Multipurpose nuclear submarines of the Astute type. Problems and their causes

Astute-class lead nuclear submarine on the eve of launching, June 2007

There are currently seven multipurpose nuclear submarines in the Royal Navy’s submarine forces. Three of them belong to the old Trafalgar project, four others are built according to the modern Astute. The construction of such nuclear submarines continues, and in the coming years the fleet will receive three more pennants. At the same time, the program for the development and construction of new submarines has repeatedly faced various problems.

Looking for a replacement

The first attempt to create a promising nuclear submarine to replace Trafalgar was made in the mid-eighties. Work on the SSN20 project continued until the early nineties and showed some success, but was discontinued due to a change in the military-political situation. Instead of building completely new boats, it was proposed to develop a project to modernize existing ones. It received the designation Batch 2 Trafalgar-class (B2TC).

The tender for the creation of B2TC was announced in 1993. In mid-1995, the military department accepted preliminary projects from the participants and began to study them. In March 1997, a joint project between GEC-Marconi and BMT Ltd. was announced as the winner of the tender. At this stage, the B2TC project was renamed Astute (“Insightful” or “Insidious”). It was also planned to name the lead submarine of the new construction.

HMS Astute on sea trials, November 2009

It is curious that by this time the KVMF had revised its plans. It was proposed to equip Astute submarines with a number of new systems and means, including a promising nuclear reactor. Because of this, it was necessary to revise the design of the durable case and make a lot of other changes. As a result, the modernization of the existing submarine turned into a full-fledged new project, and the corresponding changes were made to the contract for the performance of work. The construction of the first three ships was estimated at 2.4 billion pounds.

The main contractor for the Astute project was GEC-Marconi, which in 1999 became part of the newly formed BAE Systems. The construction was planned to be deployed at the shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness (now BAE Systems Submarines). The laying of the lead ship HMS Astute was supposed to take place in the late nineties, when the project was ready.

First problems

Project “Discerning” ran into problems already at the stage of development of technical documentation. In order to simplify and speed up the work, it was decided to use CAD systems – for the first time in the history of the British submarine fleet. Harnessing these funds proved to be difficult and slow, and the project began to fall behind schedule. We have dealt with these problems and gained the necessary experience.

“Astute” launches a Tomahawk rocket, November 2011

During the nineties, the shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness suffered from cut military orders and regularly cut staff. At the beginning of the decade, the plant employed more than 13 thousand people, and by 2001 only 3 thousand specialists remained. To build new submarines, it was necessary to restore production capacity and create new jobs.

Such measures made it possible to begin the construction of the lead ship. Its laying took place on January 31, 2001 – with a significant delay from the original schedule. Accordingly, the expected date of delivery of the submarine was also delayed. In the future, new problems arose, which again resulted in a shift in terms.

In the fall of 2002, the Department of Defense and BAE Systems in a joint report revealed the problems of the current program. As of August 2002, the construction program was almost three years behind the original schedule and exceeded its estimated cost. According to the terms of the contract, the expenses in excess of the established estimate were to be borne by the contractor company.

HMS Ambush – the second ship of the project, December 2013

The Ministry of Defense and BAE Systems came to the conclusion that it was impossible to continue work under the existing contract. Because of this, at the end of 2003, an updated agreement appeared. The client agreed to increase the cost of the project by £ 430 million, and the contractor was to invest £ 250 million on the construction. In addition, the American company General Dynamics Electric Boat was involved in the work as a consultant and assistant.

Successful measures

The involvement of foreign specialists with extensive experience gave the desired result. They helped to master CAD systems and improve the design. In addition, with their help, construction technologies were updated and optimized. So, in the Astute project, a modular assembly principle was proposed. It provided for the construction of separate sections of a robust hull with the saturation of the necessary equipment, followed by docking into a single structure.

The modules for the head boat were made in a horizontal position, but this was considered inconvenient. For the first serial ship, a new technology had to be developed: at the same time, the metal “ring” stood at the end during assembly. Changes in construction technology have led to new challenges that GDEB has overcome.

Submarine Ambush, stern view

Astute’s program was still running out of schedule and struggling to meet the financial constraints, but now it was possible to count on a successful completion of the work. The first real proof of this was the launch of the lead boat HMS Astute in 2007.

Limited edition

The laying of the lead submarine HMS Astute (S119) took place on January 31, 2001. Due to engineering, technological and organizational difficulties, as well as due to the redesign of the project with the participation of GDEB, the ship was completed and launched only in June 2007. Three more years went on testing and correcting shortcomings. The first nuclear submarine of its project entered service on August 27, 2010.

Construction of the first serial boat HMS Ambush (S120) began in October 2003. It was launched at the very beginning of 2011, and commissioned on March 1, 2013.The third hull of the series, HMS Artful (S121), was built from March 2005 to May 2014. In 2016, this nuclear submarine joined the KVMF. In April 2020, the fourth submarine, HMS Audacious (S122), laid down in 2009 and launched in 2017, was handed over to the customer.

HMS Ambush at RFA Diligence, April 2013.

In 2009, a few months after construction began on HMS Audacious, the House of Commons Defense Committee released a report with preliminary results from the Astute program. It turned out that the construction of boats is 57 months behind the original schedule – almost 5 years. The construction of the first three nuclear submarines cost 3.9 billion pounds, i.e. 53% more than the original estimate.

In this regard, contractors were ordered to take action and speed up the construction of submarines, as well as reduce their cost. These tasks, in general, were completed, but the new stage of fixes and improvements took some time and affected the delivery time of the finished ships.

Future plans

On October 13, 2011, the laying of the fifth Astute class nuclear submarine took place in Barrow-in-Furness. On December 11, 2020, she was “baptized” under the name HMS Anson (S123). Since July 2013, the construction of the next building, HMS Agamemnon (S124), continues. After a significant break, in May 2018, the seventh and last of the planned submarines was laid down. It was named HMS Agincourt (S125).

Submarine Audacious on the slipway, July 2013

After a series of failures of the nineties and two thousand years, on their own and with the help of specialists from the United States, British shipbuilders were still able to establish a technological cycle for the production of modern multipurpose nuclear submarines. However, these processes did not allow to radically change the construction time. Each of the Astute boats is still a long-term construction and requires several years of labor.

According to current plans, in 2021-22. the submarine Anson will go to sea trials. It will be handed over no later than 2023-24. The next ship will be launched only in the future, and it will enter service only by 2025. The entire series of seven nuclear submarines is supposed to be completed, tested and commissioned only in 2026. Considering the events of the past, it should be noted that these are only current plans – the real result of the work may be different.

Reasons for failure

The program for the development and construction of new multipurpose submarines of the BT2C / Astute type started 27 years ago, but has not yet yielded all the desired results. Of the seven required nuclear submarines, the fleet received only four, and the delivery of the rest will take place later. It is easy to calculate that the last ship will be handed over 25 years after the lead was laid. This can be called a record, but the KVMF and industry are unlikely to be proud of it.

Multipurpose nuclear submarines of the Astute type.  Problems and their causes

Baptism ceremony of submarine HMS Anson, December 11, 2020

A prerequisite for future difficulties was the customer’s desire to build new submarines using advanced technologies and components. Their development and development, predictably, required a lot of effort, time and money. However, when drawing up the initial plans, it was not possible to foresee the complexity of the tasks, which ultimately led to a shift in terms and an increase in the cost of the program.

At the same time, it should be remembered that the development of B2TC was carried out in the nineties, when the UK defense budget was seriously reduced – and with it the spending on current and promising projects. Among other things, this led to staff reductions in design bureaus and in factories that were to participate in the construction. It was possible to solve these problems only by the end of the 2000s.

Thus, the Astute project at all its main stages was faced with characteristic difficulties of various kinds, which constantly hindered its successful continuation. By now, we managed to get rid of the main part of them, but the situation still did not become ideal. It is not known whether it will be possible to change it in the future and shift any stages of the program not to the right, as usual, but to the left. As for the customer and the contractor, they have long lost all their optimism.

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