992.

In the early 1960s the UK Government under Prime Minister Harold MacMillan started negotiations with the US Government in regard to our purchasing of the Polaris missile system (known as the Polaris sales agreement) in order to fire British-built nuclear weapons from five specially constructed Resolution class submarines. Four Resolution class vessels were constructed – HMS Resolution, HMS Repulse, HMS Renown and HMS Revenge. These four submarines were permanently based at Faslane. Faslane was at this point chosen to host Resolution class vessels – this being at the height of the Cold War of course and also because of its geographic position and the ability to form such an important base on the relatively secluded but deep and easily navigable Gare Loch and Firth of Clyde on the west coast of Scotland. Originally known as HMS Neptune, the HMNB Clyde Submarine Base was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on the 10th May 1968.

While the north end of the Faslane site continued in use for shipbreaking for some time thereafter the Ministry of Defence eventually took over the whole of the site. Many of the barrack buildings and structures built in the 1960’s have either gone or are now in the process of being rebuilt. As they should be accommodation buildings at Faslane are and have been rebuilt to very high standard with many specifically built to support all living and working on the submarine base. Buildings young and not so young include a Polaris School, Sportsdome, Officers’ and ratings accommodation, administrative blocks, mess and recreation blocks, hospital, stores, power supply, married quarters. The 1987 built ‘shiplift’ facility together with a ‘finger jetty’ which I had previously seen and are capable of servicing Vanguard class submarines remain.

Finally, to those who know the base, a new road by-pass has also been constructed on the east side of the site and a new road built through Glen Fruin.

At the time Faslane was chosen it was of course very close to the American SSBN base at Holy Loch and which as previously mentions, operated in this capacity from 1961-1992. I believe that I am right in saying that in 1971 the Holy Loch base was home to the 3rd Submarine Squadron of Nuclear Fleet and Diesel Patrol Submarines, “the fighters”, and the 10th Submarine Squadron consisting of the four Polaris submarines, “the bombers”.

CHW (London – 8th January 2019)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




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