Current plans are for production of Astute Class Submarines to end with Astute 7 (HMS AJAX) in 2022. Production will then move to the first of the successor class of SSBN’s with the first coming of the slip way around 2024. What I would like to propose is to postpone the successor class by around 6 years and instead build an additional three SSN’s of a slightly updated Astute Class.
This is not a fantasy fleet proposal but I believe a very practical way to save the MOD procurement budget from the train wreck it is heading for in the next decade whilst maintain the UK’s ability to design and build nuclear Submarines.
Successor Submarine, Replacing Vanguard
Under the last government the MOD identified a need to start working on a successor submarine to replace the current (and just completed) Vanguard SSBN’s that carry the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The logic at the time is that it would take 17 years (twice as long as the Apollo program) to design and build a new SSBN (despite the fact that it was likely to borrow heavily from the Astute program).
MOD logic in 2006 indicated that the Vanguard Class would only have a life of 25 years and the absolute maximum that could theoretically be achieved with an overhaul was 30 years of life. This was also a little strange as all MOD budgets and funding requirements prior to 2006 normally indicated a 30 year life for the Vanguard Class as standard.
Things get a little stranger still when in 1998 the US Navy decided that its older Class of Ohio SSBN’s which originally had a 30 year design life would be extended to 44 years. The UK MOD’s 30 year life span is from launch and the USN quotes its figures as actual service time so in fact the Ohio’s will go on for a total of 46 years. It’s also important to note that the Ohio’s have a significantly harder life than the Vanguards as the Ohio’s have two crews and spend up to 2/3rds of their time at sea.
The MOD answers this buy saying that the Ohio’s use a newer design and are built to a higher standard than the Vanguards allowing them to have a longer life.
This I find hard to accept as firstly the Vanguards were built a decade after the first Ohio’s and these vessels are still amongst the most expensive and I am sure best designed the Royal Navy has ever had. They are certainly not a budget option by any stretch of the imagination. They have also had a much easier life than originally intended with patrol levels being reduced as part of the 1998 SDR.
A lot of Cold War equipment from the B52 bomber to our own T23 Frigates has been able to enjoy significantly longer lives than originally intended in large part due to lower usage levels than originally estimated. Yet the MOD was able to categorically state in 2006 that there was no way the first of the Vanguard Class submarines could be running in 2024 (18 years later).
I don’t believe that the Vanguard Class cannot have its life significantly extended as with the Ohio Class and I think there is a different reason why the successor program was moved up.
The Conspiracy Theory
Back in 1998 when the last government conducted a very in depth defence review we were told that the UK must maintain a fleet of 10 SSN’s. At the time the Astute Class was envisaged as a class of around 6 vessels primarily designed to replace the Swiftsure Class and the older Trafalgar Class Submarines. It was intended to follow Astute with a new class of Submarine known as the Future Attack Submarine (FASM) with deliveries starting around 2017.
So what happened? Well as with so many things in MOD procurement they ran out of money. FASM was scheduled to go for main gate in December 2001. However despite identifying a need to fund the core defence budget at a rate of 2.5% of GDP the previous government never really met their pledge. The budget in the early 2000’s was struggling to cope with a series of cluster f**Ks such as Typhoon, T45 and FRES. While the money to build the vessels would not have to be found until around 2015 they would have to start paying for design work very soon after 2001.
In the end the FASM was canceled and replaced by the usual star trek type design study known as Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC). It was not too long after this cancelation that the revelation of HMS Vanguard needing to be replaced as early as 2017 came to light (strange given the FASM was intended to be built from 2017 until 2025).
It seems fairly obvious that in order to maintain its design team BAE would need a new submarine project to design and the MOD did not have the funds to pay for it. But there was a magic pot of money that could solve the problems for both parties. That magic pot of money came in the form of the Treasury contingency fund which had always separately funded the purchase and development of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
So job done, The RN would order some extra Astute’s and would kick the submarine design team can so far down the road that surly one day in the future they would find the money to design and build the star trek esk designs identified in the MUFC.
Then came the longest and most expensive series of military campaigns fought in a generation with a continuously falling budget that was eventually capped off by the biggest financial crisis in a century.
When the current government came to power it conducted one of the most brutal cutting exercises ever seen by the British Armed Forces with the cu de gras delivered in the quietly announced bomb shell that from now on the MOD procurement budget would have to pay for the replacement of the deterrent with no additional support from the treasury.
Suddenly that can that the Admirals thought they had belted well down the road suddenly came back and struck them in the head.
Not only would they have to accommodate an 8% cut followed by two more budget cuts of 2% and figure out how to fill an estimated £38 billion black hole in their procurement plans but they would now simultaneously have to pay for the largest single procurement project in UK military history. A project likely to cost at least £20 billion.
The scale of this problem has yet to be felt. Despite spread sheet Phill’s claims to a balanced 10 year budget, things only stack up if you assume that the Army can go without any FRES UV type replacement, The UK gets away with buying just 48 F35’s and the current set of programs don’t go over budget and eat up his contingency funds and most importantly Osborne and Cameron make good on their pledge of increasing the defence procurement budget by £1 billion a year from 2015 (something they have already back tracked on).
It should also be noted that the bulk of the cost of the successor program (actually building the four Submarines) largely falls after this ten year balanced budget.
Fixing The Problem
I think we can essentially fix a lot of the problem in the MOD procurement budget by following the time honoured tradition of kicking the can down the road.
To maintain a viable submarine industry we will need to churn out one boat every 2 or so years. This in my opinion is a valid reason for building additional submarines as it’s virtually the only element of industrial strategy the holds true. It would be almost impossible for us to buy such vessels from anyone else and we do it really, really well.
If we order three more Astute Submarines we can push the need for the first SSBN successor out to around 2030.
The BAE design team is a slightly harder issue to deal with but they are currently being employed to design the successor submarine. They could continue with this process whilst also working on a modified version of the Astute Class and possibly working up the star trek type design studies for the future. Again looking at the USA they have managed to maintain a viable nuclear submarine design capability with only the modified Virginia class to keep them busy for the last decade. If the USA can do it I am sure we can as well.
The extra three Astute’s will likely cost around £ 1 billion each but it’s going to be significantly easier to swallow a £ 3 billion cost in the next decade than a £12 billion one for building the four successors.
You might say we are simply delaying the problem and not solving it. This is true but one thing we should remember is that large defence procurement projects take time. We will still be paying for projects indicated in the 1998 SDR well into the next decade. The nature of such contracts means it’s very difficult or impossible to stop them.
Placing the successor SSBN into the 2030’s rather than 2020’s means that our purchase of large defence projects such as Typhoon, F35 and FRES will be finished. The bulk of large future programs like T26 will also be finished. It will be significantly easier to plan how to pay for the SSBN’s with more time and less overcrowding from legacy projects.
We can also spread out the procurement of the whole successor program gradually introducing new war heads, reactors, missiles and boats at different times instead of as in the past trying to do it all at the same time with the potential problems that can bring.
Much of the work that has taken place thus far on successor is for the new PWR 3 however as this rector will be used for Astute 7 through ten and eventually the successor program the money will not be wasted. Building the extra three Astute’s will allow this reactor design to be fully tested long before it is incorporated into our future SSBN’s. Other work that has been carried out to date has been for the Common Missile Compartment which again will not be wasted as it will almost certainly be incorporated into both British and American SSBN’s . Currently long lead items for the first successor submarine are on order but as these long lead items are likely to be for the PWR 3 reactor it should be relatively easy to incorporate it into Astute 8 instead of Successor 1.
Shifting successor up to 2030 also allows us to seamlessly coordinate with the USN who’s first new SSBN should be rolling off the slipway around 2029. This will allow for better coordination of weapons on the two classes and may also allow us to cooperate on actual design of the boat’s themselves. It’s also surely a good idea to synchronise our SSBN programs as whatever follows Successor will likely be using American missiles and will face all the same current timing problems.
Building three more Astute’s will also allow us to operate a fleet of ten SSN’s which is probably the ideal number for us. If we wait until after successor to build a new SSN then we are faced with the difficult of replacing HMS Astute after just 20 years of service, leaving a near decade gap in production or trying to operate a ten boat fleet for a few years then dropping back down When Astute does retire.
There are certainly risks and cost attached with this strategy. The Vanguards will certainly need an extensive overhaul and in particular their steam generators and other parts of the propulsion system will need replacing. It is possible that the life extension won’t be as successful as hoped and there is a possibility that as the fleet ages we may end up with gaps in CASD towards the end of the next decade. However I believe that the potential risk of gaps in CASD pales in comparison with the myriad of “capability holidays” our armed forces will have to accept in order to find the budget to replace CASD.
There is also the cost of running the extra three boats. Submarines are expensive to build but with a crew smaller than a frigate and no need to pay for fuel they can be relatively cheap to run. Especially when using the new PWR 3 reactor that will not require a midlife refuelling. A budget as large as the MOD’s can find funds to run three more SSN’s if it wants too and if needs be its probably worth giving up something else to fund it.
In addition to these benefits delaying successor will also come with other advantages. Currently the main gate decision for successor is to be taken in 2016. With the country likely facing yet another hung parliament and the prospect of another five years of austerity it’s probably not the best time to be investing in a costly and controversial long term weapons project. Sweating such an expensive and arguably useless weapon system for 40 years instead of 25 will also reduce future needs to replace the system; twice per century instead of four times will be nice for future generations.
It won’t be easy for the MOD to back track on what is has been saying for the past 8 years. The first step should probably be to conduct an extensive and as independent as possible inspection of the current Vanguards and confirm if they can have their service life extended as with the Ohio’s. This should probably be conducted before 2015 in time for the next SDSR. One thing that I can be certain of is that whichever colour the next government is it will welcome the prospect of kicking the main gate decision down the road another 5 years or so.