Reliable sources say that HMS Talent is being prepared for disposal with a formal decommissioning ceremony planned for sometime in May. This leaves the RN down to just 5 SSNs in service for at least the next year or more.
MoD officials have refused to confirm the status of HMS Talent. A few years ago the Ministry instituted a policy that says it “does not comment on out-of-service and in-service dates for submarines”. Effectively the taxpayer is not permitted to know the nominal strength of the navy, a measure that has more to do with concealing uncomfortable reality than any OPSEC considerations.
The Defence Command Paper published in March 2021 optimistically claimed “The Trafalgar class has been extended to ensure a seamless transition to the Astute class.” Naval Sources told IHS Janes that HMS Talent would be extended in service for a year beyond her original 2021 OSD. She arrived in Devonport during February 2021 and has not been to sea since. Her ‘extra year in service’ did not result in any time on operations, presumably because the cost of repairs needed to keep the 32-year old boat going was not deemed value for money.
Like every Trafalgar class boat, Talent has a long and proud history of service, in her case stretching back to the tail end of the Cold War. More recently, she completed her last major refit in 2018 and subsequently conducted several demanding patrols. She was fitted with non-acoustic sensors and was involved in the trials of the newly upgraded Spearfish (Mod 1) heavyweight torpedo.
The active SSN fleet currently now comprises HMS Astute, Ambush, Artful and Audacious with the last remaining Trafalgar-class boat, HMS Triumph due to emerge from refit soon and extended in service until 2024-5.
The 5th Astute class boat, HMS Anson is currently in the test and commissioning phase of her construction at Barrow. If her delivery profile was to exactly match that of HMS Audacious, she would not be in commission until October 2025. However, as the second ‘batch II’ boat there is reason to believe Anson will be in service more quickly than her sister, especially as the Submarine Delivery Agency has promised all 7 Astute boats will be in service by the end of 2026.
We will not attempt to describe the many contributing factors that have left the RN in this position but this is the legacy of scandalous political decisions, underfunding and industrial missteps going back decades. Limited construction capacity means there is very little that could be done to rapidly rectify this situation. The remaining attack boats are arguably the most important conventional defence assets of the UK, fearsome hunters, able to gather intelligence, tail or destroy adversary warships and submarines and protect the nuclear deterrent boats, among other missions. Now is hardly an ideal time for the strength of the attack submarine fleet to hit rock bottom but the RN should have 7 modern SSNs within 4 years.
In more positive news, it would appear the RN is finally getting better availability from the 4 Astute-class boats already in service. Official figures are obviously not in the public domain but observed activity would suggest that hard work behind the scenes to improve engineering and spares support is paying dividends.