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."

News
people
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior BA - Motor and Home Insurance

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT ROLE**...

Market Risk & Control Manager

Up to £100k or £450p/d: Saxton Leigh: My client is a leading commodities tradi...

SQL Developer - Watford/NW London - £320 - £330 p/d - 6 months

£320 - £330 per day: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a l...

Head of Audit

To £75,000 + Pension + Benefits + Bonus: Saxton Leigh: My client is looking f...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam