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The Royal Navy Submarine Service and Britain’s Strategic Defence Review

70% of the earth’s surface is covered by submarines. ‘Admiral Hank Chiles, USN (Ret.)’

Despite the post-Cold War draw-down in Britain’s Submarine Force the words of Admiral Chiles highlight the primary utility of a submarine force. as threats to the security of Western powers take on a more global nature. Today, in the face of the strategic challenges of the modem world, the British and American submarine communities have an opportunity to maintain their primacy at the leading technological and strategic edge of the maritime battlespace.

Before the deployment of Britain’s first submarine, HOLLAND I, at the turn of this century, British interest in submersible technologies was in question. Some analysts argued that the British Admiralty treated American developments in this field “with a mixture of scepticism and disdain.” 1 It was argued that this new dimension to the naval service would prove to have little military value and threatened the strategic primacy of other major programmes.

Yet such debates were more the result of intra-service rivalry than hard technical issues. Contrary to popular opinion, below the surface the Admiralty’s interest was tangible. Public declarations hid the attention being paid to the potential of submarines as effective instruments of war:

Accurate plans of submarine boats employed by the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War. for example, can be found in British naval archives. The Victorian Navy, in other words, generally kept itself well informed about submarine development.2

Certainly, submarines were a key component of Admiral Jackie Fisher’s strategic revolution. In the move away from an emphasis on traditional battlefleet units, the placing of submarines at the centre of British naval planning highlighted the strategic shift towards a sea denial fleet. Fisher argued that “I don’t think it is even faintly realised – the immense impending revolution which the submarines will effect as offensive weapons of war.”3

As the next century approaches the Royal Navy (RN) Submarine Service has evolved into an almost unsurpassed sub-surface warfighting force. The passing of the Cold War provided a natural break in the history of the submarine which had made astounding technological and strategic progress.” In the Cold War, submarine forces increasingly came to dominate maritime operations, their primary role evolving from targeting surface warships and sea lines of communication to an emphasis on Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) in defence of Britain’s strategic deterrent, the ultimate guarantor of national security. Notably, the advent of nuclear propulsion turned the submarine into “the ultimate weapon of the strongest powers in the nuclear age.”5

However, the perceived decline in post-Cold War requirements for open-ocean sea control has thrown up a new set of unique challenges for the British, and American, submarine communities. Today, submarine forces which had adapted so well to meet the rigours of the Cold War must maintain such presence and influence while at the same time returning to more traditional naval tasks.

The Strategic Defence Review and Britain’s Maritime forces

The role of the RN is to support Government foreign and security policy in joint and combined expeditionary contexts. In the debates surrounding the British Government’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SOR), Defence Secretary George Robertson highlighted Britain’s return to a traditional national maritime military strategy to underwrite government policy.

The shift of emphasis towards expeditionary warfare reflects the prevailing grand strategic mood of promoting the broad utility of forces based at sea as a mechanism for exerting force from the sea. The evolution in U.S. strategy is shown in the development of the concept of … From the Sea.” The RN has tuned its capabilities to reflect these evolving strategic realities by developing a new operational concept, the Maritime Contribution to Joint Operations (MCJO). SOR and the MCJO, in providing a fresh blueprint for Britain’s post-Cold War military posture, are primary expressions of an armed force re-moulding itself into a more cost-effective, stronger and usable tool of defence policy.

SDR. The MCJO nod The Submarine Service

A principal aim of British defence policy is the maintenance of an independent, national nuclear deterrent underpinned by strong conventional forces capable of conducting operations across the range of modem military operations. 9 When operating with joint, multi-service assets maritime forces have relevance across this spectrum. In particular they bring a flexibility unrivalled by any other service. [Emphasis added by Editor.]

Submarines, especially, are more synonymous with such flexibility than any other naval asset. They provide:

  1. rapid deployment and long endurance;
  2. physical robustness;
  3. manoeuvrability and mobility;
  4. independence from host nation support;
  5. operational integration with or independence from other forces;
  6. invulnerability, stealth and tactical surprise;
  7. surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence; connectivity;
  8. (covert or overt) reach, poise and presence;
  9. anti-surface, sub-surface, land attack and special forces warfare;
  10. sea denial, power projection and considerable, readily-available and co-ordinated high intensity firepower.

This combination of “stealth, endurance, agility, and firepower make [submarines] crucial assets in an unstable world, today and for the future.”‘0 Britain’s current submarine force consists of four Vanguard-class Trident ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and twelve Trafalgar- and Swiftsure-class nuclear attack submarines (SSNs).

Given the residual threat of the Russian ballistic missile and nuclear submarine force, and of the global proliferation of weapons of oms destruction among rogue states, strategic deterrence retains a primary role for Britain. Thus a durable rationale for Britain’s SSBN force is perhaps less in question today than that for an SSN force whose own primary strategic rationale is perceived as diluted with the post-Cold War decline in global challenges to the supremacy of the RN and United States Navy, in particular to the submarine fleets.

For Britain, the argument that the case for retaining an SSN force was much reduced was reflected in SDR’s decision to cut Britain’s SSN force from 12 to 10 hulls. It is perceived that, despite these cuts, the continued importance of the SSN force is underscored by Britain’s major investment in the more capable Astutedass SSNs and by SDR’s commitment to fit all SSNs with Tomahawk land attack missiles.

Yet the rationale for SSNs has not been lost. The need for platforms with the flexibility of an SSN is arguably greater today than at any time during the Cold War, as the military continually is asked to do more with less. SSNs remain vital to the global strategic success of a maritime power such as Britain, though the strategic spotlight has shifted from more traditional roles. Today, to meet the strategic requirements of littoral warfare-the concept around which expeditionary strategy is based-there is greater requirement for SSNs to deploy upon threat as part of joint and coalition forces, operating more on transmit than receive mode, to provide a range of military options including electronic and mine warfare, intelligence and special forces insertion, as well as land attack and ASW. Yet such tasks are also traditional, primary naval traits. Moreover, having conducted sustained operations as primary forward-deployed assets at perhaps the highest levels of force readiness throughout the Cold War, SSNs have considerable practice at littoral warfare.

In providing a multidimensional force package in one modular unit, submarines are a primary asset for providing a range of balanced, flexible and discretionary political and military choices across the spectrum of military operations from grand strategic to tactical levels of warfare to meet the diverse strategic challenges of the expeditionary era. As shown by HMS SPLENDID’s very presence in Operation ALLIED FORCE, SSNs are a cornerstone of the MCJO and its strategic triad (completed by aircraft carriers and amphibious forces). SPLENDID, and the other NATO submarines deployed to the region, provided sea control, power projection and presence (both covert and overt): in the view of former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. these three roles are the substance of broader naval duties.

Sea Control

Sea control is defined as the “condition that exists when one has freedom of action to use an area of sea for one’s own purposes for a period of time and, if necessary, deny its use to an opponent.” A submarine is the quintessential sea control platform.

The SOR noted that force reductions in areas needed primarily to confront Cold War threats mean Britain “will place somewhat less emphasis on open ocean anti-submarine warfare. ” The concept of littoral warfare, around which British expeditionary strategy will be built, assumes that NATO forces and their allies retain open ocean sea control. Thus, today sea control (with ASW-both open ocean and littoral-as its fulcrum) remains a primary naval role, and for submarines in particular as the archetypal sea control platform. Despite the belief that ASW is less important, sea control will continue to be an area of key naval strength, particularly if NATO navies are to deter adversaries from attempting to exploit the misperception that sea control is no longer an area of interest. Moreover, the residual ability of the Russian Navy to threaten NATO interests-through improvements in Russian acoustic technologies and Moscow’s political emphasis on power projection, not to mention its persisting domestic instability-still presents a significant challenge to Western navies 17: this suggests that sea control will remain a contemporary and future, not just past, requirement as naval strategy moves back to sea. 18 Last, an effective ASW capability underpins sea control and power projection capabilities.

Power Projection

Power projection is “the use of seaborne military forces to influence events on land directly. ” Throughout history the projection of naval power as a form of seaborne artillery to shape the battlespace has been a key tool of maritime engagement. Force projection is the key component of expeditionary warfare. A submarine force is indispensable to an effective, composite sea based force package projecting power ashore. Historically, “the Royal Navy is without rival in the successful projection of power.”20 Today, coupled with the independent strategic deterrent, the RN’s triad of carrier-borne air power, amphibious manoeuvre warfare from the sea and Tomahawk-capable submarines present a new and formidable ability to deliver both select political influence and raw combat power ashore.

Strategic Deterrence

When deployed aboard relatively invulnerable submarines, nuclear weapons-the ultimate guarantors of national security-provide Britain with an independent, covert, political and strategic reach. By threatening to exert the most catastrophic use of military force from the least vulnerable platform, SSBNs are the most effective form of deterrence to the point that they are deemed the most important element of the navy in the eyes of political leaders.

According to current British maritime doctrine, “the maintenance of a secure strategic nuclear deterrent is the first Military Task of the Royal Navy.”22 The maintenance of a seamless at-sea deterrent has been perhaps the RN’s major post-war achievement. Today the Trident D-5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) system deployed onboard Britain’s SSBNs is a cost effective, credible central strategic force which shows its flexibility by carrying Britain’s minimum strategic and sub-strategic nuclear deterrent.

Yet Britain is observing closely American discussion of options for converting Trident missile tubes to carry conventional and special forces payloads. Such plans highlight the growing rote of conventional force as a strategic deterrent, the unique utility of a submarine in maximising maritime political and military power projection ashore and, thus, the submarine’s use in providing flexible strategic options for government. The debates about developing conventional and sub-strategic options for Trident reflect the fact that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction means that deterrence may have more value today, the actors possessing such capabilities operate outside traditional Cold War nuclear deterrence frameworks: their perception of such weapons as tools for nuclear coercion emphasises the utility of a more flexible deterrent force as a useful hedge against the disorder of the modern world.

Land Attack

With its Tomahawk land attack capability the RN’s Submarine Service provides the vanguard of Britain’s conventional deterrent force. A land-attack capability is not a new development for navies. Under President Thomas Jefferson. U.S. Naval forces bombarded North African towns, and President James K. Polk’s navy supported operations ashore during the Mexican War of 1846- 48.24 Historically, Britain has also understood the strategic, operational and tactical advantages of projecting standoff conventional power ashore of force from the sea. For example, in a classic display of gunboat diplomacy the RN’s bombardment of French positions at the Battle of Acre in 1840 prompted Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to state that “every country that has towns within cannon shot of deep water will remember the operations of the British Fleet … in 1840 … whenever such country has any differences with us. 25 Such precepts remain applicable today. Tomahawk enhances significantly the land-attack capability of the SSN, providing a sabre for a force often regarded as maritime cavalry.

Four points are worth noting about Britain’s procurement of Tomahawk. First, in the form of coercion, Tomahawk provides Britain with a balanced. discreet. proven and dramatic military capability to apply political pressure at distance. 27 The key to the MCJO is the ability and utility of forces based at sea to influence events ashore through presence and the threat and/or application of force. Forces are required to go to crises as there is now no longer a single adversary to confront across the Fulda Gap. Meeting these criteria through power projection, coercion and maritime fire support, the SSN/Tomahawk package provides a classic maritime asset at the core of the MCJO. Tomahawk also maintains the RN’s reputation for responding to political changes through technical opportunities, enabling Britain to punch above its weight and increasing Britain’s military and political global presence. Britain’s strategic thesis for deploying Tomahawk onboard SSNs was borne out in ALLIED FORCE: the firing of two salvoes of missiles in a coordinated high intensity strike from a forward deployed SSN exercising sea control and conducting covert force projection operations accentuated NATO’s efforts to exercise strategic coercion in Kosovo.

Second, although the full impact of Tomahawk upon the SSN fleet alone is not yet fully evident, the growing calls from within the UK military, defence-industrial and academic establishments for a wider Tomahawk fit highlight the confidence in the system as a key club in Britain’s strategic golf bag. Third, with Tomahawk Britain’s Submarine Service provides government with a credible military means for operating alongside the U.S., underlining both Britain’s global standing and its importance to Washington as an index of political support. Fourth, the sheer speed of Britain’s Tomahawk procurement emphasised not only the strength of the Anglo-American special relationship but, more specifically, the pivotal role of the respective submarine communities in forging these enduring links.


To quote former British Navy Minister Sir Patrick Duffy, the “broad future shape of the Navy is already determined by major force determinants such as Trident and the introduction of the Tomahawk submarine-launched cruise missile. With this package, the RN Submarine Service represents Britain’s main strategic force, highlighting the role of the submarine as a key policy tool. Trident, as the “ultimate guarantee of our security[,] brings with it some essential ASW baggage”. 29 Yet the development of Tomahawk as the first weapon of choice and the Submarine Force’s return to more traditional warfighting roles of sea control (as shown in ALLIED FORCE) show that the rationale for an SSN force reaches far beyond the role of guardian of sovereign strategic deterrents. In the expeditionary era the value of submarines’ wider, unique flexibility should not be underestimated nor underplayed.

As noted during Britain’s SOR debates, the future of Britain’s attack submarine is assured because of its utility over a wide range of operations.30 Today, submarines are working 11as hard or harder” than at any time during the Cold War. 31 Yet such is the utility of a submarine’s flexibility and the overstretch continually placed on armed forces that many British and U.S. officials argue for greater, not lesser, numbers of submarines.32 The challenges of the future will give greater prominence to the submarine’s unparalleled and enduring qualities of stealth, endurance, agility, and firepower. 33 From Britain’s viewpoint, “a submarine arm in a medium-size.d navy provides, literal I y, another dimension of maritime power. ”

Several issues of Undersea Warfare have provided an overview of current U.S. Navy submarine deployments. If a similar snapshot was taken of current Royal Navy submarine operations, with the deployment of boats in support of NATO operations in the North Atlantic and the Adriatic, in defence of British sovereign territory in the South Atlantic, in deploying to U.S. waters and in participating in operations other than war it is clear that the Royal Navy Submarine Service is succeeding in meeting the core of Military Tasks set out in SDR. Given the emphasis on power projection operations, the evolution of British nuclear strategy and the strategic significance of British Tomahawks fired from SPLENDID during ALLIED FORCE, it is evident that the Royal Navy Submarine Service has made a rapid, robust and (within the British armed services) a possibly unique transition to meet the requirements of the SOR, the MCJO and the new world order.


1. Miller, D. & Jordan, J. (1987). Modern Submarine Warfare. London: Salamander Books. p.15.
2 Lambert, N. Draft volume on the Royal Naval Submarine Service. Royal Navy: Naval Historical Branch. Forthcoming.
3 Quoted in van der Vat, D. (1994). Stealth at Sea: the History of the Submarine. London: the Orion Publishing Group. p.34.
4 van der Vat. Stealth at Sea:. p.1.
5 van der Vat. Stealth at Sea:. p.346.
6 First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Michael Boyce RN KCB OBE ADC. First Sea wrd’s Message. Available on-line: : Evans, M. ‘Treasury Grabs ¬£1bn Defence Windfall’, in 1he Times, 2 July 1998. p.1.
7 The Strategic Defence Review (Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Defence by Command of Her Majesty, July 1998. Command 3999. London: The Stationery Office): ·Message

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