62. One capability which is well able to operate
despite a high air warfare threat is the nuclear powered attack
submarine (SSN). Admiral West described them as 'in war-fighting
they are the tops really, they are fantastic'.
But they also have an important role in other circumstances:
they can carry special forces, they can
insert them and no one ever know they have been there and get
them back again, they can carry out SIGINTs in places where people
have not a clue that is going on, and we have some really good
coups, in terms of anti-terrorist stuff because of that.
63. The existing fleet, however, is ageing, and its
replacementthe Astute classhas been subject to substantial,
and well-documented, delays and cost overruns. Future Capabilities
We judge in the light of the reduced threat that
an attack submarine fleet of 8 SSNs will be sufficient to meet
the full range of tasks.
Admiral West did not seem so sure:
I think the figure from the SDR was 10 SSNs.
We went from 12 to 10. From that ten, how many of those on average
am I able to guarantee running? The figure is probably about six.
My worry with going down to eight was: how many of those can I
guarantee running? As I say, they are getting older and how can
I be sure that I will have the numbers I need for the sorts of
operations that are laid down in the Defence Planning Guide,
and that requires actually six SSNs, five or six, depending on
circumstances, and with eight of these old, ageing ones I am concerned.
These are strong words from the man responsible for
ensuring that operational commanders have the naval forces they
require. The attack submarine fleet is planned to reduce to eight
vessels by the end of 2008. The first Astute is currently due
to be delivered to the Royal Navy in 2009, but will then need
to be worked up before it can be deployed. We believe that
Admiral West's concerns must be addressed. If there is a risk
of further delays to the bringing into operational service of
the Astute submarines, serious consideration should be given to
postponing the withdrawal from service of HMS Superb and Trafalgar.