Is the way forward for the UK’s hard-pressed Submarine Service a case of going back to the future and buying in German technology?

In 1910, the intrepid Captain Roger Keyes, who had as a young naval officer participated in operations against slave traders off east Africa and helped quell the notorious Boxer Rebellion in China, found himself in command of the Submarine Service of the Royal Navy.

A surface fleet outsider with no specific technical skills or even sea-going experience related to submarines, Keyes nonetheless delegated well. He also quickly assessed that development of Britain’s submarines was being hampered by the monopoly that Vickers held over construction of the vessels and provision of their equipment, including periscopes and engines.

Keyes went overseas for better periscopes and diesel engines and even bought in French and Italian submarine designs. The off-the-shelf engines and designs were not necessarily a success. The procurement of French and German retractable periscopes – soon copied and improved on by British firms – represented a huge step forward. Rather than a fixed scope on the outside of the hull – elevated via a knuckle pivot, with the submarine porpoising to poke it above the waves or withdraw it – the new style periscope could be extended and retracted mechanically from inside the submarine (which could keep a steady depth). Keyes’ efforts were not the first, nor would they be the last instances of the British fleet copying and improving on German technology.


An early A Class submarine of the Royal Navy, which did not have a German or French origin retractable periscope at the time (1903). Photo: Used by kind permission of BAE Systems.

The three prime protagonists in the undersea contest at the core of the Cold War – the USA, Russia and Britain – all based their 1950s and 1960s diesel-electric patrol submarines on advanced technology U-boats produced for the Nazi regime during WW2.

The Royal Navy also had to move into nuclear-powered submarines to stand a chance of competing, even in a minor way, with the immense efforts of the Soviet Union. Ironically, the massive nuclear submarine fleet Moscow built played a key role in bankrupting the USSR and handing victory to the West.

Today nuclear-powered submarines are more expensive and complex than ever – a bigger challenge than the Space Shuttle to manufacture – with the Royal Navy’s new Astute Class attack submarines costing between £1.6 billion and £747million each (they get cheaper the more you build). The latest comparable Russian vessels cost well in excess of that.

As a consequence, any nation without deep pockets (or a willingness to bypass state provision of Social Welfare and universal healthcare) finds it really hard to afford more than a few nuclear-powered submarines, if any.

In an age of economic austerity, with the UK’s Conservative government beginning its new term of office with an instant £500 million sliced off the defence budget, can the UK afford to stay in the business of nuclear-powered submarines? Does building just seven Astutes offer value for money in terms of global presence and operational capability?

There have been claims the Astutes are too slow to keep up with the new aircraft carriers they are meant to protect and have suffered from other technical problems, though the Navy insists the teething problems are being ironed out.


The Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine HMS Astute arrives at Naval Station Norfolk in the USA for combat exercises against an American attack boat. Photo: Todd A. Schaffer/US Navy.

At the moment – with the older generation Trafalgar Class submarines based at Devonport being decommissioned and the Astutes slow to come on line – the UK is lucky if it can get two attack submarines on deployment.

Yet there are a wide variety of jobs for British submarines to do around the world, including intelligence gathering, protecting the UK’s Trident submarines and hunting other vessels. Last year, at the Undersea Defence Technology (UDT 2014) conference in Liverpool, the current head of the Submarine Service, Rear Admiral Matt Parr, suggested modern navies are perhaps pushing their people too far and destroying their quality of life. It is no secret that fewer British boats are spending more (and longer) periods away from home and it is placing a huge strain on the home lives of the submariners.

Rear Admiral Parr, who in the 1990s commanded a Devonport-based submarine and is a former deputy boss of Plymouth-based Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST), last week told the UDT 2015 conference in Rotterdam there is increased demand for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Special Forces operations. Rear Admiral Parr revealed the Prime Minister himself decides the nature of modern British submarine operations.

Even so, there is a feeling that the current government is afflicted with incoherence in foreign and defence policy and it doesn’t really know what the Navy is for (or it wouldn’t cut defence spending, drive down warship numbers and make highly skilled sailors redundant).

With the strain on submariners and the mission portfolio for the smaller numbers of vessels as broad as ever, is it time for a revolutionary idea to be considered? Is it time to buy German again?

Having gone all-nuclear in the early 1990s, by abandoning diesel-electric ‘conventional’ submarines, might Britain be better off ditching the nukes and going back to the cheaper, greener and much-easier-to-build diesels?

Should it buy lots of U-boats? The Germans make excellent submarines that offer capabilities undreamed off during the Cold War. Their Type 212A U-boats are cutting edge and proven – quieter than a nuclear-powered submarine, small enough to more easily carry out Special Forces operations in shallow waters and with powerful submarine-detecting sonar. Their weapons load is impressive, though it does not currently include cruise missiles or Anti-Shipping Missiles (ASM). 


The new Type 212 U-boat U35 undergoing tests and trials. Photo: Björn Wilke/German Navy.


The Type 212 German submarine U32 surfacing. Photo: Björn Wilke/German Navy.

The Type 212A’s Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) means it can stay submerged (and hidden) for up to three weeks. It is capable of crossing the Atlantic without once surfacing, or even using its snorkel system, to take in fresh air and expel fumes. The Achilles Heel of previous generation conventional submarines was potential exposure to an enemy when expelling fumes or sucking in fresh air.

Each Type 212A costs 370 Euros (£260 million, around a third of the cost of a single Astute). If even bankrupt Greece can build a variant of the most modern U-boat (the Type 214 export version), could the Type 212A not be built at Devonport, the UK’s primary submarine refit yard? Babcock does still construct small surface warships, although at Appledore rather than in Plymouth, so why not conventional submarines? Submariners with long and deep experience of submarine operations will tell you that if the UK wants to remain a serious global player it does need the sheer power, huge endurance and reach of nuclear-powered attack submarines.

They are many times more capable and better armed than any diesel, the battleships of today. Why not save the Astutes for the long-range missions and use the U-boats closer to home and for specialist missions such as landing Special Forces?

That way submariners could be rotated through a less gruelling work routine and Britain would have the force levels necessary to counter the rising Russian threat and handle a lot more besides. This would include the job of training warships receiving ASW training with FOST, a task currently undertaken by the diesels of the German and Dutch navies. The new British U-boats could even be based at Devonport. It will have empty submarine berths once the last Trafalgar Class submarine has been decommissioned in 2022.


For more news and analysis of modern naval issues see WARSHIPS International Fleet Review . In addition to being the founding and current editor of WARSHIPS IFR, Iain Ballantyne is the author of the true-life thriller ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion), which tells the dramatic story of British submarines and submariners in the Cold War, including how the two sides in that long confrontation developed submarines from WW2 German technology.
An edited version of this article was published a commentary in the Western Morning News on June 15.



Hunter-killer submarine’s ‘iceberg collision’ is a case of Déjà vu

During the previous Cold War it was easier to cover up collisions at sea between submarines, but now, across the battleground of social media and online news reporting, it is far harder to keep a lid on things. In fact, the actual truth now comes in way behind the devastating offensive weapons of on-line satire and mythmaking.

DailyMailIcebergIn the latest so-called submarine collision incident the British have come off looking somewhat pompous (and lacking credibility) while the Russians look good. Nobody is asking the latter to provide any hard proof on the other side of the story.

It all blew up when news organisations in the UK published reports about Trafalgar Class hunter-killer submarine (SSN) HMS Talent returning home not long ago with a severely crumpled fin. The Devonport-based vessel also suffered the misfortune of a photographer loitering on the nearby shore with a very high power lens on his camera.

The Daily Mail’s take on the submarine collision claim. Via Daily Mail web site.

The Daily Mail hedged its bets by splashing a headline suggesting Talent suffered £500,000 worth of damage due to ‘floating ice’ while tracking Russian naval vessels.  Some experts have suggested the repair bill is likely to be far higher. Meanwhile, a less lurid (much shorter) yarn in The Daily Telegraph suggested ‘Surface wound: Sub has repairs.’

Russian TwitterIn Russia, Pravda had a fun time, publishing a cartoon showing Talent being held aloft by a sheepish looking, rather portly Royal Navy officer surrounded by circling Russian Navy submarine periscopes.

Score one for the Kremlin? One Russian Internet wag retweeted the Pravda cartoon while another mickey-taking twitterer scoffed: ‘The crew of " ice floes " was not injured.’ Other Russian tweets suggested the ‘ice floe’s’ operators were to receive medals.

Oh what fun they had: Russian social media reaction to the Talent ‘ice collision’ incident. Via Sputnik International.

And that is where the problem lies because, regardless of whether or not Talent really did crunch her fin on a Russian surface vessel (while taking a sneaky underwater look), have a brush with another submarine or, in fact, suffer a collision with ice, the UK Ministry of Defence has a history of covering things up by suggesting that it was ice what done it.  This time, on being quizzed by Russian media, a Ministry of Defence spokesperson reportedly observed rather haughtily: “where journalists found their information, it hardly corresponds with reality.”

Unidentified defence officials had earlier been ‘adamant’ when quizzed by the Daily Mail about Talent making contact with ‘floating ice’ rather than a Russian submarine. They would not say where or when the incident happened.

It would have been better to make no comment at all or just say the incident was caused ‘during training’. Another alternative would have been to provide the full story from the British side. The claim of ‘hitting ice’ (even if true in this case) is the submarine equivalent of crying wolf too many times. It has the opposite effect to that which is intended, because it has become a euphemism for a collision between two submarines. Sneering comments doubting the veracity of journalists’ work only stoke the fires, especially when there is a photograph to base the story on.

HMS Talent

The hard-working British hunter-killer submarine HMS Talent on a deployment in the warmer waters East of Suez, more than a year before her alleged collision with ‘ice’. Photo: US Navy.

The MoD was less than amused that my book ‘Hunter Killers’  included insider-based details of the two most serious incidents involving British submarines and ‘ice’ – in reality Soviet Navy nuclear submarines – namely HMS Warspite’s October 1968 coming together with an Echo II in the Barents Sea and HMS Sceptre’s scrape with a Delta Class ballistic missile boat (SSBN) in May 1981, also in northern waters.

In both cases, at the time, while photos like those of Talent with her bashed in fin were not published, the newspapers did carry stories about collisions with ice (which were over subsequent years debunked by sources in the West and Russia including people who were there). In both Warspite and Sceptre’s case there were attempts to make the damage less obvious before they were brought home to Barrow (Warspite) and Devonport (Sceptre) for major repairs. No such measures appeared to have been taken when Talent came back into Plymouth and cruised through the very public arena of the Sound on her way to Devonport. This might tend to suggest the culprit in this case was actually ice – nothing to hide here folks! Or was it just a double bluff?

Beyond all the points scoring of today on the social and news media battleground, in which the Kremlin deploys many different means to convey its propaganda and also spin stories to its advantage, whatever caused Talent’s damage must have been pretty scary for those involved. Both the submariners and the submarine will need careful rebuilding and handling from now on.

Such incidents were certainly extremely stressful for submariners of the old Cold War, engaged as they were in a deadly serious game on the most important front of that confrontation. Nuclear-powered submarines, some of them carrying nuclear weapons too, were trailing each other in very close proximity. The stakes were incredibly high for both the men and their nations.

Back in an era where MPs seemed to be more grown up about the topics they debated, there were numerous questions asked in Parliament about the potential dangers of a nuclear incident arising from such an accidental clash.

The fact that the submariners’ job was dangerous was certainly no secret and MPs on several occasions in the 1980s expressed concern the risks were becoming too great. A 1986 episode involving the British submarine HMS Splendid made a big splash in UK newspapers, provoking further heated discussion in Parliament.  On Christmas Eve, the Swiftsure Class boat had encountered a Soviet Typhoon SSBN in the Barents Sea, momentarily making physical contact, with the towed array sonar of the British vessel allegedly torn away.

In 2015, with Parliament broken up for the General Election, there will be no similar questions asked in the House of Commons. Knowledge of naval affairs is, anyway, very thin on the ground and hard questions are unlikely to be asked due to a shortage of what could be termed ‘naval intellect’ (or front line maritime experience) among MPs. As a former Secretary of State for Defence termed it recently ‘there are no votes in defence’ so the majority of politicians in the UK are just not interested. They should be, for it is vitally important today’s submariners get the backing they need and that their dangerous missions carry on. The alternative is to allow the Russians to continue exploiting UK and NATO capability gaps at sea. Gaps created by the unwise defence cuts of British politicians (who seem keen to make even more in the next Parliament).

Let’s not forget that back in the old Cold War it wasn’t just the British and Russians who jousted with each other – and sometimes suffered a collision – for the Americans were also in there. Like the Russians, but unlike the British, the Americans suffered actual losses of nuclear vessels (the Soviets several and the USA two, but none of them in collision with opposition submarines).


During the Cold War it happened to the Russians too:  Starboard bow view of a badly damaged Soviet Victor Class nuclear-powered submarine while alongside an auxiliary tender.  The submarine is believed to have collided with a merchant vessel. Photo: US DoD.

There is no such thing as a non-serious collision between dived submarines but figures for the exact number of undersea bumps are hard to come by. In the mid-1970s a report to Congress by the US Navy admitted to nine such incidents in waters close to the Soviet Union between 1965 and 1975.  For their part the Russians confessed to seven crashes involving their submarines and those of the US Navy in the period 1968 – 1987.  The British won’t officially admit to any.

Anyway, if it really was a collision between submarines, somebody ought to ask the Russians how they allowed a British hunter-killer to get that close to them? It shows pretty poor Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) skills on the Russian side that the first they knew of a Royal Navy SSN being on their tail was the crunch of it hitting their vessel. Never mind Talent, what scale of damage has been caused to the Russian submarine (or even surface ship) allegedly involved?

Cockiness on social media and via partisan news outlets is one thing, but the truth remains that American, if not British, submarines are potentially out there silently and stealthily monitoring every move the Russians make.

And in nearly all cases the Kremlin’s boats will have no idea they are there.

Or perhaps it was ice, after all and the Russian Navy has nothing to worry about?

The main question that should be posed in the UK today, with one of its few operational SSNs out of commission due to a damaged fin, is: When are force levels are going to be raised again (to meet the revived Russian threat)?

At the height of the Cold War the Royal Navy operated four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), nine hunter-killers and 18 diesels in front line service, a total of 31 submarines of all kinds. Today there are still four SSBNs, but no diesels and a nominal seven SSNs (though in reality there are probably only three ready for world-wide operations, if you’re lucky).

T boat in ice

The real deal: A Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine of the same type as HMS Talent operating in the Arctic amid the ice in 2007. Photo: US Navy.

Regardless of how capable a new Astute Class submarine is, it can only ever be in one place at a time. Closing with the opposition – ready to take assertive action if needed – requires operations in the same patch of sea. Or is the UK going to be forced into an entirely passive role due to its lack of units? Will it let the threat come knocking on its front door, rather than trail the potential foe and deter the danger at a safer distance, in the Far North? That would be a reversal of the forward deployed, aggressive policy that won the Cold War and a fatal error with tough customers like the Russians. Give them an inch and they will take the whole territory.

Regardless of whether or not it was ice that caused Talent’s damage, there are now so few British submarines that any lack of availability severely affects NATO and the UK’s ability to defend itself against increasingly assertive Russian behaviour at sea. That is a cold hard fact. Somebody in whatever government comes to power next month (May) needs to get to grips with it, or abdicate rule of the northern oceans, and possibly waters around the UK, to the Kremlin.

To read the exciting inside story of collisions between submarines, and many other dramatic episodes across the span of the Cold War under the sea, buy ‘Hunter Killers’ by Iain Ballantyne (Orion Books, £10.99, paperback). It is available direct from the publisher or via Amazon and other retailers.

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.

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