On 14 May, UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced a £1.5billion ($2billion) contract with BAE Systems for the construction of the seventh and final ‘Astute’ class submarine. The last submarine of the class, to be named Agincourt, is scheduled to join the new submarine fleet in the mid-2020s, while the first three ships - HMS Astute, HMS Ambush and HMS Artful - are already in service with the Royal Navy and the fourth, fifth and sixth are under construction.
The seven-strong nuclear-powered submarine (SSNs) fleet represents the RN’s most powerful attack submarines fleet, capable of striking targets up to 1,000km from the coast and boasting a dived endurance of 90 days - a feature that remains, however, limited by the amount of food that can be carried onboard and the endurance of the crew. The ‘Astute’ class SSNs are also known for their stealth, and have recently been proven during the Syrian missile strikes last April in the Mediterranean where, though they did not fire any of the missiles they can carry, they successfully evaded Russian ‘Kilo’ class submarines they had in tow (more information in NAVAL FORCES’ forthcoming issue next June).
During his visit to BAE Systems’ shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, Mr Williamson also confirmed that a further £960million ($1.3billion) worth of contracts has been signed to move on to the next phase of construction for the four ‘Dreadnought’ submarines. The four new submarines, for which the first metal-cut took place in 2016, are being built by BAE Systems as industrial lead in partnership with Rolls-Royce and Babcock. They will replace the current four ‘Vanguard’ class submarines, in service since the early 90s, and carry the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent. The new submarine class is scheduled to enter into service in the 2030s and are predicted to remain operational to the 2060s at least.
The two contracts announced last Monday will cover work over the next 12 months, but come at a time when serious doubts were being floated as to the ability of the UK Defence Ministry to find the budget for these significant projects. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence faces a shortfall of up to £20billion ($27billion) over the next decade and this past March Prime Minister Theresa May announced a £600million ($812million) increase in the defence budget for 2018-2019 to pay for the UK’s submarine programmes, funded by the release of contingency funds by the Treasury. The Defence Ministry, however, indicated that the £1.5billion for the seventh ‘Astute’ submarine is not coming from the contingency pot, and added that: “Agincourt will complete the Royal Navy’s seven-strong fleet of hunter-killer attack subs, the most powerful to ever enter British service, whilst our nuclear deterrent is the ultimate defence against the most extreme dangers we could possibly face.”