With the RN attack submarine fleet down to just 5 boats and the pressure of maintaining the nuclear deterrent unrelenting, initiatives to improve submarine reliability and availability have never been more important. Here we look at what is being done to mitigate chronic legacy issues and increase the time submarines spend at sea.
The UK submarine procurement and support enterprise is an exceptionally complex, expensive and demanding endeavour with many interdependencies and difficulties that stem from poor decisions in the past. The two biggest single historical errors were made by politicians. When the Vanguard-class construction finished in the late 1990s a lack of orders to keep production going led to an exodus of submarine designers and builders, ultimately delaying the Astute class programme by almost a decade. The 2010 decision to delay the Dreadnought programme by five years means the Vanguard-class boat’s (originally designed for a 25-year service life) life-extension refits must keep them running for 40 years. Keeping 30-40 year old boats safe and operationally effective will be extremely demanding.
Much of the work of this colossal enterprise has to be done out of sight, in a highly restricted and regulated environment beyond much public scrutiny or understanding. From a national security perspective, a failure of the submarine force is not an option as the nuclear deterrent is UK defence priority one and is more relevant in 2022 than ever. If you were designing the RN from scratch right now, arguably a much larger proportion would be devoted to the underwater battlespace. Any adversary navy looking to take on the RN in the next few years at least, would undoubtedly consider the capabilities of the SSNs their single biggest concern.
There are many challenges and issues that have resulted in endless delays and decreasing availability of submarines. Given their importance, unlike most areas of defence, lack of funding is not the main constraint, although planning decades-long programmes into annual budget cycles is still an issue. For the Submarine Delivery Authority (SDA) there are conflicting priorities in the lifecycle of boats. The build phase is focused on cost and delivery date, once in service, the focus is on support and availability and at the end of their life, environmental responsibility is the key driver of decisions.
There is a total reliance on monopoly suppliers for very specialised equipment from the 3 key primes, Babcock, BAES and Rolls Royce and well into the second and third tiers of the supply chain. There is very little duplication of key infrastructure, for example, boats can only be built in Barrow and SSBNs can only be refuelled in a single dry dock. Development of the supporting dock infrastructure for (ever-larger) future submarines has to be done concurrently with ongoing critical projects. Any disruption at these single points of failure can have knock-on effects for the rest of the enterprise, potentially multiplying delays and costs.
Recruiting and retaining nuclear-qualified staff from a finite pool of talent in a small industry continues to be a struggle. There are generally enough trainees and experienced veterans close to retirement but a lack of people in mid-career. Demand for these people is likely to be further stretched by an energy crisis that makes civilian nuclear power generation increasingly attractive. Many of these issues are common to the wider defence enterprise but the nuclear submarine world is especially complex, a high hazard mix comprising around 70 major systems that use approximately 100,000 critical components.Interdependencies-Royal-Navy-submarine-Programme
Recognising that improvement is needed, the Submarine Delivery Agency (SDA) has initiated Project Resolution which has been underway for about a year. This is primarily intended to increase the availability of the submarines that are in already service. Reliability of equipment is the main cause of days at sea lost and a series of measures to reduce OPDEFs are in hand. Better use of data is at the heart of the new effort to improve in-service support. Incomplete data has historically been held in multiple siloed locations but streamlining into a single system will allow better analysis to predict problems and their root causes so there are fewer surprises. Emerging issues can be addressed more quickly and data can be used to make better evidence-based decisions.
Other practical measures are being implemented by Babcock at Faslane such as increasing spares holdings, and changing to a 4-team shift rotation, increasing working availability from around 38 to 147 hours per week. Working culture and practice is being changed with an every day counts mentality and small teams are being empowered to take their own decisions. These changes have seen a 40% improvement in task completion rates.
Workers are being given LiFi-enabled tablets (WiFi is not considered secure enough for this environment) which give access to data, engineering drawings, work orders etc. Skilled workers can avoid lengthy trips back and forward from the boat to get tools and equipment from stores by placing orders using a tablet, the items are then delivered straight to where they are needed by support workers. In-water engineering processes are being improved by using 3D mapping of defects, sonic imaging to detect leaks and by learning techniques from civilian industry.
Babcock is the key industry partner for in-service support and is contracted to support 3 types of submarines, as well as nuclear refuelling, defuelling and dismantling of the fleet. Also responsible for the three naval dockyards at Devonport, Rosyth and the Clyde, they are tasked with maintaining existing infrastructure and planning upgrades to facilities to accommodate the Dreadnoughts and Astutes. Work has now started in Devonport to rebuild Number 10 dry dock to accommodate submarine refits (See previous article).
4D Building Information Modelling (4D BIM) using intelligent linking of a 3D digital model with projected workflows is being used to explore the further developments that will be needed at Number 9 dock to support future submarine refit and dismantling work. Improvements to stores, workshops and staff areas are being planned, in order to retain the workforce investment in modern welfare facilities has increasing importance. One of the First Sea Lord’s top priorities is the smooth transition from the Vanguard to the Dreadnought-class boats which will begin in the early 2030s but planning and development of infrastructure, training and through-life support for the new boats is already well underway.
The Vanguard debacle
HMS Vanguard arrived in December 2015 for her second Long Overhaul Period and Refuel (LOP(R)) expected to take about 3 and a half years and cost £200 million. Her three younger sisters, HMS Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance had already completed their first LOP(R) at Devonport which averaged about 42 months. Vanguard is unique in having an unplanned second reactor refuelling as a precautionary measure. Six and a half years after work began, Vanguard has still not emerged from dry dock and as a non-fixed-price contract, cost to the MoD is thought to have ballooned to over £500 million.
A senior stakeholder recently admitted: “Vanguard is a textbook example of how not to set up a major project. Among other things, we changed the scope of the project, did not invest in the workforce and did not invest in the infrastructure.” Undoubtedly as the work progressed, more and more issues were uncovered and the schedule derailed, compounded by COVID and a reactor not intended to be refuelled twice. Nevertheless, someone dropped the ball in the initial planning stages. In recent times, the SDA has made a major effort to grip the project and HMS Vanguard will finally be ready to conduct deterrent patrols sometime in 2023.
The problems with Vanguard have had knock-on effects for the rest of the force, adding further pressures to the operating cycle for the remaining boats as HMS Victorious awaits a refit that should have begun 3 years ago. In some cases, 3-month deterrent patrols have been stretched to 5 months due to lack of a boat ready to replace the returning submarine. The consequences of this must be boats operating for extended periods, planned maintenance heavily disrupted and inevitable damage to submariner morale and retention. Engineers at sea and support staff at Faslane must be performing miracles.
Delay has also been added to the submarine dismantling project at Devonport while people were diverted to work on Vanguard. Fortunately Victorious and her two sisters will not require refuelling and the new management practices should see them spend less time in dry dock. Overall the SSBNs are now entering a period of growing support challenges and risk as they serve beyond their 30th birthdays. Focus on delivery of the replacement Dreadnoughts is said to be “top priority”, although the MoD does not yet have the confidence to commit to an in-service date for the first boat more specific than “the early 2030s”. Despite HMS Triumph’s final refit at Devonport also over-running, for the SSNs, the outlook is more positive. By the late 2020s, there will be seven modern boats in service and the issues that have plagued their early years should have been surmounted, together with the fruits of Project Resolution, much higher availability can be expected.
It should be remembered that while the obvious failures tend to attract publicity, across the submarine enterprise as a whole and on the frontline there are many dedicated and skilled individuals working very hard. The nature of the work and the operational environment means their many technical achievements and successes at sea in protecting the nation are mostly hidden from public view.