New nuclear submarines delayed by technical problems

The UK government’s £11 billion programme to deliver seven new nuclear-powered submarines to the Clyde has been delayed for 17 months because of “emergent technical issues”.

The Ministry of Defence has told MPs that the delivery of the next submarine, Audacious, to the Faslane naval base near Helensburgh has been postponed from August 2019 to January 2021. This will delay subsequent boats and may lead to increased costs in future, the MoD warned.

Critics say the delay is likely to have knock-on effects on the planned introduction of new nuclear-armed Dreadnought submarines. It could also force ageing Trafalgar-class nuclear-powered submarines to be kept in service for longer, they argue.

The MoD insists it is committed to delivering the new Astute-class attack submarines. But it refuses to say anything about problems dogging their delivery “for operational security reasons”.

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In 2015 the UK government promised a programme of seven new Astute-class submarines, driven by nuclear reactors and armed with conventional weapons. They are being built by the arms company, BAE Systems, at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria.

The first three – Astute, Ambush and Artful – are in service and based at Faslane. But the schedules for the remaining four – Audacious, Anson, Agamemnon and Agincourt – have now slipped.

The revelation came in a letter from the MoD’s permanent secretary, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. The letter was sent on 16 October, and then posted online by the MoD.

The MoD had previously promised to deliver Audacious in August 2019. “This date has been breached, following emergent technical issues within the build programme,” wrote Lovegrove.

“The emergent issues have required unplanned repair and rework to facilitate the submarine proceeding forward with the normal commissioning process. The operational handover for Audacious is now planned for January 2021.”

According to Lovegrove, the delays had not currently caused the cost of the overall programme to overrun because of back-up contingency funding. “However, there has been a knock-on schedule delay to Anson and further schedule challenges with the remaining build,” he added.

“Consequently, the level of schedule risk provision is being reviewed and, longer term, it may be necessary to seek to increase this.”

Lovegrove argued that the MoD should be allowed to complete Audacious as it was almost finished, with 96 per cent of the total cost already spent. “The key repair has successfully completed and Audacious has re-entered the normal commissioning process for a new build nuclear submarine,” he said.

“As with any programme of this complexity, there remains a susceptibility to low probability, high impact events and MoD staff continue to work with BAE Systems to ensure these are effectively mitigated.”

He concluded: “The Astute programme is essential to the maintenance of continuous at sea deterrence and the nation’s strategic nuclear capability. The continued build of Audacious is considered essential as the ageing Trafalgar class submarines are decommissioned.”

The three Trafalgar-class nuclear-powered submarines still in service are Talent, Trenchant and Triumph. They were launched between 1986 and 1991.

There are also four Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles at Faslane. They are due to be replaced by a new generation of Dreadnought submarines from the 2030s.

The MoD is likely to face questions from MPs on the delay to the Astute programme. “The Public Accounts Committee has expressed concerns for a number of years over the management of the defence nuclear programme and of delays in particular projects,” the committee chair, Meg Hillier MP, told The Ferret.

“We will ask the Ministry of Defence for an update on this 17 month delay to one of the submarines in the Astute programme when we question them about their latest 10 year equipment plan report next month.”

The MoD’s 10 year plan covering 2019-2029 is due to be published on 7 November, and will include the Astute programme. On the same day the UK National Audit Office is due to publish an analysis of whether the plan is affordable or not, and later in the month the Public Accounts Committee will hear evidence.

The Nuclear Information Service, which monitors the MoD nuclear activities, highlighted the implications for other submarines. “This is yet another indication that there will be delays in building the nuclear armed Dreadnought submarines,” said the group’s director, David Cullen.

“The Astute budget has gone up by £2.5 billion and they are years behind schedule, meaning even more money is being spent keeping the Trafalgar-class submarines in the water.”

He added: “The MoD used to claim the problems which have dogged the Astute class were just teething issues, but we are now four submarines into the programme. How have things gone so wrong they need to spend 17 months extra repairing a submarine they haven’t even finished yet?”

Cullen authored a report published in April saying that the UK nuclear weapons programme was facing 21 technical and logistic risks. It warned that the Astute programme could run into further delays.

The Astute programme has been beset by repeated delays and costs overruns in the past. The House of Commons Defence Committee said in 2009 that it was 57 months late and more than 50 per cent over budget.

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was not surprised by the latest delay. “Given the MoD’s track record, it is likely that the eventual cost of the Astute submarine programme will overrun,” said campaign chair, Arthur West.

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The Ministry of Defence declined to comment further on the emergent technical issues “for operational security reasons”.

An MoD spokesperson said: “We are committed to delivering seven Astute-class submarines as set out in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Audacious is expected to commence sea trials by the end of this year.”

BAE Systems stressed that issues weren’t unusual. “The design and build of a nuclear powered submarine is one of the world’s most complex engineering challenges, so it’s not uncommon for issues to emerge during the build and test and commissioning phase,” said a company spokesperson.

“Our priority and focus, working alongside the submarine’s crew and our enterprise partners, is to ensure Audacious is ready for sea trials this year. With three Astute submarines in service and the remaining four at various stages of build, we’re committed and fully focused on delivering the seven-boat programme to the Royal Navy.”

The letter from the Ministry of Defence

Meg Hillier Astute AOA (Text)

Photos thanks to Ministry of Defence under Open Government Licence 1.0.

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