Key point: Along with the two Queen Elizabeth–class aircraft carriers, the Astutes represent the core of the Royal Navy’s offensive capabilities.
Since the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought in 1963, the Royal Navy has maintained a formidable force of nuclear attack submarines. Indeed, HMS Conqueror is the only nuclear attack submarine (SSN) to ever sink an enemy warship in anger. But the Royal Navy has undergone a transformational crisis over the past decade, shrinking in size and changing in composition. The latest nuclear attack subs, the Astute class, have become a critical component of the future of the Royal Navy—but, given Russia’s resurgence, are they enough?
The Royal Navy operated nineteen nuclear attack submarines across the course of the Cold War. As in the United States, the fall of the Soviet Union changed the requirements for the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet. The UK initially expected to build what amounted to Trafalgar Mark II boats: subs focused on antisubmarine warfare, expected to defeat Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic and the Arctic. But the collapse of the Soviet Union dramatically reduced the Russian sub threat, and created new requirements. The RN took a design pause, and eventually produced a larger submarine—one more suited to multipurpose operations, including land attack.
HMS Astute was laid down in 2001, ten years after the completion of the last Trafalgar boat and three years after the launching of HMS Vengeance, the last of the Vanguard-class SSBNs. Unfortunately, the gap had led to the atrophy of key design and production capabilities, resulting in delays and cost overruns that continue to harry the program today. Basic drafting and engineering skills had deteriorated as the submarine construction work force had retired or moved on, forcing British Aerospace (which had taken over the program) to redevelop many key capabilities. Other problems emerged around the sophisticated drafting software used to design the class. This took time, pushing back the construction of the first boats, and pushing up overall costs.