One of the new Astute submarines already in service
A high-level Royal Navy document has revealed plans showing the seventh Astute class submarine could be pushed back by five years or “cancelled”, adding that any change in the programme could pose a “significant impact on capability”.
It will mean having only six of the £1.6bn “hunter-killers” instead of eight, the number originally identified as necessary to effectively protect Britain’s Trident-carrying submarines and safeguard our shores from Russian predators.
In a briefing document written just six weeks ago at Navy Command, Portsmouth, senior commanders outlined the two options, saying: “In the long term the delay (or cancellation) will ease the pressure on manning, but we must not be seen to welcome this situation. Any loss of capability will impact on operations.”
Another part of the document states bluntly: “To delay (or cancel) of AST 7 will have a significant impact capability.”
The plans emerge a week after MPs warned against plans to axe Britain’s two amphibious vessels, and the knock-on loss of up to 2,000 Royal Marines, as part of plans to plug the budget deficit.
Astute submarines are said to be the quietest in the world and boast Tomahawk missiles capable of hitting targets 754 miles away with pinpoint precision. Their sonar is so powerful it can detect ships leaving harbour in New York City from a listening point below the waters of the English Channel, and it can reman underwear for 25 years, only docking to replenish food supplies.
But Russia is not standing still. In November Vladimir Putin strengthened his Northern Fleet with the first of five new Borei ll class submarines. The Knyaz Vladimir boasts improved electronics, can dive up to 400 metres and lower sound levels that help make it virtually undetectable.
Last night former first Sea Lord Admiral Lord West said: ”These submarines are crucial to defend our deterrent, crucial to monitor Russian attack submarines which are now being quite aggressive, crucial for intelligence gathering and crucial to prevent Russian vessels accessing the Atlantic if they want to cause us harm.
“Our original operational requirement was to have eight. Obviously, this news is a bad thing operationally, and unfortunate for the nation.”
It could be delayed by five years or cancelled, according to a high-level Naval document
Work has already begun on HMS Ajax, which was expected to enter service in 2025.
However, if it is built at all, its earliest “In Service Date” would now be 2030, says the document.
Of the seven Astute submarines commissioned three – HMS Astute, HMS Ambush and HMS Artful – are already in service while the fourth, HMS Audacious, recently completed its first dive and is set to join the fleet this year.
But the programme has been beset by delays and problems.
Last week a report by the National Audit Office outlined a £5bn- £21bn black hole in the MoD’s equipment plan, warning that it risked being destabilised because of the size and complexity of nuclear-related projects. Costs for the Dreadnought – the new replacement for Trident-Carrying Vanguard submarines – and Astute projects had risen by £941m in just one year, it said.
Tellingly it warned: “Spending on equipment can only be made affordable by reducing the scope of projects, delaying them, or cancelling them altogether.”
MPs have called for defence spending to be increased to 3 per cent of GDP,
Suspicions about the fate of the seventh Astute submarine were expressed last month by John Woodcock, MP for Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, where HMS Ajax is being built.
When he challenged Gavin Williamson about fears it could be scrapped, however, the defence secretary replied that it was “too early on the process for me to be able to comment on that.”
Reacting to the disclosure of the document last night Mr Woodcock said; “This secret document explains why Gavin Williamson was unable to guarantee it would be built when I asked him about it in parliament.
Gavin Williamson said it was too early in the process for him to comment
“Losing boat seven would throw the submarine programme into chaos and be devastating for the Royal Navy’s capacity to defend surface ships and the deterrent from an ever more aggressive Russian threat.
He added “And it is simply not credible to suggest you could put an Astute boat on hold and then come back to it years later. Any delay would be its deatknell, because finely tuned supply chains can’t just be rebooted.”
“We cannot allow critically important security decisions to be made on wonky assumptions like this. It’s time to get this issue out in the open and allow experts to spell out to the Treasury bean counters how much damage they would do to the defence of the realm if they refuse to let the MoD sign off on this vital vessel.”
An MoD spokesman said there was “no change to our plans to buy seven Astute boats” but did not deny the possibility of a delay.