For the first time, an Astute-class submarine has been pictured with HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea. This video and photo essay shows the submarine surfaced for a rare interaction with the carrier while operating in the Mediterranean.
As is the normal MoD stance on submarine operations, it will not name the boat assigned to the CSG21 deployment but what can be said with certainty is that HMS Artful sailed from Gibraltar on 11th June and this PHOTEX took place on 14th.
Information about submarine activity in support of the CGS is understandably limited. During exercise Strike Warrior in 2020, the RN confirmed it had conducted serials with the CGS staff controlling an SSN, including simulated Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile (TLAM) launches. During the current deployment the SSN is likely to operate with considerable independence and, like many of the escorts, will not spend a great deal of time in the near vicinity of the carrier.
The SSN is arguably the most important anti-submarine defence for the carrier, able to ‘sanitise’ the water space ahead of the group. Alternatively, it may be deployed offensively as the most effective ship killer possessed by the CSG. In the land attack role, TLAM could be used to destroy air defence assets ahead of a strike by the carrier’s aircraft. In its ‘peacetime’ role, the most important duty for the SSN during CSG21 is likely to be covert intelligence gathering either by discreet observation of ships and shorelines or through intercepting communications and electronic emissions (SIGINT/ELINT).
The RN has limited recent experience of submarine operations in the South China Sea. The US Navy may have shared some of its knowledge but the Astute boat will have the opportunity to gain useful insight into the environmental conditions as well as potentially gather intelligence on a variety of foreign naval assets.
The Battle Staff onboard the carrier have a dedicated submarine command cell that is responsible for tasking the boat. Since the SSN must remain submerged for the majority of the time and minimise emissions of all kind, communications are infrequent. A submerged submarine can communicate via satellite uplink which requires to boat to come to periscope depth, or via Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio which can only carry very limited data bandwidth or voice signals. A radio aerial buoy can be streamed when at shallow depths for conventional communictations but this is usually avoided as it could attract attention.
NATO assigns submarines a defined ‘operating box’, an area in which they are permitted to operate for a set period of time in order to de-conflict with other friendly boats. This gives the submarine commander confidence that any submerged contact may be considered non-allied or hostile.
Aside from a few days in Gib, it will be interesting to see where the submarine makes other port visits. Submariners are used to lengthy deployments but need rest and the boat will need to resupply several times in the coming six months. There are a limited number of countries that will accept nuclear-propelled vessels because of both political and technical considerations. (One of the many good reasons HMS Queen Elizabeth is not nuclear powered). There are several ports in the Gulf region that RN SSNs have been able to make use of in the past.
There is an interesting debate to be had about which is the more powerful, the carrier or the SSN. Both are highly potent assets in their own domains and are complementary capabilities for a balanced fleet. The possession of modern aircraft carriers and some, (although not nearly enough) of the world’s best SSNs are the main reasons that the RN can be considered in the front rank of all navies.