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Like the other Western powers that saw the Cold War through to its highly successful conclusion, Britain is now reassessing its future force requirements. This far-reaching process is affecting every element of all three Services — the Royal Navy’s Submarine service as much as any.

During the period of the Cold War the Submarine Service evolved into a force of three elements, all under the functional command of Aag Officer Submarines (FOSM), based at Headquarters Commander-in-Chief Aeet (CINCFLEET) at Northwood, near London. The most important single element of the submarine flotilla was the Polaris force of four RESOLUTION class SSBNs. These were the outcome of the Kennedy-MacMillan talks in Nassau in 1962, in which the President agreed to provide Polaris A3 missiles for installation in British-built submarines. Commissioned between 1967 and 1969 the four boats took over sole responsibility for Britain’s independent strategic deterrent from the Royal Air Force.

The second element was a force of SSNs. Since the commissioning of the first British SSN, DREADNOUGHT, in 1963, a regular programme resulted in continuous production. In general terms, a new class of 5-7 boats joined the fleet in each decade and by 1990, with DREADNOUGHT stricken, there were eighteen boats in service. The third element was a small number of SSKs, all of which had been completed in the 1960s.


The four current SSBNs displace 8,500 tons submerged and are generally similar to the U.S. Navy’s LAFAYEITE class. They have been regularly refitted and modernised, but are now approaching the end of their service lives and there have been recent press reports of reactor problems in certain boats.

These SSBNs have been armed throughout their service by U.S.-supplied Polaris A3 SLBMs. These were rebuilt and remotored by Lockheed in the 1980s and the original British-built warheads were also replaced between 1982 and 1988. The new warheads (code-named Chevaline ), are described by Norman Friedman in World Naval Weapons Systems, (USNI, 1991), as a “compromise between the multiple, but co-targeted warheads of U.S. Polaris systems and the fully-independently targeted warheads of Poseidon;” i.e., a cross between MRV and MIRV. Officially designated Polaris A3TK, each missile carries six lSOKT Chevaline warheads.

Over the years there has been some vociferous and widely reported, domestic political agitation to get rid of the nuclear deterrent This view was, in reality, confined to some fringe elements of British society, and the maintenance of the SSBN force was never in serious doubt. Thus, when the question of replacing the RESOLUTION class was addressed in the 1970s, the question was not one of principle, but rather of the most cost-effective way of achieving it.

Initially the government announced (1980) that it would purchase Trident I (C-4) SLBMs for a new class of SSBNs, to be commissioned during the 1990s. In 1982, however, it was decided that it would be more sensible to purchase Trident IT (D-5). Firm orders were then placed for the boats; #1 in 1986, #2 in 1987 and #3 in 1990. The fourth has still not been ordered, although the Minister for Defence Procurement announced on 1 July 1991 that the government “stood by its intention” to place such an order.

The new submarines will be much larger than their predecessors, displacing some 15,000 tons submerged. They will each carry sixteen Trident II (D-5) missiles, but, as with the Polaris, these will carry an entirely British front-end, consisting of 1SOKT MIRVed warheads and decoys/penaids. It has also been publicly stated by the Ministry of Defence, that, although the missiles are capable of carrying up to twelve warheads, the British will never mount more than eight. The first-of-class, VANGUARD, will be launched in February 1992 and commissioned later in the year, followed by the others in 1994, 1995 and 1997, respectively.

The first British, new-build, post-war submarines were eight PORPOISE class boats, launched in 1956-59, which were quickly followed by thirteen of the very similar OBERON class. Fourteen OBERONs were also exported to Australia (6), Brazil (3), Canada (3) and Chile (2). The Royal Navy’s OBERONs have served well, with no losses, and several took part in both the Falklands and Gulf wars, although their role has been shrouded in secrecy.

The PORPOISE class was discarded between 1976 and 1987 after a relatively short operational life. The OBERONs have served longer and five underwent a major modification programme in the early 1980s, and may remain in service for a few more years. Others of the class are being stricken at a slow rate, with the last due to strike in 1994. Egypt has already purchased one of the PORPOISE class boats and the first of the OBERONs to be offered for sale, and has expressed a desire to buy six more as they become available.

There was a long debate throughout the 1970s about the value of building a successor to the OBERONs and the RN considered an all-nuclear submarine force, as exists in the United States Navy. It was eventually decided, however, that diesel-electric submarines continue to have substantial advantages in some operational areas and are also much cheaper. The UPHOLDER class boats, for example, are reported to cost some £150-200 million (U.S. $262.6- 350 million) to build compared with about £300 million (U.S. $525.5 million) for a TRAFALGAR class SSN, while the life-cycle cost of an SSN is reported by Jane’s Defense Weekly (April27, 1991) to be some three times that of an SSK. Another important consideration is that SSKs require much smaller crews (although they are, admittedly, smaller boats): UPHOLDER, for example, has a crew of 7 officers and 37 enlisted men compared to 12 officers and 97 enlisted men for TRAFALGAR.

These cost factors, coupled with the excellent operational performance of the SSKs, led to the new UPHOLDER class being ordered in 1983. The design was based on that of the Vickers Type 2400, which was being marketed at that time by Vickers Shipbuilding to foreign navies.

The class has not been without its problems, which have included time delays, cost overruns and design faults. The delays on entry to service have been considerable; #1 was 3 years late and #2 18 months late, while #3 and #4 are estimated to be 6 and 3 months behind schedule, respectively. Part of the initial delay was due to a power-loss problem, and later a design fault was found in the torpedo doors, which requires the first three to be docked for rectification, although the fourth will be modified during construction.

The VALIANT class comprises five boats completed between 1966 and 1971, and followed on from the first British SSN, DREADNOUGHT. These five boats were due to reach the end of their operational careers in the mid-1990s, but a combination of reactor problems and the need to cut expenditure has led to the deletion of three in 1990-91, leaving just two (VALIANT and COURAGEOUS}, which, despite recent refits, are also likely to be stricken in the near future. It has been a successful class. CHURCHILL carried out the UK trials for Sub-Harpoon and was also one of the first Western submarines to be fitted with anechoic tiles to reduce the acoustic signature. CONQUEROR remains the only nuclear-powered submarine in any navy to have sunk a hostile surface warship (ARA GENERAL BELGRANO; May 2, 1982).

The six SWIFI’SURE class boats were built in the 1970s, introducing a new pressure-hull which maintains its diameter for a greater proportion of its length than in the earlier classes, giving much greater usable internal volume. The forward hydroplanes are fitted in the bow below the waterline and retract into the outer casing. They have a very quiet hull form and all were given elastomeric acoustic tile coatings during their first refits. They are powered by PWR-1 reactors with a core which gives a theoretical life of 12 years, although the refueling cycle will probably be about 8 years. They are fitted with five torpedo tubes, one less than in the earlier SSNs. Each boat is undergoing a 30-month mid-life refit, the first being completed in 1987, the second in 1989 and the third in 1991, with the remainder following at two-year intervals. Assuming the usual 25-years operational life, the SWJFfSURE will be due for replacement between 1998 and 2006.

The TRAFALGAR class was ordered in 1977, the first-ofclass joining the fleet in 1983; the seventh and last will be commissioned in 1992. These boats incorporate yet further improvements, including a new type of conformal anechoic tiling on both the pressure and outer hulls. All have strengthened fins and retractable bow hydroplanes for under-ice operations. TRAFALGAR is fitted with a conventional 7-bladed propeller, but al! subsequent boats have a shrouded, pump-jet propulsor — a major British breakthrough in underwater technology.


The plan for the future of the submarine force as the Cold War drew to its close was fairly straightforward. The first three VAN GUARD class SSBNs had been ordered and a contract had been placed with Vickers in 1987 for design work on the new W (SSN-20) class SSNs, with project definition having started in 1989. The plan was for a class of six (possibly seven), with the first being ordered in 1993 for commissioning in 2000. Also, construction of the first four UPHOLDER class SSKs was well in hand, to be followed by five (possibly eight) of a larger Batch 2 design.

All this was thrown into jeopardy by the end of the Cold War and the consequential reassessment of defence needs carried out by the Government and the Ministry of Defence in 1990/91. After considerable discussion, much of it behind closed doors, the new plan is now becoming clear. The Royal Navy will reduce from some 31 submarines to 20, of which four will be SSBNs, four will be SSKs and the balance of 12 will be SSNs. This, as always, will be the fleet total, and of the 20, those available immediately or at very short notice will be 2 SSBNs, 3 SSKs and 7-9 SSNs, while with adequate notice the number of SSNs might increase to 10.

With three of the VAN GUARD class already under construction and the fourth and last of the UPHOLDER class launched and fitting out, speculation about the future can be limited to the SSNs. It has already been officially declared that development of the W (SSN-20) class has ended. Thus the replacement for the SWIFrSURE class, which must join the fleet between 1998 and 2006, could either be a development of the TRAFALGAR class (which is variously reported as an Improved TRAFALGAR, TRAFALGAR Batch 2, or even SSN-19% !), or a scaled-down VAN GUARD design. Whichever of the designs is selected, the aim must be to construct two to four boats in the mid-1990s.

There will then, however, be a need to replace the TRAFALGAR class in the 2005-2010 time-frame, which fortuitously coincides with the French Navy’s requirement to replace their RUBIS class SSNs. Tentative moves are thus being made towards a collaborative programme, with the UK using development work already done on the SSN-20 project and the French their work on the AMETHYSTE and l..e TRIOMPHANT classes.

The history of European naval collaborative projects has not been particularly good; the collapse of the NATO Frigate programme being a recent example. However, there have been some good examples of Anglo-French programmes; several sonar projects have been successful and the current AngloFrench Future Frigate programme has gone well so far.


The end of the Cold War and the subsequent coiJapse of Soviet power has necessitated a fundamental review of Western military forces and it is not surprising that reductions should be sought in expenditure, manpower and commitments in all areas of defence. However, there comes a time when reductions are so deep that they threaten the viability of what remains and it is this writer’s view that planned reductions in the British submarine force have reached that point.

The SSBN force of four VANGUARD class is the bare minimum to achieve a guarantee of one boat always at sea. However, one such boat with sixteen Trident II (D-5), each with eight warheads, packs sufficient power to serve as a deterrent for the foreseeable future. Apart from the Soviet Navy, there is no naval force likely to have the capability to find, let alone destroy, such a vessel while it is on patrol, at least for the foreseeable future.

The SSK force of four boats is also at the absolute minimum. It is unlikely that in a sudden crisis more than two will be available, although a third should normally be available at short notice. In such a small force, however, a mechanical problem or a minor collision could make one boat unavailable for several months, with disproportionate effects of front-line availability.

The most serious worry, however, is with the SSNs. Government policy is to have a force of about 12 boats, of which 7-9 should be available at any one time, which with adequate rwtice might be increased to ten. The qualifications are emphasised, since experience indicates that British governments take full advantage of lower limits. ” The SSN has proved to be one of •the most powerful, flexible and influential of all modem weapons systems. The use of CONQUEROR in the Falldands War showed that since the Argentine Navy had no way of detecting such an SSN, it had to assume that she (and maybe at least one more SSN) could be anywhere in South Atlantic waters. As a result, once CONQUEROR had sunk the GENERAL BELGRANO, the Argentine surface fleet was effectively prevented from any further operations which could have seriously threatened the Royal Navy task force.

The British series of SSNs has been particularly successful, even though built in small numbers. But even smaller numbers in the future will exacerbate the problem of the industrial base. There is only one British shipyard capable of building nuclear boats: Vickers (VSEL) at Barrow-in-Fumess. VSEL has already suffered from lack of continuity in orders, but the future will be worse. There is unlikely to be another SSK order from the Royal Navy for a decade and once the fourth SSBN has been completed there will be no more orders for such boats for some twenty years. Thus, without export orders (and the British have not exported any new-build submarines since the OBERON class) the work is likely to be very sporadic and even when they do have such work it will be at a low intensity.

Thus, the position of the British Submarine Service is that it remains firmly in the business and that the quality of men and materiel will be as high as ever. But, the quantities will be less even than now and thus the ability to deal with sudden and unexpected crises will also be reduced. Will it be sufficient to meet the new and unpredictable threats in a highly uncertain world? Only time will tell.



There were several administrative errors made in the preparation of the 1991 Fact Book. The correct data is summarized below:

  • Page 13, change to Captain Thomas J. Flanagan.
  • Page 14, change to Admiral Harold E. Shear.
  • Page 66, change location of Submarine Squadron TWO to Groton. cr.
  • Page 67, change location of Submarine Squadron TWENTYTWO to La Maddalena, Italy. Change USS Tecumseh’s hull number to SSBN 628.
  • Page 68, under Submarine Squadron THREE, add: USS Haddock (SSN 621), USS Pogy (SSN 647) and USS Houston (SSN 713). Delete USS Houston (SSN 713) from Submarine Squadron SEVEN.
  • Page 69, change Greenling’s hull number to SSN 614, location to Groton. Change Gate’s hull number to SSN 615 and location to Groton. Add SSN 621 Haddock. San Diego.
  • Page 70, Change L Mendell Rivers’ hull number to SSN 686. Change City of Corpus Christi’s location to Groton.
  • Page 107, change PERS OOW toPERS 003.
[The homeport assignments for submarines change frequently. The Fact Book lists the current assignments as each issue goes to press. No further attempt will be made to keep the list up-to-date. The local submarine area commander’s office should be consulted for a current listing of submarines assigned to a particular homeport]

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