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.


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.



Filed under debate, Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Falklands then and now: Submarines

  1. Pingback: Twitted by veterans_uk

  2. Jed

    Actually the flaws of one class of submarine replacing 3 classes would be more accurate – as we no longer have an’conventional’ SSK (diesel electric)boats either. So 7 Astutes will be it, the full force in toto, and as per the pathetic 6 Type 45’s – only 7 Astutes is not enough given their tasking would include:

    1. Land attack with Tomahawk
    2. Sea control – scaring the targets – sorry enemy surface combatants back into port – again…
    3. ASW – the best anti-sub platform is a sub !
    4. ISR – In the 1982 ‘conflict’ subs loitering of the Argentine cost provided early warning of incoming air raids,
    5. Clandestine delivery of Special forces.

    Yes, technically one boat could do all this missions during one deployment, but it can’t do them all simultaneously !

  3. James Daly

    I think this is a running theme with British defence policy, in particular the Navy – fantastic assets, but not nearly enough of them! The Government argument that ‘because our ships are so superior now we don’t so many of them’ is flawed. Not only in terms of the in-theatre numbers, but in terms of making sure enough hulls are ready to go.

    Is it better to have a) a few technically superior platforms, but be at risk of being caught short; or b) have numerically more units, of a slightly lower quality?

    Ideally I think a compromise between the two would be best – ie having a number of different classes of ship to perform slightly different roles, so we’re not trying to bang square pegs into round holes.

    The point about diesel-electrics is pertinent too – being smaller they are a lot more nimble than the big nuclear boats. Mike Rossiter’s ‘Sink the Belgrano’ describes how unsuitable SSN’s are for special forces work.

  4. I understand that modern technology allows larger nuclear boats to operate inshore – although I don’t know exactly how. Modern SSNs Like ASTUTE or the American VIRGINIA are designed with operations close to shore and support Special Forces in mind.

    We just need more of them.

    Here’s a link to a PDF file of a RUSI paper by Dr Lee Willett about submarines and UK defence policy:


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