On 16th October the head of the MoD Stephen Lovegrove formally approved a revised schedule for the delivery of the 4th Astute class submarine HMS Audacious. Writing to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee he admitted publicly for the first time that Audacious will not be handed over to the RN until January 2021.
As we reported in June, there were concerns that technical problems with the boat were mounting as she had not left as expected for sea trails in Spring 2019. In typical Civil Service language, Lovegrove says “emergent issues have required unplanned repair and rework to facilitate the submarine proceeding forward with the normal commissioning process”. The convenient secrecy surrounding the submarine programme prevents any admission about what exactly the issues may be, and more importantly, who should be held accountable for them.
HMS Audacious is in effect a ‘batch II’ boat with some significant internal changes from the first 3 boats and there is a long and complex legacy of political and industrial mistakes that have affected the Astute programme. Audacious was rolled out of the Devonshire Dock Hall in April 2017 and nine years after the delivery of the first boat HMS Astute, it increasingly difficult to use historical issues to justify problems plaguing the programme. Normally it would be expected that price and construction times for a series of vessels would reduce over the production run but somehow the opposite has been achieved. If there was more transparency about the issues are and how they are being addressed, there could be a little more sympathy. The taxpayers who keep writing big cheques deserve to know more about why there has been such a failure to deliver what are arguably the important conventional assets for defending the nation.
A revised schedule for whole Astute Programme was approved as recently as March 2018 with Audacious to be handed over to the RN in August 2019. In the space of 18 months that handover date has slipped by 17 months and the RN must manage without a vitally important boat until January 2021. The 33-year-old HMS Trenchant was originally scheduled to decommission this year (at least until submarine OSD dates suddenly became “sensitive” and were no longer published). Hopefully, Trenchant’s material state is good enough for her to remain operational to cover the gap left by the delay to audacious.
The MoD says this delay to Audacious will not add to costs because financial approval is at the programme level (rather than by individual boat) and includes a contingency. This may be true but should be seen in the context of the existing gigantic cost-overruns of the Astute programme which already runs to several £Billions. Audacious’ construction is largely complete, with 96.2% of the total cost already sunk. The expectation now is that she will leave Barrow for before the end of 2019 and conduct a year of sea trials and from Faslane throughout 2020.
Perhaps more worrying than the delay to Audacious is the knock-on effect on the rest of the RN nuclear submarine programme. This highly complex enterprise has many highly interdependent parts. Delays to HMS Audacious will impact the delivery of Anson, and likely Agamemnon, Agincourt and possibly even the Dreadnought programme. The Mod admits the “scheduled risk provision is being reviewed” and longer-term “it may be necessary to seek to increase this”.
Speaking at DSEI in September, Rear Admiral Paul Halton, Commander Operations (Due to be appointed the head of the Submarine Service at end of this year) was rather cheekily asked by a BAE Systems executive about how Submarine availability could be increased, given the small number of boats. Halton replied: “Part of the solution is accelerating and delivering new build projects on time… industrial partners and serving personnel are working tremendously hard to achieve the availability we get. But there are too many examples of solvable problems not solved ahead of time, be that at the industrial capacity level or maintaining the capability in a better way across that spectrum.” There is clearly considerable annoyance within the RN about BAES’ failures. “It’s not just about increasing the availability of existing submarines, we have got to start delivering the A boats on time and we MUST deliver Successor [Dreadnought] on time” said Halton.