Tag Archives: submarines

Trident to be funded from MOD budget

The new coalition Government has plumbed new depths of irresponsibility with the announcement that in future the operation of the Trident Missile system will be funded from the Ministry of Defence budget rather than the Treasury. Trident is Britain’s nuclear deterrent, carried by the four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile submarines of the Royal Navy. One submarine is always at sea, maintaining a 24/7, 365 days a year capability of retaliating to a nuclear strike on Britain.

Trident is – as was its predecessor, Polaris – a political asset, rather than a strictly Defence one. It maintains Britain’s seat at the ‘top table’ of international relations, and acts as something of a ‘big stick’ in foreign policy. Yet it has virtually no value in purely military terms – there was virtually no possibility of Trident playing a part in the Iraq War, for example – the armed forces do not need ballistic nuclear missiles to carry out their core roles, rather they are something that the Royal Navy has operated on behalf of the Government. Hence why it has always been funded out of a special Treasury fund.

The announcement that Trident will be funded out of existing MOD budgets means that in all likelihood the UK can kiss goodbye to a whole raft of future ‘conventional’ projects – the cost implications may mean the cancellation of the new Aircraft Carriers, no Joint Strike Fighters, and a reduced number of surface warships.

Whitehall rumours suggest that the announcement has deeper political connotations. Reportedly there is no love lost between Chancellor George ‘Gideon’ Osborne (young silver-spooned bedwetting ex-public schoolboy) and Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox (who, like him or not, had been shadowing Defence for a while, so could be expected to know his stuff). By shifting the cost of Trident from the Treasury to the MOD, no money is being saved in the short-term, rather the armed forces are being saddled with an un-necessary burden that will butcher their capabilities. Perhaps it is an attempt to bamboozle Fox’s plans for the armed forces. Also, it is possible that it is a thinly-veiled attempt to push the cost of the replacement for Trident onto the MOD.

The Royal United Services Institute published a far-sighted paper earlier this week outlining the options facing the Government regarding Trident. Their conclusion – which came before Gideon Osborne’s announcement – is that a like-for-like replacement of Trident is increasingly unfeasible. Planning for conventional forces assumes that the UK will not be attacked strategically without extended warning. Yet Trident is maintained at a continuous ‘you never know’ level of readiness, which has not changed since the 1960′s.

The RUSI proposes four alternatives:

1. a ‘Normally-CASD’ Submarine Force,
2. a ‘CASD-Capable’ Submarine Force,
3. a ‘Dual-Capable’ Submarine Force and
4. a Non-Deployed Force.

Tellingly, the RUSI does not even contemplate retaining the status quo of a continual at sea deterrent.

Option 1 would be similar to present, but would accept short gaps in the continuous deployment of Submarines at sea, in the event of mishaps or accidents for example. This might see the fleet of SSBN’s reduced from 4 to 3, but would not realise major savings in the long-term.

Option 2 would see a fleet of Submarines maintained that would be able to deploy a nuclear deterrent, but would – in essence – be mothballed, pending re-activation. This could see the Vanguard Class being retained for longer than scheduled, thanks to reduced wear and tear on the existing ships giving them a slightly longer lifespan. This would also delay the need to replace Trident.

Option 3 would utilise ‘dual purpose’ submarines that are not specifically designed solely for the SSBN role, but could perform it if necessary. This would encompass a single class of submarines to replace Vanguard and Astute, with a hull design capable of being used for SSN or SSBN. This would give a more flexible and more manageable submarine fleet by rationalising the classes of boats, and would bring the strategic deterrent to within the conventional forces.

Option 4 would see the UK abandon a submarine-launched deterrent altogether, and merely maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Although by far the cheapest option, this would leave the country at a severe disadvantage in defence terms. I should add that I am not party to the minute financial details of any of these options – even these are disputed by the various parties and pressure groups, and of course are subject to inflation.

Personally, I see that options 2 or 3 are the most realistic in terms of balancing savings and defence. Essentially, the decision boils down to how what the UK needs in terms of strategic defence, and to what extent the Government is willing to compromise this in the interests of savings. But it is increasingly clear that the status quo is unmaintainable, as we cannot afford to gut every other defence capability to keep an increasingly irrelevant relic of the Cold War.

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Operation Source: Lost Heroes

Ive just watched a fascinating programme on BBC iplayer, about a daring midget submarine raid on the Tirpitz in 1943.

The sister ship of the Bismarck, the Tirpitz spent much of the war lurking in Norwegian fjords, threatening the vital Arctic convoys to Russia. All the time she was there, the Royal Navy had to maintain a strong Home Fleet at Scapa Flow. If the Tirpitz had broken out into the North Sea or the Atlantic, we might have seen a desparate hunt like the one that sank the Bismarck in 1941.

British Forces launched a wide range of daring raids to try and neutralise the Tirpitz. One of the most famous, the raid on St Nazaire, was even hundreds of miles away from the ship. St Nazaire was home to the only dry dock big enough to take the Tirpitz – after this was destroyed, the German Navy would not be able to repair the giant ship.

Although the monster Battleship was eventually sunk by Lancasters of the RAF, the first raid that damaged the Tirpitz was carried out by three X Craft – midget submarines with a crew of four men. Towed across the North Sea by conventional Submarines, they were cast off on the Norwegian Coast. After breaching tight defences, including their divers cutting through anti-torpedo netting, the submarines dropped saddle charges under the battleship, before attempting to escape. Two of the submarine Commanders won the Victoria Cross, and many of the crew members were also decorated.

Yet what happened to the other Submarine has always remained a mystery – as it was not certain what part they had played in the raid. Did they manage to drop their charges? Did the Commander deserve a Victoria Cross, like his counterparts?

Watch Timewatch: The Lost Heroes on BBC iplayer here

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Able Seaman Henry Miller GC

HMS Unity

HMS Unity

Able Seaman Henry Miller, 39 and from Southsea, was serving onboard the submarine HMS Unity when she was in Blyth harbour, North East England on 29 April 1940.

Shortly after leaving to begin a patrol in the North Sea HMS Unity collided with the Norwegian Freighter Atle Jarl taking the First Lieutenant and Able Seaman Miller with her. They had remained in the flooded control room to allow the rest of the crew to escape

On 16 August 1940 he was awarded a Posthumous Gallantry Medal of the Oorder of the British Empire. Sometime later when the George Cross was instituted for acts of bravery that were not in the face of the enemy, his Miller’s medal was exchanged for the George Cross.

He has no grave other than the sea, and is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

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Falklands then and now: Submarines

In 1982 the Task Force and the Battle Group were both commanded by former Submariners. It is not surprising that the Submarine came to have something of a primacy in Royal Navy thinking during the Cold War – a substantial part of its role was anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. Warfare beneath the waves dominated its strategy and tactics.

By their very nature, the work of Submarines is not as easy to pin down as that of surface vessels. Their movements are not routinely reported, nor are their patrols or operations. The Vanguard class of SSBN’s provide the UK’s nuclear deterrent and, presumably, would not have a role in any south Atlantic war. As such we need not discuss them in this context.

The picture in 1982

HMS Conqueror returning from the Falklands

HMS Conqueror returning from the Falklands

In 1982 submarine warfare was one of the Royal Navy’s strongest priorities. Therefore submarine tactics within the Royal Navy were relatively sharp. As well as protecting the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap from Soviet Submarines, the Royal Navy also had a sizeable fleet of both nuclear and diesel-electric hunter killer submarines. The nuclear boats were primarly intended for countering Soviet subs, but also had anti-ship capability. The diesel electric boats of the Oberon and Porpoise classes were designed primarily for patrolling and surveillance, but were also useful in inserting special forces and attack.

In 1982 the UK had 12 Nuclear attack submarines (1 Dreadnought class, 2 Valiant Class, 3 Churchill Class and 6 Swiftsure Class) and 15 diesel-electric submarines (13 of Oberon class and 2 of the Porpoise Class). Conqueror, Courageous, Spartan, Splendid and Valiant – almost half of the RN’s fleet of SSN’s – deployed south, along with the lone diesel electric boat, Onyx. This heavy deploymen of SSN’s played a vital part in the war, but also left defences against the Soviet Union threadbare indeed closer to home.

The picture in 2009

HMS Astute - a new area of Royal Navy Submarines

HMS Astute - a new area of Royal Navy Submarines

The Royal Navy’s submarine flotilla has undergone a radical transformation since 1982. With the end of the Cold War the number of Submarines was cut. The Upholder class of diesel-electrics, intended as replacements for the Oberon and Porpoise classes, were sold to Canada, leaving the Royal Navy without a conventional submarine capability. Although their endurance is much lower than nuclear boats, they are cheaper and ideal for inserting special forces.

Currently the Royal Navy possesses 6 boats of the Trafalgar class of SSN’s. They are a refinement of the Swiftsure class, one of which is still in service. However, the Trafalgar class are due to begin decomissioning, with the first, HMS Trafalgar, in December 2009.

The much-hyped Astute Class of SSN’s, of which seven are planned, will replace the Trafalgar and Swiftsure Classes. As well as torpedoes, these can also deploy the Tomahawk cruise missile – a potentially battle winning strategic weapon. Mere knowledge of its accuracy and range would instill fear in the enemy out of all proportion to the actual damage it might cause. Similar to the Black Buck Vulcan raids in 1982, which is fortunate given that the RAF no longer possesses an aircraft with the range to repeat the exploits of Vulcan 607. Realising that Britain could strike at the mainland, the Argentines redeployed valuable assets to protect mainland targets, diverting resources from the Falklands themselves. The same effect would be caused by the use, or potential use of Tomahawk.

The flaws of one class of seven Submarines replacing two classes of 13 are pretty obvious. No matter how advanced, any ship can only be in one place at any one time. They mave have the capability of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, which would be a serious stand-off threat, but only having seven submarines would leave very few available for any operations. If one or two were in refit or maintenance, and perhaps one or two on patrols, it would take time to make them available for service.

Conclusion

In 1982 the Submarine service performed a valuable function in keeping the Argentine Navy in port. The sinking of the Belgrano effectively sent enemy ships back to harbour, allowing the task force freedom of the seas. It was only by the fog of war that the Argentine Carrier, Vienticinco de Mayo, was not sunk also. Perhaps the biggest assets of a submarine are that it is unseen, and also the knowledge that it is there, somewhere, with a fear as to what it can inflict.

The Royal Navy had a strong force of Submarines in 1982, which were well practiced in countering Soviet boats in waters closer to home. That they performed so well in the South Atlantic is not surprising. presumably the submarine fleet does not have the same patrolling commitments that it had during the Cold War, but might this also result in a loss of ‘edge’?

Has the submarine slipped in importance to the Royal Navy? It would seem so, in terms of numbers and in terms of doctrine. There are certainly a lot less boats available, although those that are available do have a crucial strategic weapon in Tomahawk.

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