Both the United States and the United Kingdom are in the midst of procuring new classes of nuclear-powered attack submarines, but the contrast between the programs could not be greater. While the US Virginia class suffered some initial setbacks, including problems with the program used to design the boat, it has for some time been moving along in admirable fashion. The first Block II boat came in months early and $54 million under budget due to new construction techniques and cost-saving measures.
The Astute’s story is very different. Design work was completed only with the help of US company Electric Boat, which designs the Virginias. Since then, severe problems, both budgetary and construction-related, have dogged the class. The combination of a reactor intended for the slow and stealthy Vanguard class missile boats and a drive shaft from the old Trafalgar class has left the boat unable to reach its announced 30-knot speed, a severe handicap in certain roles, like carrier escort. HMS Astute has experienced flooding due to insufficient quality control, worn and unsafely-installed circuitry, and most worryingly, some of its reactor monitoring equipment is itself unsafe due to the use of poor-quality lead.
But all of this is understandable. The United Kingdom has not built an attack submarine since 1986, and the last Vanguard finished up in 1998.
These problems are not uncommon in situations in which a national shipbuilding capacity has lain fallow for over a decade, and can serve as a note of caution to other countries embarking on similar projects. Canada, having not built a new major surface combatant since 1996, is discussing a 15-ship building program to be undertaken by Canadian yards. Australia is somewhat better off, having selected a proven Spanish design and begun construction after a shorter construction hiatus, but is very well-acquainted with the pitfalls of generating building capacity from scratch in the form of its troubled Collins class submarine.
The Used Hinge Doesn’t Rust
The price of maintaining a credible national capability for building any major defence platform, whether fighter aircraft, surface combatant, submarine or tank, is to use that capability. The consequences of occasional batch-ordering are that the skilled experts will leave or find new lines of work in the interim, skills and knowledge sets specific to military construction will be lost, the company will lose currency with the state of military technology including design and construction practices, facilities will have to be re-equipped, and no new generation of workers will have been in training with the necessary skills.
This doesn’t mean that a very high volume of orders is needed, just that the government in question resolve to keep a constant and predictable tempo of orders rather than ordering in batches every fifteen to twenty years. Ideally, this would mean one submarine or surface combatant every one-two years. While this may seem a financially burdensome commitment, there are definite compensating factors.
First of all, there is always a platform on the go with a complete complement of technologies. Upgrades, redesigns and even new classes are therefore not starting from scratch, reducing development costs. The yard will be current indesign tools, construction methods and safety features. With increased numbers, unit cost will go down as well. The cost of keeping old vessels in service while new units undergo prolonged testing would no longer be an issue, and the cost of fixing design and production problems discovered after launch will go down.
The Royal Navy used just such a procurement practice with their excellent line of postwar frigates. From wartime construction through to the tremendously successful Leander class frigate, there was both regular construction and design improvement, and while the conception of some of the early platforms was dubious, construction was relatively cheap and capabilities consistently improved throughout the Leander program.
As for submarines, the US Navy, without the fifteen-year hiatus in attack submarine construction of the Royal Navy, has suffered far fewer headaches with the Virginia class program, which followed directly on the heels of the Seawolf class. But this strategy isn’t only for superpowers.
Japan, which owns the finest conventional submarine force in the Pacific, has had a very consistent submarine construction schedule for decades. The design lineage of Japanese submarines goes back to the US Barbel class conventional submarines of the 1950s, but slow and steady improvement on that outline has generated quite impressive platforms. Most recently, the Soryu class is a fully modern Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarine. While the 20-year replacement cycle of Japanese subs may be a trifle brisk, it is also a sign of efficiency.
This consistent approach to procurement may still be out of the financial reach even of countries accustomed to regarding themselves as world powers. The problem is, it is the only approach that avoids the extra embarrassment, expense and danger that so many large procurements are likely to experience. Even this sketch has left out what used to be a crucial element of quality assurance and cost control: competition. There are few countries with the resources to fund two shipyards capable of delivering a submarine, and those that still have one tend to want to keep it, and so a full international competition is ruled out.
But the painful question becomes, if you can’t feed the dog and it’s too weak to catch foxes, isn’t it time to let it go? Of course, there are national industries, such as the French and German submarine industries, that survive on international orders. But the market is saturated for both submarines and surface combatants, and trying to break into it at this point is a doubtful enterprise. Perhaps it is time to admit that there really is no alternative to national specialisation in Europe.
It seems that the Astute does at least one thing well. In wargames with the US Navy, she took part in simulated battles with the Virginia-class USS New Mexico, and her commander claims to have been able to hold the new American sub on passive sonar at unheard-of ranges. Good news for the Astutes, though not unexpected- the Royal Navy has been raving about the performance of Thales’ towed array Sonar 2087 on the Type 23 frigates for some time, and so it isn’t much of a surprise that Sonar 2076 for submarines works just as well. Still, it is rather worrying for the Americans, given that the Virginias may be required to face ultra-quiet AIP submarines during their careers. It may even raise the question whether the ability to quiet the noise of a nuclear reactor, inherently greater than the noise of a conventional submarine on batteries, has plateaued.