Sunday, 30 June 2013

June 2013 Notes: Possibilities of Royal Navy SSKs

Reason for writing: Britain’s defence strategy has for so long been focused on buy the best, not necessarily the best fit that it is now facing a situation whereby it no longer has enough hulls to do the job, the most obvious place for this other than Escort Numbers is Submarines…where a pursuit of a Nuclear only fleet has not only left the RN short of hulls for operations, but also short of hulls for training, and missing a key defence export from its cupboard.

Key Words/Phrases:

·         NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – Britain’s principle strategic alliance,

·         Littoral: the coastal regions of sea

·         AIP: Air Independent Propulsion,

·         SSN: Nuclear Attack Sub

·         SSK: Diesel (AIP) powered Attack Sub

·         SSBN: Nuclear powered Ballistic Missile Submarine

·         SSGN: Nuclear powered Cruise Missile submarine.


The world is changing and the British government is facing the prospect of procuring just 7-8 Astute class SSNs and 3-4 Vanguard Replacements for the Royal Navy: yielding a total fleet submarine force of possibly just 10 boats; of which 3 would be of no use to the RN in any conventional conflict, and in fact are a drain of resources as they require an attack boat to be posted to provide them with security.  This leaves the RN with very few vessels to cover all the missions these submarines are now relied upon to do, ranging from tactical strike with cruise missiles in support of D+1 missions to intelligence gathering, from patrolling the South Atlantic as a deterrent themselves to protecting the Strategic deterrent; they do all this and the full gamut of variables in between. These vessels are therefore beyond doubt crucial to national security; but, crucially Britain is in straitened economic times, and the government is only willing to spend so much money, this means that not enough will be bought.

So what is the solution to this problem? There are two main options:

1)      Do nothing, and hope no one calls the nations bluff or that nothing happens that really demands the full force of the fleet over the next 20-30 years

2)       Procure some cheaper vessels, like the USN has done with the Virginia class rather than the Seawolf Class, but on a Medium Navy budget… so a class of SSKs.

SSKs are cheap and capable, they are not as fast nor as long legged as their Nuclear powered cousins; but they make up for that by being easily forward deployed, requiring few crew (but benefiting especially the officers of the crew by providing early command experience – experience that hopefully helps to prevent accidents when those officers get command of the far more expensive nuclear vessels later in their careers), excellent in the shallow waters of the littorals and most importantly for a country seeking to rebalance and strengthen its economy are eminently exportable – in fact there is a growing market virtually everywhere in the world.

For Britain on a strategic level they would enhance Britain’s ability to secure key trade routes and the key energy resources that are needed to power the economy and support the NHS, Education and the Pensioners at home. Further to this the unique selling points of the SSKs would also yield benefits for Britain by enabling global operations for her intelligence gathering agencies and Special Forces, whilst allowing for a more flexible approach to war fighting should conflicts arise. This is something which cannot be overstated as a strategic necessity, Britain at the moment, with its current procurement practice, does not have any reserve built it… whilst the high-value/high-tech/high-cost systems are necessary to retain Britain’s fighting edge and full spectrum capability, there is a lack of lower-tech/lower-cost systems necessary to provide the mass that provides true flexibility to deal with threats; preferably by  preventative presence, or conventional deterrence[1] - which is itself the largest saving possible, because wars cost a lot more money than successful gunboat diplomacy[2].   

Figure 1; a cross-section of the RCN Victoria Class submarine, previously the RN's last SSK class the Upholder's

Key Points:

Recommended numbers/disposition: 8 - 10 SSKs, 2 each at):

·         Falklands (to provide extra deterrence/defence, enabling more freedom in operations of SSNs as well as allowing greater security),

·         Gibraltar (would provide for permanent presence in Mediterranean allowing SSNs to concentrate further afield),

·         Plymouth(to support Flag Officer Sea Training – ASW warfare needs to practice on a regular basis against more than simulations, this would also represent a ready pool for Amphibious Warfare),

·         Faslane(to support strategic deterrent – with the growth in other nations having SSNs its ),

·         …with the remaining 2 if built providing for maintenance, area surge, Special Forces & amphibious warfare support – although of course vessels from the original 8 could be used to cover these roles on an ad hoc basis as and when required.

·         Thanks to their smaller crew (the Type 212 has a crew of just 22-27, whilst the larger Upholder/Victoria class has a crew of 48… still under half of the Astute class’s 98) and simpler maintenance requirement, these could be maintained in position by having trickle crewing with part of the crew rotating home/out every 30 days.

Operational Capabilities as result of procurement of SSKs:

Ø  Special Forces – insertion/extraction, with the growing usage off these forces in Britain’s foreign policy strategy it makes sense to increase the assets which could be used to insert them; combined with the forward basing this would dramatically increase the flexibility of Britain’s covert assets.

Ø  Intelligence – with the growth in the diversity of UAVs it is not inconceivable that soon, one with such a weapon emerge which can be deployed from submarine and return to the submarine after completing its mission…however, even without that their ability to get close inshore and manoeuvre in shallow waters would allow Britain the opportunity of gaining greater understanding of the world around; and as the old saying goes the more you know the less you fear, the less you fear the less likely there is to be conflict.

Ø  Forward Deployment – as the recent events in Libya and the wider Arab world show, things will sometimes happen very quickly and very fast, being able to forward deploy assets so that they are already close to an area is of tremendous advantage…further to this because SSKs are seen as being more defensive than SSNs (and without the risk of massive accidents), its far harder for anyone to object to their presence; therefore by basing two at Gibraltar Britain would of course have a stable presence with the Mediterranean and the crucial transit points of the Suez & Straits of Gibraltar, by basing two in the Falklands the Britain would have easy access to the Antarctic, a presence at another crucial transit point - Cape Horn, and of course a stronger defensive presence in South Atlantic.

Ø  Training – Flag Officer Sea Training Plymouth; Warships (for ASW training), Task Groups, Submarines, Special Forces and Amphibious Forces would all benefit from access to these vessels… these are sorts of vessels that are most likely to be at the disposal of the enemy’s they face, therefore experience operating with and against them is of premium advantage.

Ø  Security of Strategic Deterrent – with their abilities inshore being of such a good standard, then the option of using two to constantly have one sitting of the entrance of Faslane to check if another nation is snooping around Faslane would seem to be an obvious use of them. The fact that unlike aircraft they could literally sit on the sea floor, without moving for weeks, just listening. This would mean that it would be almost impossible for another nation’s submarine to sneak within range of one of the RN’s SSBNs as they leave their harbour – and therefore possibly being able to follow that SSBN to its operating area, putting it in grave danger.

Ø  War Fighting – apart from what has been mentioned above, there is the fact that SSKs would act as force multipliers in a conflict; for example whilst an SSN might well be needed to keep up with the Carrier Battle Group, the Amphibious Task Group would be able to use an SSK to provide it with its attending submarine – freeing up an SSN to go ahead of the force, another SSK might be used to provide the guard on the Strategic Deterrent Patrol to free up another one. What they will do in warfare is provide options for the Government, for Task Force Commanders and for Operators to be able to choose how best to maximise the capabilities at their disposal…not make decisions upon restrictions of force security.

Figure 2; Type 212 SSK at sea

·         Essential Items

o   Time frame – the full class needs to be brought into service with at most 8-10 years (2 parliaments) from start to completion of last vessel

o   Cost – as little as possible, obviously it should be aimed to be roughly a 1/3rd of the price of the Astute class SSNs

o   Maintenance – must be easy to maintain/operate

o   Capability – must be able to use full range of weapons as carried in SSNs, and preferably equivalent sensors

o   Legacy – it must rebuild British standing and technical capability to a level at which

·         Desired

o   Appeal to allies such as Australia and India, who would most likely be interested in the more oceanic focused SSKs that Britain has a history of producing – this started with the Porpoise class.

o   Life – they need to be designed to have a service life of 24-36 years, so need to be easily upgradeable and as componentised as possible (i.e. the vessel must be designed so not only are the components

Figure 3; HMS Otus, one of the very successful Oberon class submarines

Recommended Procurement Plan:

·         The purchase of a foreign design, such as the German Type 212 design (pictured above), would most likely fit the criteria best probably with a combined production system whereby they would build 2 units with the remainder being built in the UK – principally because it could be built quickest. Probably at a firm such as Cammell Laird’s at Birkenhead to allow BAE Submarine Solutions at Barrow to focus on nuclear production. To spread the costs, as well as the legacy as much as possible, it would be recommended to build the vessels at a rate of 1 a year after the initial production of 3-4 vessels, which should be done as quickly as possible.

·         If an indigenous design is gone with Britain could do a lot worse than building new versions of the Upholder class with an upgraded engine and the already waiting Astute Sensor suite – again Cammell Lairds could be used, they did after all build 3 out of the 4 Upholder class. Whilst these vessels would be procured over a similar time frame, it would take longer to get started as certain skills would have to be re-acquired; a task which could be accelerated by buying in skills from abroad i.e. nations such as Japan or Germany, or by partnering with nations with recent building/operating experience who are also looking at new programs such as Australia and India.

·         There would also be the necessity of procuring an Auxiliary vessel which could act as a submarine tender to enhance global operations; this vessel would most likely be procured from one of the specialist builders within the UK such as the A&P group in Falmouth– they would be especially suited as they specialise in vessel conversions and it would of course be far cheaper to covert that to build from new.

Points of Interest:

·         Whilst SSNs are the best submarine money can buy, SSKs are better in shallow water, their size; their relative simplicity and the fact that when operating on battery they make almost no mechanical noises mean that they are excellent tools for Special Forces insertions and extractions.

·         With the increased procurement of SSKs around the world a fundamental understanding of them as well as the increased training opportunities that would be brought by possessing modern vessels.

·         Will provide an entry for UK into a burgeoning global market; SSKs are big business and this would be a method of using the skills and knowledge that has been developed in our nuclear program to develop an export market – bringing in foreign capital to the UK domestic economy.

·         Reduces the chances of a major submarine accident by providing for more command experience of key personnel

·         Will provide a greater level of security for the Strategic Deterrent, as well as allow the forward basing of units in areas of strategic significance – thereby allowing for more soft power opportunities and hard power options.

Figure 4; Cut out drawing of a Type 212

Cost Benefit Analysis:

Total cost of the program based on disclosed figures would be as follows (based on procurement of Type 212, other options are of course available):

10 x T212 at $525million or £331million each = £3.3billion

1 x Submarine tender at £120million = £120million

Minor modifications to facilities at docks in Falklands and Gibraltar = £120million


Total Cost = £3.54billion

There is though, another option; a new design based upon Upholder class (for simplicity of reference called the Stoic Class[3]) - they entered service at $215 million in 1992 or roughly £250million in today’s money; so with the addition of the Astute sonar suite, other modernisations using off the shelf equipment/systems and the cost of partnering with nations/companies to accelerate the acquisition of key skills would raise the cost to <£350million. This would work out at:

10 x Stoic = £3.5billion

1 x Submarine tender at £120million = £120million

Minor modifications to facilities at docks in Falklands and Gibraltar = £120million


Total Cost = £3.74billion

For the outlay equivalent between 0.495% and 0.523% of yearly total Government Spending[4] the British Government, and the British Taxpayers, would have the got 125% increase in total number of attack submarines (based on 8 Astute class vessels being procured – it would be 143% increase if only 7 were procured); and a consequently 80% increase in unit availability across the whole flotilla as opposed to the current numbers and force structure. Furthermore that cost is reduced further when it is placed in the context of being spread over 6 years (falling to about 0.049% of total spending and average over an eight year period of 0.065% or £430million a year[5]), and most likely resulting in future work producing more vessels for allied nations…

Such an outcome could be more immediate should the Stoic class managed to follow the success of the 26 vessels of Oberon class which were built in late 1950s/1960s and which served with the RN (13), Royal Australian Navy (5), Royal Canadian Navy (5), Brazilian navy(3) and Chilean navy(2). Whilst the RCN have bought the 4 Upholder class - are getting back into the Submarine operating community and may well consider adding to that force under the right circumstance, the RAN are looking for a replacement for the Collins class, the Indian Navy are talking about project 75I, the South African navy are looking for replacements for their Type 209s; thanks to the commonwealth there is a perfect  opportunity for the British government to market such a submarine instead of letting European partners and Russia have the market to themselves. Whilst it’s unlikely that all of them would be built in the UK, key components certainly would be, and the design would be in the UK and a lot of the class would be built in the UK and a lot of money would be brought in to the British economy.

Currently in Service/being built Diesel electric and AIP submarines (in service):

·         Africa  

o    South Africa – Heroine class (German Type 209s),

·         Asia

o    China – Type 043 Qing class, Type 041 Yuan class, Type 039 Song class, Type 035 Ming class (Russian Romeo class), Type 033 Wuhan class (Russian Romeo Class), Kilo class

o    Japan – Asashio class and Soryu class

o    Singapore – Archer Class (originally Swedish Vastergotland class)

o    South Korea – Chang Bongo class (modified indigenously built German Type 209 design), Son Won-il class

o    Indonesian – Cakra class (German Type 209s), Chang Bogo class (South Korean modified German Type 209s)

·         Asia Minor

o    Turkey – Atilay Class (German Type 209s), Preveze class (German Type 209s), Gur Class (German Type 209s)

·         Asian Sub-Continent

o    India – Project 75I (underdevelopment[6]), Scorpene class (bought 6 French subs), Shishumar (modified indigenously built German Type 209 design), Sidnhughosh class (upgraded Russian Kilo class)

o    Pakistan – 90B class

·         Australasia

o    Australia – Collins Class

·         Europe

o    Spain – S-80 class

o    Italy – Todaro class (Indigenously built Type 212)

o    Germany – Type 212/Type 214 (export variant of Type 212), Type 206/Type 209 (Export variant of Type 206),

o    France – Scorpene Class

o    Sweden – Gotland Class, Sodermanland class

o    Greece – Type 214 class

o    Portugal – Tridente class (modified German built Type 214)

·         Middle East

o    Israel – Dolphin Class (1 operational, 2 building in Germany… modified Type 214s)

·         North America

o    Canada – Victoria Class (formerly British Upholder class)

·         South America

o    Brazil – Tupi Class (German Type 209s), Tikuna Class (German Type 209s)

o    Argentina – Salta class (German Type 209s)

o    Chile – Thomson class (German Type 209s)

o    Columbia – Pijao class (German Type 209s)

o    Ecuadorian – Shyri class (German Type 209s)

o    Peru – Islay class (German Type 209s), Angamos class (German Type 209s)

o    Venezula – Sabalo class (German Type 209s)

·         Russia

o    Project 677 Lada, Project 1650 Amu, Kilo class



When Britain stopped having SSKs it was based in the belief that thanks to the end of the Cold War the world was going to be safer and that there would be fewer submarines/enemies; both of these assumptions have been unfortunately proved to be based in hope rather than pragmatic evaluations. The capability benefits of procuring some SSKs far outweigh the costs; the capabilities of SSKs means that whilst they will not replace other units, they will fill a hole within Britain’s force structure that will enable other units to be utilised in a more effective and more strategic way. This is not however an overnight fix, but it is a cost-effective and well-travelled one – in fact it is a route which has already been travelled by a lot of Britain’s friends and they will most likely be will to help Britain avoid any possible pitfalls, at least by examination of their failures & successes if not their active participation.

Further Reading:

·         Air Independent Propulsion

·         U212/214

·         Japanese Soryu Class

·         RN Upholder class, now RCN Victoria Class

·         Interesting Articles


[2] (Cable, Britain's Naval Future 1983, Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy, 1919-1979 1981)
[3] Named after one of the S class submarines which served the RN so well in the Second World War,
[4] 2014 spending is estimated to be £715.3billion
[5] Or less than a 17th of what the government spends every year on ‘Executive and legislative organs’ (in fact the whole program would cost less than half the yearly budget of the ‘Executive and Legislative Organs’)