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Taking a peek at the Royal Navy's next nuclear-powered ballistic missile sub

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December 16, 2013

Artist's concept of the Successor submarine (Image: Ministry of Defence)

Artist's concept of the Successor submarine (Image: Ministry of Defence)

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As part of an update to Parliament on the progress of the Trident replacement program, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released a concept image of the Royal Navy’s next ballistic nuclear missile submarine. This coincides with the awarding of two contracts to BAE Systems Maritime-Submarines for £47 million (US$76 million) and £32 million (US$60 million) to begin preliminary design work on the nuclear-powered submarines, currently called the Successor class, which are intended to replace the Navy’s aging fleet of of Vanguard-class boats by 2028.

The Royal Navy’s four Vanguard-class Trident ballistic missile-armed submarines have been in service since 1993 as the key component of Britain’s Independent Nuclear Deterrent (IND) policy, with the Navy's 16 Lockheed Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) carrying up to 192 nuclear warheads in MIRV re-entry vehicles. Conceived during the Cold War as a replacement for the Resolution-class Polaris submarines, the Vanguard-class is now itself in need of replacement as the first of the class, HMS Vanguard, is due for a major refit in 2017.

Since 2011, the MoD has been carrying out a directive by Parliament to come up with a replacement for the current Trident submarines. According to the update, which included the released image, the MoD, along with BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Babcock International, have concluded that the alternatives of a land- or sea-based deterrent, or a more exotic one, such as nuclear-armed cruise missiles on attack submarines, would not be as efficient or cost effective as a like-for-like replacement of the current Trident system.

HMS Vanguard (Image: Ministry of Defence)

HMS Vanguard (Image: Ministry of Defence)

The concept image showing a distinctly streamlined hull is only an approximation of the final design, which has yet to be determined as the British government sorts out defense policy, budget priorities, and the future nature of the IND. According to the MoD, the £11-14 billion (US$18-23 billion) (at 2006 prices) boats are expected to be larger, stealthier, more complex, and safer than the Vanguard and will serve from 2028 until the mid 2060s. However, exactly how many of them will be built, and what their deployment will be is uncertain until Parliament makes its final decisions in 2015.

The Successor submarine will be powered by a Rolls-Royce PWR3 nuclear reactor that will not require refueling for the entire life of the boat. The design and construction methods will be based on those of the Astute-class attack submarines currently being built. The MoD says that the lessons learned from Astute will allow Successor to be built in less time than the smaller submarine.

Inside the new Successor will be 12 missile tubes instead of the current 16. Like the current boats, Successor will carry Trident D5 missiles. Since the US Navy is working on a replacement for its own Ohio-class missile submarines, the US and the UK are jointly developing the Common Missile Compartment for both designs. Under this agreement, the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics will supply the missile tubes, while Britain will build and install its own compartments.

Though the Trident missiles will be bought from the US, the nuclear warheads and re-entry vehicles will continue to be British-built. Since the current stock of UK warheads is not slated for replacement until the 2030s, they don’t factor into the current Successor design.

A Trident missile undergoing a test launch (Image: Department of Defense)

According to First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, "The Royal Navy has been operating continuous at-sea deterrent patrols for more than 40 years and the Successor submarines will allow us to do so with cutting-edge equipment well into the future."

The MoD states that, though Parliament has yet to make its final decisions on the Successor, BAE Systems was awarded contracts this week because the long lead time in developing the new submarines means that preliminary work must begin even before the design is settled upon. Work on details like structural fittings, electrical equipment, castings and forgings must be ordered now or there is an increasing risk of delays and consequent cost overruns.

In a statement, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond says, "This £79 million (US$129 million) investment is another important milestone in our preparations to build these world-leading submarines. The current Vanguard Class of deterrent submarines perform a vital role in the defence of the UK and the replacement for this capability is of national importance.

"The Successor programme is supporting around 2,000 jobs, and up to 850 British businesses could benefit from the supply chain as we exploit the most modern technologies and employ a significant portion of the UK’s engineers, project managers and technicians over the coming years."

Sources: Gov.UK (1), (2 (PDF))

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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17 Comments

If there was ever a boat (or ship) and class suitable for the name "Vengeance" a nuclear deterrent is it.

Slowburn
17th December, 2013 @ 03:31 am PST

Isn't the Cold War over with the need to provide an aggressive deterrent? What is this push to spend billions to develop and deploy the latest and the greatest killing machines by rich nations? The US, Russia and China are developing the next generation bomber and fifth generation fighters at enormous expense. Destabilizing Starwars projects continue producing only ineffectual results. Hypersonics is the new frontier for manned and unmanned ISR and strike aircraft. If the British need to stimulate their economy by expanding technologically, why don't they spend money on a space program and just maintain their current submarine force as it is? It's hard to imagine that their security needs would be compromised by taking that route instead.

Nostromo47
17th December, 2013 @ 10:56 am PST

It is sad and pathetic how much money goes into crap like this that if we are lucky will ever need, and if used will destroy everything anyway.

Nelson Hyde Chick
17th December, 2013 @ 11:02 am PST

Unless there is a fundamental change in the arrangements, the U.K. does not own any Trident nuclear missiles, it leases them, with the very real possibility that the lease agreement can be cancelled at short notice.

One has to acknowledge that one Trident D5 missile has the capability to take the U.S.A. back to the Dark Ages. A submarineful can take it back to the Stone Age. They are not going to let the U.K. have that competence without retaining control over it, something that will be obvious to any potential foe the U.K. might face. It follows, therefore, that the U.K. is very unlikely be allowed by the U.S.A. to use its Trident missiles because that would automatically make the U.S.A. a target for giving its permission to use them.

Over and above the obvious, we have to recognise that with miniscule C.E.P.s and MIRV technology, Trident D5 is not designed to provide a deterrent at all, it is designed to destroy the deterrence ability of any foe by destroying their command, control, communication and intelligence facilities, no matter what the U.K. government might have to say on the matter. That makes the only 'defence' possible 'launch on warning'. Let's just hope that Microsoft doesn't have any input into such a system. "Oops!" won't cut it, I'm afraid.

The U.K., along with the other nuclear armed states, has missed a glorious opportunity to make the world a much safer place by not banning MIRV delivery systems. That is something we may live (or die) to regret as the peace that broke out in the late 80s slowly disappears from sight.

Removing MIRV should preferably be accompanied by a minimum CEP of 400 meters (as with Trident C4), but monitoring compliance is an obvious problem. The best option for the U.K. would be hunter-killer subs equipped with U.K. designed and built long-range nuclear armed cruise missiles capable of delivering a retaliation for any nuclear attack.

Having said all that, a nuclear attack on any nation today will most likely come in the form of an Hiroshima sized device packed into a briefcase or the boot of a car. (Try putting the bits back together in order to get fingerprints, the way they did with the Lockerbie bomb!)

We live in the 21st century, it is about time our politicians grew up and found something safer to play with and consigned those from a different era to the waste bin where they belong.

Mel Tisdale
17th December, 2013 @ 11:12 am PST

Amen to all the above comments. this is a wast of money and just makes the world LESS safe. I suppose the politicians just don't want to admit that Britannia no longer rules the waves...

JAT

JAT
17th December, 2013 @ 05:43 pm PST

@ Nostromo47

That bit about Russia and the PRC explain why Great Britain needs the deterrent.

@ Mel Tisdale

For there to be a ban you have to be able to enforce it. Also MIRVed warheads just reduce the number of launchers making an unintentional launch less likely.

What "magic" device makes a Missile on Royal Navy Boat be under the control of any third party. There is no reason to believe that the missiles could not be aimed at targets in the USofA.

I think the Brits made a mistake in not developing their own ICBM because the difference between an ICBM and an orbital launcher is the payload.

Slowburn
17th December, 2013 @ 06:19 pm PST

FYI Mel Tisdale the lease terms are public knowledge and clearly state that the UK may use the missiles at her independent discretion.

The UK government did not follow the United States who installed devices making it impossible for a submarine commander to launch a nuclear missile without a launch code from the president.

It is possible for a British Naval Officer to launch an unauthorised nuclear attack. His US equivalent has no such power.

Finally, the Trident-II D5 has "sufficient payload and accuracy to be considered a First Strike Weapon"

Let's be honest, we're talking aggression here, not deterrence.

nutcase
17th December, 2013 @ 07:27 pm PST

@ slowburn and nutcase

I don't know what specific mechanism prohibits the U.K.'s use of Trident, but one that comes to mind is for the missiles to require a component of the GPS signal to include a flight permission code, without which the missile would not fire up or continue if had fired up.

"Let's be honest, we're talking aggression here, not deterrence."

Exactly the point I was making. Gorbachev just arrived in time to stop the carnage. The West was about to deploy Trident D5 in sufficient numbers to be able to launch a pre-emptive first-strike and the USSR was playing catch-up. If neither side had launched such a strike we would have had the equivalent of two warring neighbours facing each other with snipers' rifles, compared to the blunderbusses they had been used to (Polaris, Poseidon etc.). the earlier weapons were a deterrent. Trident D5 is an anti-deterrent. How long do you think that the West would have waited before taking the advantage they had. You might remember the bellicose nature of the rhetoric of the time. One thing we can be sure of is that whichever side fired first would be able to claim all kinds of intelligence that said the other side were going to attack. That other side would be too busy burying its dead to put any defence, and they would not have been believed.

As for monitoring compliance with a MIRV ban, it is easy to count warhead during the inspections that would have been part of any treaty negotiation. CEP compliance would be another matter entirely.

On a visit to NATO headquarters in 1990 a NATO official admitted that they were so concerned about the "destabilisation" that was going to result from the deployment of Trident, they "were having meetings at the highest level to discuss the matter." Remember this was at a time when peace had broken out. Indeed, the day after our visit, Werner, the then Secretary General, was due to meet Gorbachev, something that would have been unthinkable a year or so earlier. It they were worried I think we had a right to be too, but all we got from the politicians and the media was that it was a deterrent and essential. If only!

I would have supported (but not very enthusiastically) Trident C4, perhaps with extended range to give more deep water available for patrols. (Submarines do not disappear when they submerge, far from it.)

Mel Tisdale
18th December, 2013 @ 12:57 am PST

GPS is always assumed to be unavailable during a nuclear conflict and no decent ICBM designer would dare to rely on it.

The Trident II D5 like all ICBMs uses inertial guidance with star-fix assistance.

nutcase
18th December, 2013 @ 02:17 am PST

...And this, while Old, World War II Hero Britons die on Hospital Corridors! And you get 5 years jail-time for having a Swiss Army knife in your pocket. Mister Bean School of Governance!

Edgar Castelo
18th December, 2013 @ 03:15 am PST

@ nutcase,

I did not say that guidance would be by GPS. What I said was that a permission code could be included in its signal. It was only a thought as I clearly stated. What does matter is that the U.K.'s missiles could easily do a lot of damage to the U.S.A. and I simply refuse to believe that the U.S.A. doesn't have some form of sanction in order to protect themselves. There is no guarantee that the U.K. will remain politically stable and it would be foolish for them not to cater for all eventualities. This is especially pertinent at the present considering the mess the world's finances and economies are in, with many pundits forecasting dire times for all when the dollar crashes. Just look at the number of serious web sites discussing living off grid and survival and resilience planning.

Mel Tisdale
18th December, 2013 @ 05:30 am PST

We should pray that those granted control over these the ultimate weapons of mass destruction are less prone to speculation and conspiracy fantasy as is Mel Tisdale.

There is no doubt that the United Kingdom require no assistance from the United States to build and launch their nuclear arsenal, besides finance.

The RN nuclear deterrent strategy includes the paradigm that no one can ever be certain where all the missiles are, and that at least one submarine laden with about a dozen of them is always at sea.

The Prime Minister upon taking office is required to compose a letter of last resort and hand a sealed copy to each ballistic missile commander who puts it in a safe in the control room.

The conditions under which the letter is opened includes, but is not limited to, cessation of BBC world service, failure of GPS, etc etc.

I would suggest that the letter would instruct the commander to seek further advice from Canada or Australia before the United States or France.

nutcase
18th December, 2013 @ 06:21 pm PST

@ Mel Tisdale

The device to make a missile not launch without USofA approval is in the electronics, or an additional electrical device. Do you really think Great Britain is stupid enough and incapable enough to allow something like that in their nuclear deterrent force.

@ nutcase

The accuracy of the Trident II D5 means that they can be used to dig out the bunker where the people responsible for the act that triggered the nuclear response are hiding this is a greater deterrent than being able to merely being able to obliterate their cities.

The problem with the ICBM first strike scenario is any target that is worth obliterating with an ICBM is protected by a defense system that watches for missiles launch and responds faster than the missile can reach the target. The first strike ICBM is a dark fantasy.

Slowburn
19th December, 2013 @ 02:55 am PST

No, slowburn. By the time the letter is opened there will already be no bunker.

nutcase
19th December, 2013 @ 05:51 am PST

@ nutcase

What makes you think that there will be a delay between the provocation and the nuclear response?

If there is a delay what makes you think that there is not an alternate target selection?

Slowburn
19th December, 2013 @ 10:44 pm PST

Si vis pacem, para bellum.

Iceberg0311
6th January, 2014 @ 05:51 pm PST

Have the technology ready, the components, the prototype and complete the trials, plus the icbm. Keep the industry active as it provides jobs. Continue crew training and have assembly and deployment ready at short notice.

Dawar Saify
11th March, 2014 @ 10:18 am PDT
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