Through open-source observations, it is clear that none of the Royal Navy’s six SSNs are at sea at the time of writing. As part of normal maintenance cycles, several ships can be expected to be in port, but it is unusual for the entire force to be idle.
HMS Triumph recently returned to Devonport after more than three months of patrol, probably in the eastern Mediterranean. Previously, HMS Audacious spent 403 days outside the UK, mostly in the same region (crew rotated during deployment), arriving at Devonport in March 2023. The patrols were likely demanding extremely useful to the cause of NATO, and the crews are to be congratulated.
Unfortunately, as Admiral Radakin admitted to the Defense Select Committee on 5 July, Audacious is now stranded at Devonport awaiting maintenance because she does not have a suitable dry dock.
It is difficult to account for the exact status of the other 4 ships as this type of information is not in the public domain, but HMS Astute, Ambush, Artful and Anson have all been seen together at Faslane this week. After spending more than 500 days out of action following her participation in CSG21, HMS Astute was briefly put to sea in July.
The newest ship, HMS Anson, first arrived at Faslane in February and would be expected to be operational once sea trials and commissioning are complete. Still, neither she nor HMS Artful appears to have been active for several months. HMS Ambush has been inactive for more than a year.
At least one ship will likely be deployed soon, possibly in support of the upcoming CSG23 deployment, and the unusual situation of all SSNs being grounded at the same time may be short-lived. It’s not clear if it’s poor materiel, support infrastructure issues, crew shortages, or a combination of all of these, but if all goes well, more could be expected from these relatively new ships. The Royal Navy launched Project RESOLUTION in 2021 to increase submarines’ availability, but progress appears to be limited.
In Devonport, the modernization works on pier number 10 are already well advanced to comply with the standards necessary for SSBN and SSN’s future reconditioning and maintenance operations. This is a major project that will not be completed for some time, as the dock must be completely reconfigured and reinforced to comply with increasingly strict regulations on nuclear installations.
When completed, it will alleviate a major bottleneck in submarine support, as there is currently only the ship lift at Faslane and berth number 15 at Devonport, where SSNs can be lifted out of the water. Older SSBNs have shoplift priority, and Devonport Dock Number 9 is constantly busy with major Vanguard class repairs. Dock number 14 is slowly being prepared for the removal of decommissioned submarines. Even dock number 15 is not available now, as it is being converted to support ships from the Trafalgar class to the Astute class, hence the delay in the start of work on the Audacious.
Part of the great advantage of owning submarines is the uncertainty it causes in the minds of adversaries; knowing that a single ship is at sea can be enough to exert a deterrent effect, especially since the range and speed of SSNs mean it can pose a threat over a huge area. Obviously, it is not desirable to have the entire force in port simultaneously if it can be avoided, especially when there is no shortage of tasks that they might be performing.
One of the SSNs is usually necessary to “delouse” nuclear deterrence submarines (SSBN), especially when starting or ending a patrol and transiting through more confined areas. Sanitizing the waters surrounding the ship to ensure that unwanted intruders do not track it has been an ongoing task of the Royal Navy’s SSNs since deterrence patrols began in the late 1960s. Given the sensitivity of their firms, it is not a job that can be “outsourced” to foreign allies.
A sustained submarine presence in the eastern Mediterranean would obviously be ideal, as this is a key maritime theater in terms of monitoring the Russian presence near Syria and the Black Sea. Reports of high levels of Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic and near the UK are non-stop and now is a particularly unfortunate time to lack the means to counter it. The best way to find a submarine is usually with another submarine. The UK contribution to policing this threat should consist of more than just a single frigate on Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS) duty or a few P-8A Poseidon sorties.
It is bad enough that the Submarine Service has been reduced so much, but its effectiveness is clearly being undermined by the inability to get the boats out to sea. Major upgrades will be needed if the Royal Navy is to deliver on AUKUS promises of more frequent submarine visits to Australia and a ship permanently based in Perth, Western Australia, from 2027.