The Astute class is the latest class of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) in service of the British Royal Navy. The class sets a new standard for the Royal Navy in terms of weapons load, communication facilities and stealth. The boats are being constructed by BAE Systems Maritime – Submarines at Barrow-in-Furness. Seven boats will be constructed. The first of class, Astute, was launched in 2007 and commissioned in 2010 and the second, Ambush, was launched on 6 January 2011 and commissioned on 1 March 2013. Astute was declared fully operational in May 2014, while both she and Ambush have sailed for their maiden deployments.
The Royal Navy has changed its submarine-employment strategy from the Cold War emphasis on anti-submarine warfare to the concept of "Maritime Contributions to Joint Operations." Approval for studies to define the "Batch 2 Trafalgar class" (what would become the Astute class) was given in June 1991. In July 1994 risk reduction studies were authorised in parallel with the formal bid phase of the project. On 17 March 1997, the Ministry of Defence announced that it would place a £2 billion order for three submarines and that they would be called the Astute class. On 26 March 1997 the contract was signed with GEC-Marconi for the first three boats: Astute, Ambush and Artful. These names were last given to Amphion-class submarines that entered service towards the end of World War II. GEC would build the submarines at its VSEL subsidiary (now BAE Systems Submarine Solutions).
Original plans were for seven boats of the Astute class to replace five Swiftsure-class submarines (Sovereign, Superb, Sceptre, Spartan, and Splendid) and the two oldest Trafalgar-class boats (Trafalgar and Turbulent). The Swiftsure class entered service between 1973 and 1977 and were entirely decommissioned by 2010, when only the first of the Astute class was coming into service. Trafalgar was decommissioned in December 2009, to be followed by Turbulent in 2011. An estimated 5,900 people are employed directly as a result of the project; 3,500 BAE Systems staff at Barrow and 2,400 other people around the UK.
As of August 2006 BAE Systems was negotiating for a contract to build another four Astute-class submarines (hulls four to seven). The fourth boat was ordered on 21 May 2007, to be called Audacious, and the names of the other hulls have been agreed as Agamemnon, Anson, and Ajax. On 15 September 2011 it was announced that hull 5 would now be named Anson. Upon the beginning of sea trials of Astute in November 2009, it was reported that long-lead items for hulls five and six have been ordered, including their nuclear reactor cores, and that the stated intention of the MoD was for a total of seven Astute-class submarines. On 25 March 2010, BAE Systems was given the go-ahead by the government to begin construction on hulls 5 and 6, being given a £300 million contract for the "initial build" of hull five and "long lead procurement activities" for boat six. In the same week the government re-affirmed their commitment to the construction of seven Astute-class submarines.
Work on the second and third submarines, Ambush and Artful, proceeded well with major milestones such as the closure of Ambush 's reactor compartment, demonstrating significant schedule advance compared with Astute. BAE Systems and the MoD have made efforts to reduce costs and achieved significant cost-cutting and productivity gains. A £580 million cost increase was agreed in 2007 due to maturing of the design requiring more materials, inflationary costs, and "some programme throughput assumptions at the Barrow site not being borne out." First-of-class HMS Astute was launched by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall on 8 June 2007.
The order of seven Astute-class boats was confirmed in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of October 2010. In December that year it was confirmed by the MoD that "early work" was under way on boats five and six.
On October 13, 2011, the fifth boat, Anson, was laid down at the Devonshire Dock Hall and is now under construction like boats three and four. On December 10, 2012 the MOD awarded BAE a £1.2 billion contract for work on Audacious. The MOD also confirmed on the same date a further £1.5 billion funding for submarines Anson, Agamemnon and Ajax. The MOD Defence Equipment Plan 2012 refers to 'the completion of the remainder of the seven class of Astute attack submarines'.
The boats of the Astute class are powered by a Rolls-Royce PWR2 (Core H) (a pressurised water) reactor and fitted with a pump-jet propulsor. The PWR2 reactor was developed for the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines. As a result the new submarines are about 30 per cent larger than previous British fleet submarines, which were powered by smaller-diameter reactors. Like all Royal Navy submarines, the bridge fin of the Astute-class boats is specially reinforced to allow surfacing through ice caps. These submarines can also be fitted with a dry deck shelter, which allows special forces (e.g. SBS) to deploy whilst the submarine is submerged. More than 39,000 acoustic tiles mask the vessel's sonar signature, giving the Astute class a better stealth quality than any other submarine previously operated by the Royal Navy. Speculation released by the media stated that by using advanced stealth technology Astute "makes less noise than a baby dolphin, making her as good as undetectable by enemy ships."
Astute is the second Royal Navy submarine class, after the Vanguard class, to have a bunk for each member of the ship's company, ending the practice of 'hot bunking', whereby two sailors on opposite watches shared the same bunk at different times. However, they have less mess-deck space than the Valiant-class submarine built 45 years earlier.
The Royal Navy announced a speed of 29 knots for the class, but it was reported in 2012 that this speed could not be reached in the trials due to a mismatch between the reactor and the turbine. In March 2014 the top speed requirement for Astute was met, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report.
In November 2012 The Guardian reported that there had been a serious leak that caused an emergency surfacing because a cap for a pipe was made of the wrong metal, even though the inventory claimed proper checks had been made, that there were problems with reactor monitoring instruments because the wrong grade of lead was used, and circuit boards had not been correctly fitted. The Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems confirmed the problems were being worked on. An MoD spokesman said "It is normal for first of class trials to identify areas where modifications are required and these are then incorporated into later vessels of the class."
Aground on Skye
On 22 October 2010, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that HMS Astute had "run into difficulties" off the Isle of Skye while on trials, after eyewitnesses reported the submarine had run aground a few miles from the Skye Bridge. There were no reports of injuries. The captain of the vessel elected to wait for tug assistance, rather than use the submarine's own power to clear the stern from the obstruction, to minimise the damage to the hull's anechoic tiles. A Royal Navy spokesperson said the vessel had been grounded on silt, and was re-floated at high tide. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency-chartered emergency tow vessel Anglian Prince was dispatched to the scene from Stornoway.
The submarine returned under her own power to Faslane, where the damage incurred was described as "minor". A Service Inquiry concluded the main cause of the grounding was not following navigation procedures combined with the watch officer not appreciating the proximity of danger.
On 27 October 2010, the Royal Navy announced that the captain of Astute, Commander Andy Coles, had been relieved of his command. In December 2010 it was announced that Commander Iain Breckenridge, who has previously commanded the submarine HMS Tireless, would take over command. On 11 December 2010, on her first day back at sea after the grounding incident, Astute had to return to port for repairs due to a problem with her steam plant.
On 8 April 2011, one naval officer was killed and another injured in a shooting on board Astute while berthed at Southampton docks. Southampton City Council's leader, chief executive, and mayor were on board at the time. During a changeover of armed guards, Able Seaman Ryan Donovan opened fire with an SA80 assault rifle in the submarine's control room, hitting two officers, before being overpowered by Southampton Council's leader, Royston Smith, a former RAF flight engineer, and chief executive Alistair Neill.
In the 48 hours before going on a guard duty, Donovan had drunk 20 pints of cider and lager, and spirits, leaving him well beyond the drink-drive limit when on duty. Heavy drinking before duties was common practice amongst the crew.
According to Smith:
"We were in the control room when someone entered and there was an exchange of words. He [the gunman] stepped out with another man and two shots were fired and then he entered the control room again and began shooting again... He had a magazine with 30 rounds in it so I took the view that someone had to stop him. I pushed him against the wall and we wrestled, then I pushed him into another wall which resulted in him going to the ground and I managed to get the weapon from him and threw it aside under a table. I shouted for someone to help as I held him down and my chief executive was the first to come, and he did a remarkable job of restraining him." - Royston Smith, BBC interview
The gunman was later arrested by Hampshire Constabulary officers. The dead officer was named as Lieutenant Commander Ian Molyneux, Astute 's weapons engineering officer. Donovan was charged with the murder of Molyneux and the attempted murder of Petty Officer Christopher Brown, Chief Petty Officer David McCoy, and Lieutenant Commander Christopher Hodge.
On 19 September 2011, at the Crown Court at Winchester, Donovan admitted the murder of Lieutenant Commander Molyneux and three counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and must serve a minimum of 25 years.
On 23 March 2012, Ian Molyneux, Royston Smith and Alistair Neill were awarded the George Medal for gallantry
On 14 May 2018, the UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the seventh Astute class submarine would be built and will be named HMS Agincourt
1. HMS Astute (S119) Commissioned 27th August 2010
2. HMS Ambush (S120) Commissioned 1st March 2013
3. HMS Artful (S121) Commissioned 18th March 2016
4. HMS Audacious (S122) Expected 2018
5. HMS Anson (S123) Expected 2020
6. HMS Agamemnon (S124) Expected 2022
7. HMS Agincourt (S125) Expected 2024
Class and type: Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarine
Displacement: 7,000 tonnes, surfaced; 7,400 tonnes, dived
Length: 97 m (318 ft)
Beam: 11.3 m (37 ft)
Draught: 10 m (33 ft)
Propulsion: Rolls-Royce PWR2 reactor (with full submarine life core), MTU 600 kilowatt diesel generators
Speed: 29+ knots (54 km/h) submerged (design)
Range: Unlimited, except by food supplies and maintenance requirements
Crew Complement: 98 officers and enlisted, capacity of 109 (all male)
Sensors and processing systems:
Thales Sonar 2076
Atlas DESO 25 echosounder
2 × Thales CM010 optronic masts
Raytheon Successor IFF
Armament:6 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes with stowage for up to 38 weapons:
Tomahawk Block IV land-attack missiles
Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes