Britain's £1.3bn new sub 'Astute' sets sail

The first new class of submarine for nearly two decades is four years late and required an industrial renaissance. Sarah Arnott reports

When the nuclear-powered HMS Astute slipped quietly out of the shipyard at Barrow on the Cumbrian coast at the weekend, it was more than just the climax of 15 years' hard work and hi-tech engineering. As the first of an entirely new class of submarine, Astute's departure for 18 months of intensive Royal Navy trials also embodies the successful rebuilding of once-lost industrial capacity. And its state-of-the-art military capability will be used to argue for continued investment in submarines in next year's review of military spending.

In the days before launch, the 135-strong crew of the Astute – who have been living on board for some weeks – were unstinting in their praise. Andrew Coles, the boat's commanding officer, said: "This submarine is a step change in technology and an awesome capability."

It is no small triumph is that Astute exists at all. The shipyards in Barrow-in-Furness have been building submarines for more than a century: from the first-ever Holland in 1901, through the first nuclear-powered Dreadnought in 1960, to the last of the UK's four nuclear warhead-carrying Vanguards, HMS Vigilant, in 1995. But it is 17 years since the last all-new sub was launched. So when the Government decided to go ahead with the Astute programme – which includes at least three and potentially up to seven boats – the ability to design, built and test them had to be recreated from scratch.

For BAE Systems, the private sector contractor, it meant finding, hiring and training several thousand staff at every level, from nuclear engineers and naval architects to hands-on construction workers. For the Navy, it also meant brushing off rusty skills. Commander Coles said: "We rue the fact it has been so long since the last new submarine because the expertise in how to build them was difficult for the company to reproduce. The expertise in how to commission and take them out was equally challenging for the Navy."

The programme has not been without its problems. As early as 2002, BAE blamed a profits warning at least in part on delays with Astute , caused by the complexity of the programme and teething problems using computerised 3D design technology for the first time. By last December, the programme was £1.2bn over budget and nearly four years late. But by the time Astute was ready to launch, all 5,000 employees at the Barrow shipyard were bursting with pride.

There is no question that Astute is an awesome piece of kit. It is 97m long, weighs 7,400 tonnes and is powered by a nuclear power station scaled down to around the size of a dustbin. Unlike conventional nuclear technology, it can change its load at the flick of a switch, so the sub can speed up and slow down, and it also coexists safely with both the crew and the weapons systems.

John Hudson, managing director of BAE Systems's submarine business, said: "Astute is like going to a nuclear power station with large amounts of high explosives."

The boat is incredibly self-sufficient: manufacturing its own oxygen and drinking water from the surrounding ocean, never needing to be refuelled, and limited in the length of operations only by the amount of food that can be carried for the crew.

It also wields significant military might. Astute carries a mix of Spearfish torpedoes for close-range encounters with surface ships or other submarines, along with Tomahawk cruise missiles for attacking land targets. Mr Hudson said: "It has more than just a maritime role, Astute also has land attack capability. It can deploy worldwide, off any coastline, and the range of the Tomahawk missile can hit 96 per cent of the world's populated areas."

BAE Systems – with one eye on the forthcoming defence review – is keen to stress the wider economic benefits of a fully fledged, hi-tech submarine-building industry. About half of the £3.8bn price tag on the first three new subs – of which Astute is the first – is spent on materials, and the majority of components are procured from around the country and only integrated at Barrow. Some 410 suppliers across the country took a slice of the £215m spent in 2008 (see map). Mr Hudson said: "This is a programme using complicated and highly advanced engineering and that has tentacles that reach out into the whole of the UK economy."

The arguments over defence spending will only get louder in the coming months, as Whitehall gears up for the second iteration of the UK's Defence Industrial Strategy. The review is due to start immediately after next year's election, regardless of which party wins, and will set out to decide on the UK's role in the world and where the military budget should be spent to support it.

The parlous state of government finances in the wake of the financial crisis will only raise the temperature of an already incendiary debate, and although the Trident nuclear deterrent is not included in the review, the rest of the military's submarine strategy will be.

In Astute 's favour, the Navy is badly in need of new subs. The average age of the fleet is now 22 years, and of the seven Trafalgars that will be replaced, one has already been decommissioned and the rest will go over the next 10 years. So far only three boats are a contractual certainty: Astute itself, now at sea, and Ambush and Artful, progressing well in the Barrow warehouse. But early keel-laying has begun on the fourth, Audacious, and reactor cores have been ordered for the fifth and sixth, as part of the Ministry of Defence's stated intention for seven.

The problem is that submarines do not come cheap. The first three boats alone have a price tag of £3.8bn, and the defence review will require a compelling argument for expensive submarines as the best use of limited funding in a world of unpredictable terrorists and guerrilla wars.

Astute 's supporters are confident of making a strong case. The new class not only pack a more powerful punch than the Trafalgars – with six torpedo tubes compared with five. The real jump in capability is in surveillance. Rear Admiral Simon Lister, the MoD's director general of submarines, said: "Astute is a quantum leap over the Trafalgar class in service currently, and its stealth looks like it will be a great advantage over its predecessor."

Stealth has always been the key military rationale: a sub can do anything a ship can do, without anyone knowing it is there. In modern conflicts, operations increasingly involve looking and listening rather than outright attack. And Astute is designed with just such tasks in mind. It is quieter than any of its predecessors; it carries sonar arrays with the largest number of hydrophone "ears" of any such system anywhere in the world; and, significantly, it is the first British sub specifically designed to send people out on special operations. Rear Admiral Lister said: "Submarines have important capabilities related to asymmetric war – in combating piracy and terrorism in the maritime environment and in the ability to launch and recover personnel."

The clincher will be Trident. If the Government is to go ahead with plans to maintain the nuclear deterrent, and to replace the Vanguards that carry it, it cannot simultaneously wind down the wider submarine fleet. And if the Vanguards' so-called "Successor" programme is to be based in the UK, the industrial capability will also need to be maintained. Rear Admiral Lister said: "The link between Astute and Successor is ensuring a smooth, long-range production environment."

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