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."

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
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

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

KYC Analyst, Birmingham - £200-£250 p/d

£200 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: KYC Analyst, Key Banking Client, Bi...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone