Putting the boats to sea – efforts to improve the availability of Royal Navy submarines

With the RN attack submarine fleet down to just 5 boats and the pressure to maintain nuclear deterrence unabated, initiatives to improve submarine reliability and availability have never been more important. Here we take a look at what is being done to alleviate chronic legacy issues and increase the time submarines spend at sea.


The UK submarine supply and support business is an exceptionally complex, expensive and demanding business with many interdependencies and difficulties that stem from poor decisions in the past. The two biggest mistakes in history were made by politicians. When construction of the Vanguard class ended in the late 1990s, a lack of orders to maintain production led to an exodus of submarine designers and builders, ultimately delaying the Astute class program from almost a decade. The 2010 decision to delay the Dreadnought program by five years means that life extension renovations of the Vanguard-class boat (originally designed for a 25-year lifespan) must keep it running for 40 years . Ensuring the safety and operational efficiency of 30 to 40 year old vessels will be extremely demanding.

Much of the work of this colossal enterprise must be done out of sight, in a highly restricted and regulated environment beyond public scrutiny or understanding. From a national security perspective, a failure of the submarine force is not an option because nuclear deterrence is First priority of British defense and is more relevant than ever in 2022. If you were designing RN from the ground up right now, a much larger proportion would arguably be dedicated to the underwater battlespace. Any adversary navy looking to confront the RN in at least the next few years would undoubtedly consider the capabilities of the SSNs as their greatest concern.

Numerous challenges and problems have resulted in endless delays and decreased availability of submarines. Given their importance, unlike most areas of defence, lack of funding is not the main constraint, although planning programs spanning decades into annual budget cycles remains a problem. For the Submarine Delivery Authority (SDA), there are conflicting priorities in the life cycle of boats. The construction 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 main driver of decisions.

There is complete reliance on monopoly suppliers for highly specialized equipment from the top 3 majors, Babcock, BAES and Rolls Royce and down to 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 refueled in one drydock. The development of supporting dock infrastructure for future (increasingly larger) submarines must be done concurrently with ongoing critical projects. Any interruptions at these single points of failure can impact the rest of the business, potentially multiplying delays and costs.

Recruiting and retaining qualified nuclear personnel from a limited talent pool in a small industry continues to be a challenge. There are usually enough trainees and experienced veterans close to retirement, but a lack of mid-career people. Demand for these people is likely to be further strained by an energy crisis that makes civilian nuclear power generation increasingly attractive. Many of these issues are common across the defense enterprise, but the world of nuclear submarines is uniquely complex, a high-risk mix comprising around 70 major systems that use around 100,000 critical components.


Project resolution

Recognizing that improvements are needed, the Submarine Delivery Agency (SDA) has launched Project resolution which has been going on for about a year. This is primarily intended to increase the availability of submarines already in service. Equipment reliability is the main cause of lost days at sea and a series of measures to reduce OPDEF are underway. Better use of data is at the heart of the new effort to improve in-service support. Incomplete data has always been kept in multiple siled locations, but streamlining into one system will allow for better analysis to predict issues and their root causes so there are fewer surprises. Emerging issues can be addressed faster and data can be used to make better evidence-based decisions.

Other practical measures are being implemented by Babcock at Faslane, such as increasing stocks of spare parts and moving to a 4-shift rotation, increasing work availability from approximately 38 to 147 hours per week. The culture and working practices are changing with a every day counts mentality and small teams are empowered to make their own decisions. These changes resulted in a 40% improvement in task completion rates. Workers are provided with LiFi enabled tablets (WiFi is not considered secure enough for this environment) which provide access to data, technical drawings, work orders, etc. Skilled workers can avoid long trips from the boat to get tools and equipment from stores by placing orders via a tablet, items are then delivered directly to where they are needed by support workers. In-water engineering processes are improved by using 3D mapping of flaws, sonic imaging to detect leaks, and learning techniques from civil industry.

Babcock is the industry’s key partner for in-service support and is contracted to support 3 types of submarines, as well as nuclear refueling, offloading and decommissioning of the fleet. Also responsible for the three shipyards of Devonport, Rosyth and Clyde, they are tasked with maintaining existing infrastructure and planning facility upgrades to accommodate Dreadnoughts and Astutes. Work has now begun in Devonport to rebuild Graving Dock Number 10 to accommodate submarine refits (see previous article).

4D Building Information Modeling (4D BIM) using intelligent linking of a 3D digital model with projected workflows is being used to explore further developments that will be required at Pier Number 9 to support future redevelopment works and dismantling of submarines. Improvements to stores, workshops and staff areas are planned, in order to retain the workforce. Investment in modern wellness facilities is becoming increasingly important. One of the First Sea Lord’s main priorities is the smooth transition from Vanguard-class boats to Dreadnought-class boats, which will begin in the early 2030s, but the planning and development of infrastructure, training and lifelong support for new vessels are already well advanced.

HMS Victorious during her first long period of overhaul (refuelling) undertaken between January 2005 and July 2008 in the newly refurbished Number 9 Berth in Devonport (Photo: Babcock).

The Vanguard Debacle

HMS Vanguard arrived in December 2015 for her second Long Overhaul and Replenishment (LOP(R)) which is expected to take approximately 3.5 years and cost £200 million. Her three younger sisters, HMS Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance had already completed their first LOP(R) in Devonport which lasted an average of around 42 months. Vanguard is unique in that it has an unscheduled second reactor refueling as a precautionary measure. Six-and-a-half years after work began, Vanguard has still not come out of drydock and, as a non-fixed price contract, the cost to the Ministry of Defense would have soared to over £500m .

A key informant recently admitted: “Vanguard is a classic example of how not to build a big 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 work progressed more and more problems were uncovered and the schedule got derailed, compounded by COVID and a reactor that was not meant to be refueled twice. Nevertheless, someone dropped the ball in the early planning stages. The SDA has made a major push to seize the project of late and HMS Vanguard is expected to return to the fleet in the coming months, with a DASO already in pencil. (Demonstration and Shakedown Operation – test-tiring a Trident missile off the US coast).

The problems with Vanguard have impacted the rest of the force, adding further pressures to the operating cycle of the remaining boats as HMS Victorious awaits a refit that should have started 3 years ago. In some cases, the 3-month deterrent patrols have been lengthened to 5 months for lack of a boat ready to replace the returning submarine. The consequences of this must be boats operating for long periods, heavily disrupted scheduled maintenance, and inevitable damage to submariner morale and retention. Faslane’s offshore engineers and support staff must work miracles.

A delay was also added to the submarine dismantling project in Devonport while people were diverted to work on Vanguard. Luckily Victorious and his two sisters won’t need to refuel and new management practices should see them spend less time in drydock. Overall, SSBNs are now entering a period of increasing sustainment challenges and risks as they serve beyond their 30th anniversary. Focusing on delivering replacement Dreadnoughts would be “priority”although the MoD does not yet have the confidence to commit to a more specific commissioning date for the first boat than “the beginning of the 2030s”. Although the final refit of HMS Triumph in Devonport is also outdated, for SSN the outlook is more positive. By the end of the 2020s there will be seven modern boats in service and the problems that plagued their early years should have been overcome, together with the fruits of Project Resolution, much higher availability can be expected.

It should be remembered that while obvious failures tend to attract publicity, across the whole underwater business and on the front line there are many dedicated and skilled people working very hard. The nature of the job and the operational environment mean that their many technical achievements and successes at sea in protecting the nation are mostly hidden from public view.

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