Dangerous Cold War days rise again at Exeter Phoenix

Thanks to a great crew of engineers for inviting me onto the menu at the Exeter Phoenix to headline Wednesday night's event – they did a wonderful job and it was packed out!  Daunting to see all those faces young and old – a superb generational mix – and hopefully I kept them awake with ‘Hunter Killers: From Hitler’s Fall to Putin’s Rise’. It was amusing for me as a 70s and 80s kid to take the stage at the same venue a couple of nights after Alexei Sayle – 'allo John, got a new talk? I used to really enjoy his Sunday Mirror column… I wonder which event did more business at the Phoenix bar?

Exeter Phoenix

This way for the IMechE ‘Hunter Killers’ talk: An exterior view of the Exeter Phoenix. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

It was all in aid of an expansion drive by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in Devon and Cornwall, trying to bust the myth that the South West of England is just cream teas and pasties and sunburned tourists flocking to ‘the English Riviera’. It is in fact home to dynamic engineering enterprises, some of them (such as Devonport Dockyard) host to work that is of strategic importance in the defence of the UK, supporting tens of thousands of jobs across the region and further afield. Much of the engineering work in the South West also has global significance.

Certainly Will Newby and his Devon and Cornwall Area Committee of IMechE pushed out the boat (pun intended) with support from other young IMechE members – they were all energetic and enthusiastic, but in a cool way. Will did a stand-up job (pun intended, again) as MC for the Exeter Phoenix event.

After my bit, Rob Forsyth, retired Royal Navy submarine captain and a onetime ‘Teacher’ on the prestigious 'Perisher' command course, provided insight into his naval adventures. Rob’s exploits feature in a major way in my book ‘Hunter Killers’ , hence his presence. Upon leaving the Royal Navy, Rob became a director of Westland Group plc, so another engineering angle there. Rob Forsyth's segment had better jokes than mine I suspect. I especially enjoyed his asides on runs ashore in New York following the Cuban Missile Crisis and how he made history by taking female sailors to sea for a few days in his nuclear-powered submarine during the late 1970s.

For more on all that and also how Rob and his crew rode out a terrifying storm in HMS Alliance (his first command in the early 1970s) and a few years later, (while captain of HMS Sceptre) how he pursued a Russian aircraft carrier across the Mediterranean – read the book! Rob’s exploits when training future submarine captains as ‘Teacher’ on Perisher are, of course, also in there. It’s worth noting that he has been a keen supporter of preserving HMS Alliance at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum (RNSM) for many years. These days a visit to HMS Alliance is a multi-sensory immersive experience.

Yankee Class submarine explosion

Dangerous days: As touched on in the Exeter talk, the Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-219 in late 1986, with smoke issuing from a ruptured missile silo aft of her fin. It was one of the most dangerous episodes in the Cold War when disaster was only narrowly avoided. Photo: US DoD. 

The other speaker at the Phoenix was Mike Homer, Managing Director of Submarines for Babcock Marine and Technology, who explained how the world’s most complicated machines (submarines) are maintained at HMNB Devonport. As someone who reported in depth on the epic ‘battle of the dockyards’ for the multi-billion pound Trident submarine refit contract in the 1990s, it was fascinating to hear how the dockyard has evolved since.

Also met some great people at the book signing element afterwards – thanks also owed to them for showing an interest in my efforts to bring the hidden history of the Cold War to light.  Meeting members of generations not even born during those (sometimes) terrifying years was most enjoyable and I was impressed with their interest and knowledge.  I hope ‘Hunter Killers’ entertains and educates them further…and in a thrilling style.

As I stressed during the talk, it is important we know more about what really went on under the sea during those dangerous days. Knowing at least some of what actually happened between the late 1940s and 1991 will, hopefully, help us to ensure cataclysmic mistakes are not made as a new East-West confrontation intensifies. That, after all, is a major (and deeply serious) challenge confronting the younger generations, not least my own children.

Trafalgar class submarine

Still holding the line in the defence of Britain: The nuclear-powered submarine HMS Triumph returning to Devonport from a deployment. Photo: Royal Navy.

The Best Answer to Russian submarines intruding in the UK’s backyard is… a hunter-killer submarine

It is with reluctance that I cast myself as ‘outraged of somewhere’ or ‘disgusted of another place’ and write to a national newspaper. I am not, after all (yet) a crusty old Colonel Blimp type character, fond of firing off a blunderbuss of outrage from my winged armchair by a crackling fire. Sometimes, though, you read a commentary or news report in a paper and cannot help but launch something at the relevant letters page. Such was the case with Con Coughlin’s commentary on UK defence matters, published in the Daily Telegraph on March 2. It issued a warning against further defence cutbacks and was entitled ‘US fears that Britain’s defence cuts will diminish Army on world stage’, the usual land-centric headline to be expected from the Daily Telegraph.

In his commentary Coughlin rightly highlighted a recently exposed gap in the UK’s maritime defences. He wrote: ‘For example, following the Coalition’s decision to scrap the RAF’s Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, we no longer have the ability to track the activities of Russian nuclear attack submarines [SSNs] in the North Sea. A simple, cost-effective replacement would be to purchase the Boeing P8 Poseidon, with similar capabilities, which the RAF estimates would cost around £200 million a year – a reasonable investment, you might think, given the state of tensions between London and Moscow.’

Aside from quibbling about whether or not the vulnerability is in the North Sea – comparatively shallow and not the prime operational area of Russian nukes (that’s the Atlantic and off the main British submarine base on the Clyde) – the idea that an airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability will fill the gap is contentious. Hence my letter to the Editor of the Daily Telegraph:


Nobody would suggest that a Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) is not an important layer of defence capability (and one that Britain sorely lacks thanks to the UK government getting rid of the Nimrod MPA in 2010). In leading maritime nations it is the Navy that operates such aircraft to ensure they are properly integrated with other maritime assets to gain the best defence.

It is not, though, the primary – nor by any means the most effective – ASW capability to safeguard territorial waters. As my letter published in the Daily Telegraph – all credit to them for using it to balance the debate – points out, Royal Navy frigates, helicopters and submarines provide the most effective means of countering intruding submarines. It is just that in today’s RN they are now too few in number and do not even have the back-up of MPAs.

A Cold War submarine captain I know once suggested to me that he feels the only way a MPA could find a properly operated SSN was if it bumped into it. “MPA radar is a good deterrent, which makes you keep your head down,” he explained, “but the only time one SNN I commanded was detected by a sonobuoy was when we passed about 20 feet away from it and the contact was fleeting.”

Cold War-era British MPAs fared better against the Russians, however. “Nimrods used to get away with it when tracking earlier Soviet submarines,” the SSN captain also observed, “but they were pretty hopeless against a Victor III. Against an Akula, I would have given them hardly any chance at all.”


A Cold War era artist’s depiction of a Russian submarine prowling the deep – the Kremlin's submarines are back nosing around UK waters. Image: US DoD. 

While MPA sensor technology will have advanced greatly since the Cold War, nothing can compete with a nuclear-powered submarine fitted with powerful sonar and other sensors when it comes to finding, trailing and – should it ever be needed – destroying an intruding (potentially hostile) submarine.

That is not to say aircraft can’t be useful. During WW2, when utilised properly they were almost as effective as ASW escort groups of warships and even more so when the Allies turned the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic. That was against diesel-electric submarines, which usually preferred to make passage to their hunting grounds on the surface and also liked to attack convoys surfaced. A nuclear-powered attack submarine – submerged throughout a deployment – is not so easy to find, deter or destroy using aircraft.

Where MPAs can also prove decisive is in working with SSNs, feeding reconnaissance data and other intelligence to friendly hunter-killer submarines. As detailed in my book ‘Hunter Killers’ MPAs were important in the hunt for the Soviet carrier Kiev undertaken by HMS Sceptre (during late 1970s), the latter then under the command of Commander Rob Forsyth. In the end the Kiev got away, because the contemporary communications links could not feed the information to Sceptre quickly enough and she was a single submarine operating across the entire Mediterranean.

Back then, as now, when it comes to the undersea warfare game, the only sure way of effectively protecting your home waters against a potentially hostile submarine is to send out an SSN, with the fallback of other capabilities to close the net if need be.

P8 Poseidon Torpedo Drop
As US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon drops an exercise torpedo

The UK should invest in a new MPA and the Royal Navy should operate it. The Boeing P-8 Poseidon is one possibility, though the candidate list should also include the Kawasaki P-1, offered by Japan.

HMS Sceptre

The best answer to intruding Russian submarines: A British nuclear-powered attack submarine, in this case the Cold War veteran boat HMS Sceptre (here seen paying off in 2010). Photo: Nigel Andrews.

Hunter Killers – From Hitler’s Fall To Putin’s Rise

Exeter Lecture

Preparing to headline an event at Exeter on March 11 is causing me to ponder how the post-WW2 face-off beneath the waves caused both sides to initially adapt Nazi submarine technology.

Looking across the span of the Cold War it seems to me that it was unique. For it was the first time in history that submarine evolution had received a sustained and intensive investment of industrial resources, brainpower and national treasure, lasting decades rather than just a short burst of activity.

Prior to the late 1940s, interest in creating ever more lethal and efficient submarines had been intermittent.In those earlier eras it was related to a military-technical need that lasted for a short period only. Opposing sides would seek to find a radical means of gaining the edge on each other. This was the case all the way from the Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars of the 1600s, through the Napoleonic Wars to the American Civil War and even during WW1 and WW2. As soon as the wars ended so did much of the interest, and investment in, submarine warfare technology.

During the Exeter event I will aim to explain that a white-hot submarine arms race drove NATO and the Russians to enter a dangerous game of nuclear cat-and-mouse where a single mistake could have spelled catastrophe.

I will aim to conclude with a look at how a resurgent Russia is once more sending its submarines out to confront the West. It strikes me that today, with Putin's Russia investing billions in nuclear-powered submarines – and his navy becoming ever more daring as it faces down the West at sea – a new game is afoot and threatens to potentially become just as dangerous as the Cold War.

China is also pouring billions into submarines, creating a similar rivalry on the other side of the world.

We live in interesting, and increasingly risky, times…

Anyone interested in coming along to the event – and I am one of three speakers though the event is headlined by ‘Hunter Killers’ – should contact the organizers, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Full details of my book 'Hunter Killers' here 

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