Thursday, 1 August 2013

July 2013 Notes: An alternative for the Royal Navy’s Strategic Submarine Force

Reason for writing: with the recent growth of some really baseless ideas about how to maintain the deterrent, mainly with the idea that reducing hull numbers is going to deliver the required security and deliver cost savings, it seemed appropriate to put together some other alternatives.

Key Words/Phrases:
·         NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – Britain’s principle strategic alliance,
·         5 Power Defence Arrangement: UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.
·         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.
·         Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicle (MIRV): these are what are actually important, each missile carries several of these, each with their own nuclear device.
·         Trident: the current missile system used by Britain & the United States, can carry 12 MIRVs, but in British use only carries 5 – in accordance with the limit imposed by the START treaties. It has a range of about 7,000 miles meaning it can hit pretty much anywhere from anywhere; especially when compared with the Tomahawk cruise missile (the longest ranged one currently in service) which has a range of only 1,000 miles.
·         Vanguard class: the current serving generation of Britain’s nuclear deterrent submarines (SSBNs), excellent vessels but like the  Resolution class before them they are now approaching they end of their service lives and hence we are now facing this debate, as its them which are due to be replaced… not the missiles they carry.
·         Eurofighter Typhoon: Principle aircraft belonging to the Royal Air Force at the moment, as its name suggests it was procured through a joint European development.  
·         TLAM: Tactical Land Attack Missile more commonly called a Cruise missile


There have been three main thrusts of argument/debate around the future of Britain’s strategic deterrent, the first two, whether to have a deterrent and what methodology that deterrent should utilise where covered in a previous notes[1], however now the debate has moved into is third phase (as it is now pretty much agreed Britain needs a deterrent, and that Trident is better than the other options) what the actual design/strength of the force should be? For both issues there are a range of options available - design wise there are five options for the Trident Replacement or Ramillies class[2]:
·         Option 1: Original Design
·         Option 2: Partner America[3]
·         Option 3: Partner France
·         Option 4: Build modified Astute class[4]
·         Option 5: Build more Vanguards

Option 1 is the most expensive option; starting from scratch building a whole new construction would also take the longest – most importantly it would disregard work which has already been done and therefore would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Option 2 has benefits in terms of shifting the costs, and is already to extent being done; but it would create problems which could well increase cost/decrease benefit to UK economy because as Britain would be seeking to purchase far fewer vessels than the Americans – as with the F-35 a situation might arise where not all decisions are to the best interest of British strategy, capability or industry. This would not happen because of intention but by virtue of situation; and in such a situation a government might well find itself having to explain decisions to public that it doesn’t agree with, doesn’t fully understand and would really have preferred not to happen.

Figure 1 USS Henry M. Jackson an Ohio class SSBN of the United States Navy[5]
Option 3 would on the face of it seem sensible as that would be two European based medium powers working together and it would build on a current high level of UK/French nuclear interaction; the trouble with the idea though is the legacy of the Horizon frigate and many other projects have shown that the Eurofighter (in the fact it actually has entered service with most of the countries it was supposed to) is the exception not the rule; and even though Britain’s economy is bad, at the moment the French economy looks worse so it would not seem a good time for such collaboration.
Figure 2 Le Terrible of the Triomphant class SSBN of the French Navy[6]

Options 4 & 5 are based around the already available missile compartments, instead of Britain designing a ‘new vessel’ for the Ramillies; with option 4, the Astute design would be cut in half and the new compartment inserted. Whilst with option 5 the old compartment would be deleted and the new design inserted. These last options have the advantage of being able to re-use a lot of ‘off-the-shelf’ technology (in terms of it already having been built before so only minor development costs). 

In terms of force structure there are six options that could fit within the British defence budget:
·         Force A: build two – all SSBNs
·         Force B: build three – all SSBNs
·         Force C: build four – all SSBNs
·         Force D: build four – 3 SSBNs & 1 SSGN
·         Force E: build five – 3 SSBNs & 2 SSGNs
·         Force F: build six – 3 SSBNs & 3 SSGNs

Force A would be virtually & practically pointless, as was outlined in the previous notes having a deterrent which is not capable of being maintained at all times is not a deterrent but a risk – because any increase of deployments, any ramping up of readiness could be seen as provocation. Two submarines as suggested by some just would not be a safe foundation for British national security. This would be similarly the case with Force B; accidents happen, even to these submarines[7] - and whilst a grave risk is being taken with aircraft carriers/aviation ship strength[8], taking such a risk with the deterrent would not be gambling with British, it would be unlocking the gate and throwing away the keys. This is not an overstatement; imagine the situation, tensions are rising suddenly, powers who ten years ago were allies are now armed with WMDs and facing off against each other – into this the British government reacting to rising tensions sends out to sea the deterrent. It’s going to be noticed, even if through sheer weight of intelligence and media assets that will be focused on it rather than anything particularly new aged. This will immediately raise tensions further; it can’t help but not, as it’s the nation state equivalent of in the middle of argument one of the guys pulling out a grenade to supplement their knife – whilst theorists differ to extents they’d all agree with it being a rather bad thing to do[9]. Therefore this would make a mockery of the deterrent as was discussed in the previous notes[10]. In contrast a continuous at sea deterrent would be there, but not there – it’s being at sea would not raise tensions, as that is just the operational norm. This is why a continuous deterrent is the only true deterrent as it will provide a back stop for supporting negotiations whilst not through the requirements of circumstance running the risk of inflaming it.  

Force C is what Britain has always had (although originally 5 vessels were proposed for the Resolution class), it is a guarantee of security; but it is a very rigid force and would limit government options as well as the justification of the force. However prior to this option, it would be impossible for the 1st Sea Lord to guarantee the maintenance of a continuous at sea deterrent - as David Cameron has stated his support for[11].

Forces D-F are different, they represent a realisation that 7 Astute SSNs and 2 Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (even if the RN gets more aviation ships, the Type 45s are retrofitted with MK41 VLS cells so that they can carry cruise missiles, and the future escorts all have such a capability) do not provide the RN with the necessary tactical strike capability that underpins Britain’s patent pending method of deploying strength through guile to punch above its weight. Therefore the case for a cruise missile carrying submarine, an SSGN, is very strong, and very achievable.

The USN have already converted some old SSBNs to SSGNs by the use of a slot in system (called the Multiple All-Up-Round (AUR) Canister (MAC))[12], allowing for the ballistic missile tubes to be filled with 7 Tomahawk TLAM. Even though the new class are going to have only 12 tubes rather than the 16 carried by the Vanguard Class[13], or the 24 tubes of the Ohio class, it would still allow the carriage of 84 Cruise Missiles. This would be roughly the same amount of missiles as all the Astute class SSNs in the RN’s inventory[14]. Therefore providing a massive increase initial strike capability & flexibility of British force, specifically in terms of an Anti-Anti-Access System – the ability of SSGNs to get closer to the enemy shore line than other platforms (i.e. aircraft carriers and surface warships) without being detected, allows for the possibility of launching ‘behind enemy lines’.

Figure 3 The silos with MAC[15]
Figure 4 The Ohio class SSGN[16]
Figure 5 A close up on the MAC[17]

 In terms of diplomacy the government would gain the ability to hint or even announce the deployment of an SSGN to an area – representing a very sobering proposition to any country, not on the same level as a Carrier Battle Group or an Amphibious Task Group; but a vessel which has the same ability to disappear as those most elusive of submarines an SSBN, making it virtually impossible to find, and loaded with 84 cruise missiles. Although no submarine can act as a visible deterrent/show the flag as their very lethality relies upon the stealth which is afforded them by their travels beneath the waves – thus limiting their impact upon an enemy of limited imagination. However, even if such a vessels presence didn’t persuade a government to come to the negotiating table, it would be able to rapidly respond to any change in situation and could be used by the British government to impede any action contrary to their interests or wishes.  

Furthermore, vessels which are indistinguishable from each other would keep watchers unsure as to whether they are seeing a SSBN or an SSGN go out on patrol, making it more difficult for patrols to be monitored.

Supplementary to all this there is the long term advantage that if in the unlikely event that ballistic missiles are done away with by treaty at a future date[18], then the vessels would be easily converted to SSGN and therefore would still be of use for the remainder of their career.

Key Points:

For & Against on the preferred Design/Development options for Ramillies class strategic submarine
·         Option 2: Partner America
o   Advantage: reduction in costs/access to large research & development pool
o   Disadvantage: loss of control
·         Option 4: Build modified Astute class
o   Advantage: Commonality will reduce training, maintenance and procurement costs, whilst maintaining  
o   Disadvantage: the design will not be able to be as optimised for the role as previous designs were
·         Option 5: Build more Vanguards
o   Advantage: A design which is well known and proved in its role.
o   Disadvantage: Times have changed, the costs of updating the design to include the off the shelf available stuff from the Astute class

For & Against on the preferred Force Structure options for Ramillies class strategic submarine
·         Force D: build four – 3 SSBNs & 1 SSGN
o   Advantage: cheapest and keeps to the letter of the reduction, but provides the resilience of four boats
o   Disadvantage: the SSGN capability is more an in name only, as it will be the SSGN or boat in long term refit…
·         Force E: build five – 3 SSBNs & 2 SSGNs
o   Advantage: Continuous at Sea Deterrent guaranteed and more often than not an on call SSGN to respond to situations, provides more operational flexibility in terms of only 7 SSNs as if two SSGNs are available then one could be used to provide the deterrent guard or alternatively ASW support for a Task Group.
o   Potential: whilst normally it there would be assigned 1:1:3 (in terms of SSGN, Major Refit and SSBN), the five vessels give the potential that should circumstance demand a second vessel could be made into an operational SSGN with minimal effort and minimal disruption to operations – the benefit of having five vessels being the slack within the system when compared to four, that would allow for disruptions in this way and still keep it all going and provide for proper maintenance.
o   Disadvantage: facilities have been designed around four or less units so would require modification to facilities to provide space for the fifth, would require a slight increase in  personnel numbers (but considering SSBNs operate as standard with 2 crews for each boat, in order to get the maximum out of then, the five vessels will only require the equivalent of the 8 crews already in service as the SSGNs will not an extra crew)
·         Force F: build six – 3 SSBNs & 3 SSGNs
o   Advantage: Guaranteed Continuous at Sea Deterrent and all but Guaranteed Continuous at Sea Stealth Strike
o   Disadvantage: most expensive, would require extra personnel and facilities 

Points of Interest:

·         Cruise missiles from USS Florida were a key part of Libyan campaign[19]

Figure 6 HMS Vanguard lead ship of the RN’s current class of Trident Submarines[20]


Overall it’s the number of vessels that are built that will decide whether the Continuous at Sea Deterrent can be guaranteed, four vessels guarantees it, but those units are only really going to be able to be used for SSBNs – a wasted opportunity. Therefore operationally five vessels, as was originally planned for the Resolution class would seem appropriate for the Ramillies class as it offers both Guaranteed Continuous at Sea Deterrent as well as a continuous SSGN deployment capability, one extra vessel and the whole scenario is changed from being focused on purely SSBN/Strategic Deterrent mission to providing an SSGN tactical capability alongside it.

In terms of Design with the missile compartments already having been designed jointly with the USN. When this is put alongside the fact that the Astute class have, arguably, reached a significant level maturation now that the sixth vessel has had its keel laid down and seven has been decided upon as the final number[21] - surely combining those two components (exceedingly complex but still ‘components’) would be a relatively inexpensive proposition. Something which would especially be true if the long term savings of significant similarity between the vessels is taken into account, i.e. in terms of training, parts, maintenance, logistical support.

Therefore the recommendations for the Ramillies class would be a design which is a combination of Options 4 & 2 and Force structure of E.

How it would work out compared to current

Current (Vanguard)
Proposed (Ramillies)
1 vessel in Major Refit
1 SSGN vessel in Major Refit/training *
1 vessel in patrol refit/training
1 SSBN vessel in patrol refit/training
1/2 vessel travelling to or from patrol
1 SSBN vessel travelling to or from patrol
1 vessel on patrol
1 SSBN vessel on patrol
1 SSGN vessel in training/readiness

* when a vessel is needed for major refit it would have it’s missiles taken out and be designated an SSGN, and one of the SSGNs transferred to SSBN duties, therefore only 3 SSBNs would be in service at a time.

Further Reading:

[2] Named for the cancelled 5th Resolution class vessel
[3] What is being done currently in terms of missile compartment, but design the whole sub (18/07/2013)
[4] An evolution on the option currently being pursued (18/07/2013)
[14] Based on the procurement of 7 units, and their carriage of a total of 38  torpedoes, cruise missiles and decoys all to be launched from the 6 bow tubes.
[18] Unlike the attempts to get rid of bombing in 1920s or aircraft carriers in the 1920s by treaty


  1. Very interesting. I reached a similar conclusion awhile back, except with an emphasis on storing Trident and equipping with cruise, as laid out in this article;

    I didn't mention numbers but I had in mind 5 new subs, which with the 7 Astutes would give us 12 Nuclear submarines, 7 with minor cruise missile capability, 5 with major cruise capability and the potential to reequip as SSBN's if required. A reverse of your "then the vessels would be easily converted to SSGN and therefore would still be of use for the remainder of their career".

    A similar conclusion was suggested here:

    1. Dear Gareth

      The trouble with that is that your still mobilising a deterrent instead of it being there - so instead of a constant it becomes a variable which may exacerbate the situation... its better to have it in the 'water' at sea than to try to be fancy with it as you add greater danger/complexity to a situation which is already most likely (considering your talking about strategic deterrent) volatile.

      My view is that we should either have the deterrent and do it properly - i.e. enough vessels to keep at sea, and in the case proposed here have an extra capability for when we need it... or we don't have it and declare ourselves a nuclear free zone and hope that no one decides to hit us anyway...

      My reading of the international situation with the rearming that is openly going on, the profusion of the disputes and the increasing number of nations and other organisations seeking such weapons or their equivalents means that a deterrent is a functioning need for the UK. We are too interconnected in the world (one of the thoughts behind this to ever be able to stick our collective head in the sand and cross our fingers it will get better - that means we will act, any action will by its nature make enemies (and of course friends - it's often forgotten but is just as important to our strategic position), added to this our repeated defence cuts since 1991 in the belief that somehow with the end of the Cold War the world was going to get more peaceful (it actually arguably has got less safe and more problematic) and we need the strategic deterrent.

      However should Anti-Ballistic-Missile Systems get to the point they are an effective national (not just theatre as the SM-3 is aiming to be) defence then we would be in a different scenario.

      yours sincerely



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