A bad day at the office – perspective on the HMS Ambush collision

On 20th July 2016, HMS Ambush collided with the merchant ship MV Andreas, just off Gibraltar. At the time Ambush was conducting the ‘Perisher’ Submarine Command Course (SCC) and was under the command of ‘Teacher’ Cdr Justin Codd. After a lengthy independent Service Inquiry, Cdr Codd’s court-martial took place in Portsmouth this week, inevitably attended by a flurry of negative publicity. Here we take an all-around look at the incident.

The incident

On the day of the collision, HMS Ambush was under the control of a student practising controlling the submarine at periscope depth and observing shipping movements. The court-martial found that Cdr Codd was focused on teaching other students and had not made adequate observations of the surface picture himself, assuming the student was safe to proceed. Avoiding action to due to the presence of a small yacht, took Ambush onto a collision course with the merchant ship.

Fin of an Astute class boat

How its supposed to look… close up of the fin of an Astute class boat. This gives an idea of the size and complexity of the vessel, the fin alone weighs 65 tons. One of the Optronic masts is visible with the electronic support measures (ESM) antenna is mounted above. Note the openings for a number of masts, the conning position, portable compass mount and the sensor array below.

The Ambush suffered a glancing blow as she passed under the merchant ship, with the impact crushing the upper forward part of the fin. One might speculate that the initial contact with the side of the ship pitched the submarine’s bow upward so the transducer on the fore-casing impacted on the bottom of the ships hull. The conning position on the fin was completely destroyed but the most expensive casualty was probably the sensor array mounted below. This is possibly a high-frequency sonar used for under-ice navigation and obstacle avoidance. The Intercept Array Transducer (Hull Outfit 51R) on the forecasing is mounted in a free-flooding, carbon fibre dome and is optimised for detecting active sonar transmissions from warships. This may have suffered some damage as the protective dome was destroyed. Details of the Astute boats are highly classified but the vessel does have many separate external sensors that give them possibly the most effective sonar suite in the world today.

The pictures look dramatic but the repair cost a relatively modest £2.1 million. At no time did the damage to the submarine create any danger to the crew or vital systems, including the nuclear reactor as the very tough pressure hull was untouched. Fortunately, it appears the various masts in the fin escaped damage and the main periscope could still be raised an lowered. The bigger immediate concern was the loss of an available SSN for several months. Ambush would probably have been scheduled to complete a patrol somewhere after Perisher course concluded but instead, after temporary repairs in Gibraltar, returned to Scotland on 12th August and she was still under repair alongside in Faslane well into 2017. For a short period in 2017 no RN attack submarines were at sea at all, and the unexpected loss of Ambush only exacerbated the RN’s chronic shortage of boats.

Adapting to new optronic periscopes

Instead of traditional optical periscopes, the Astute class boats are fitted with two CM010 non-hull-penetrating optronic masts. The new electric periscope provides imagery to screens in the control room and has the tactical advantage that it and can be raised, quickly rotated through 360º and then lowered so as to minimise the time the periscope is exposed to possible detection. The recorded high-resolution imagery can be analysed at leisure with the submarine safely out of sight. The Astute class have two masts, one combining a high-definition colour television (HDCTV) camera and a thermal imager, the other has an HDCTV and image intensification camera. The CM010 also features 3-axis stabilisation which gives a much more stable and clear picture, even if the boat is pitching or rolling when at periscope depth in rough seas.

The first optronic periscope used by the RN was trialled aboard HMS Trenchant in 1998 but, for the majority of submariners commanders, they will have spent most of their careers using traditional periscopes. Although the new optronic mast clearly offers great advantages, to realise these benefits and operate safely requires a new mindset for the command, especially in confined waters. Evidence given at the court-martial suggests that procedures involving the use of this new technology may have partially have contributed to the accident. Cdr Codd had been involved in writing the manual for the use of optronic periscopes in RN submarines but after the collision, he has been assisting in developing revised procedures.

Many will wonder how a boat with sensors that can potentially detect vessels hundreds of miles away, managed to collide with a ship in broad daylight. When the periscope is not raised a submarine is blind and must rely on sonar alone. In busy shallow waters with high ambient noise, the sonar picture may become confused. Students are taught to use the periscope as infrequently as possible but in this case, the movement of the merchant ship went unobserved, clearly human error.

How to remain the best of the best

Without discussing the full details of the SMCC, it is safe to say the course is arduous for both the students and ‘Teacher’. The course is run over about 4 months and includes a significant time ashore using simulators. It is the final ‘cockfight’ phase where the student is put in command of a submarine at sea and is expected to perform very demanding tasks requiring exceptional situational awareness and quick decision making under pressure. The course was near to completion when the accident occurred and fatigue may have been a factor.

Only the very best submarine commanders get selected to become Teacher, Perisher is also recognised as one of the toughest command courses run by any navy and is foundational to the high reputation of the RN submarine service. Cdr Codd had an outstanding career until the time of the incident and this was recognised by the court. “You have, save for this incident, an exemplary record. It was more in the nature of a momentary aberration than a careless attitude,” said Judge Advocate Robert Hill.

HMS Ambush’s captain Cdr Alan Daveney was also on board at the time of the accident. When conducting Perisher, the CO is in a delicate position, still ultimately responsible for the boat but delegating control to ‘Teacher’ who is the same rank but has more seniority and experience. Theoretically, he could intervene if he was in the control room at the time and considered the boat to be in danger. It is interesting to note that Cdr Daveny has not been court-martialled, although the incident will not be career enhancing.

Learning from mistakes

Despite the embarrassment for the navy and a £2.1million repair bill, Cdr Codd was not sacked as teacher, severely reprimanded or dismissed the service which has happened to officers in similar cases in the past. His punishment will be a loss of a year’s seniority and this will have a small impact on his pay. This is not a case of the RN being over-lenient but the court recognising a good man made a momentary mistake, he was found not to have deliberately ignored an obvious threat or taken any unjustified risk.

A Commander in the RN (OF-4) typically earns between £70-80k depending on length of service, but all submariners get extra pay which may add at least another 10% on top. Considering the incredible responsibility carried by an officer in command of a nuclear submarine, pay levels are very modest in comparison with similarly responsible such jobs in the civilian world. The nature of naval appointments cycle means that typically after two years or so as one down from God in command of a submarine or warship, most officers will suddenly find themselves ashore behind a desk and some will never go to sea again. This can lead to frustration and many good officers leave the navy at this point. Having invested enormous expense in training and having attained vast experience, the navy is reluctant to lose men like Cdr Codd and continue to utilise his talents. He will have to live with this blemish on his career for the rest of his life but has persevered and continues to serve. In the world of aviation, a culture of openness and transparency surrounding accidents and near-misses has helped improve flight safety.

Punishing people for making mistakes by sacking them, does not always improve matters. In cases where there is not gross negligence or misconduct, it is perhaps better to build on the personal experience gained to improve procedures.

Pushing the limits

The RN submarine service has not achieved such a reputation for success without a measure of aggression and willingness to take risks. Modern simulators enhance training and can reduce the amount of time needed at sea but there is no substitute for the real thing. The RN’s reduced fleet leaves little option but to conduct training using a submarine worth more than £1Billion and ties up one of the 2 or 3 available boats. Smaller conventional boats would perhaps be a less risky and more economical platform for submariner training but obtaining some for the RN is unrealistic when even getting 7 Astute boats is now in doubt. The SMCC is run in conjunction with the Dutch Navy (officers from other NATO navies can also take the course) and sometimes conducted aboard their small conventional Walrus class boats.

Perisher students must continue to be pushed and take risks operating in confined and congested waters. The possibility of accidents remains inherent in all naval operations and preparation for combat requires constant and realistic practice. Training accidents are experienced across the board, for example, the RAF has suffered at least 50 non-combat related losses of Tornado jets since 1983. The British Army suffered 88 fatalities during training exercises between 2000 – 2015. Applying the lessons and efforts to eliminate future mistakes must be a high priority but forces training will always be a difficult balance between safety and realism.

Leaving Gibraltar after temporary repairs


Main images by kind permission: David Parody.


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/a-bad-day-at-the-office-perspective-on-the-hms-ambush-collision/


Portrait of an active fleet – the Royal Navy in the last 7 days

In the past few years, the mainstream media and assorted critics have taken great delight in reporting how the Royal Navy fleet is “broken down”, “stuck in port” or has somehow been relegated to “a coastal defence force”. A snapshot of the fleet in early February 2017 shows that despite its many problems, the RN currently has vessels deployed in most of the world’s oceans. 

The RN may be threadbare by its historical standards but it is worth remembering that only the US, and possibly the Chinese, navy exceed this level of activity. Each vessel and unit deployed represents a very long logistic chain of people conducting planning, training, maintenance etc. The RN leadership attracts criticism from many quarters but the level of impact being achieved, given its severely constrained manpower and resources, reflects well on its management. Next time a larger than usual number of ships are alongside for Christmas or Summer leave periods, it would be helpful to remember what the RN is able to deliver for the majority of the time. This photo essay is far from exhaustive but attempts to show some of the activity of the RN in the past 7 days.

PACIFIC. HMS Sutherland visited The British Island Territory of Diego Garcia last week, the first stop on her tour of the Pacific region. She is now on her way to Australia. A single warship has limited military significance but her presence is useful for defence diplomacy, reinforcing friendships with our allies and a reminder to adversaries how far the RN can reach.

INDIAN OCEAN / PACIFIC. HMS Sutherland visited The British Island Territory of Diego Garcia last week, the first stop on her tour of the Pacific region. She is now on her way to Australia. A single warship has limited military significance but her presence is useful for defence diplomacy, reinforcing friendships with our allies and a reminder to adversaries how far the RN can reach.

BLACK SEA. SNMG2 Flagship HMS Duncan prepares to berth ahead of HMS Enterprise in Constanta, Romania. The RN has increased its participation in NATO groups in recent years, this is Duncan’s second spell as SNMG2 flagship in the past 12 months. When relieved by HMS Bulwark, she will deploy to the Gulf region. (Photo: NATO MARCOM)

BLACK SEA. Romanian minesweeper ROS Lt. Lupu Dinescu prepares to raft up with SNMCG2 (Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 2) flagship HMS Enterprise. (Photo: NATO MARCOM)

HMS- Echo Montenegro

ADRIATIC SEA: HMS Echo visited the Port of Bar, Montenegro, she is currently assigned to the EUNAVFOR operation SOPHIA migration patrols. ( image @defence_mne )

ATLANTIC / MEDITERRANEAN. RFA Wave Knight delivered a large quantity of fuel oil to Gibraltar ahead of the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth. The carrier is not yet ready to conduct replenishment at sea. (Photo: David Sanchez / @86_dmjs)

HMS Somerset Gibraltar

ATLANTIC / MEDITERRANEAN. HMS Somerset provided escort for HMS Queen Elizabeth when she visited Gibraltar 9th-12th February

MEDITERRANEAN. HMS Albion departs Gibraltar after brief visit to transfer stores and personnel. She is on her way to relieve HMS Duncan as flagship of SNMG 2. (Photo: @hms_albion)

ATLANTIC / MEDITERRANEAN. Although not yet a fully operational warship, HMS Queen Elizabeth attracted much attention as she made her first overseas visit to Gibraltar. The “aircraft carrier with no aircraft” has 6 helicopters on board and has now headed out into the Atlantic for several weeks of flying trials in challenging weather. (Photo: @Robert1969Rob )

NORWAY. Commander Bond RN, CO 845 Naval Air Squadron on the insertion yomp during the Cold Weather Survival Course (CWSC) as part of Ex Nordic Eagle, held around Bardufoss.

NORWAY. Merlin Mk3A of 845 NAS supporting exercise Nordic Eagle.

ATLANTIC. Towed Array sonar frigate HMS Westminster has been operating in the waters around Northern Scotland as the assigned Fleet Ready Escort. Surveillance above and below the waves is a vital task that has to be conducted in all weathers. There are sometimes two or more RN frigates performing this increasingly important role, which is every bit as important as overseas deployments. HMS Montrose has also been deployed in northern waters, visiting Stavanger and using the NATO weapon and sensor range in Norway.

NORTH SEA. HMS Mersey returns to Portsmouth Naval Base on 12th Feb after a successful patrol of UK waters protecting our fish stocks. (image: @CaptainMFP )

BALTIC. HMS Cattistock is serving with NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 and visited Oslo, Norway this weekend.

ARABIAN SEA. RFA Cardigan Bay is permanently deployed in the Gulf region, based in Bahrain and supporting coalition warships including the 4 RN minehunters; currently HMS Blyth, HMS Ledbury, HMS Bangor and HMS Middleton. (Photo @HMSBangor)

ARABIAN SEA. RFA Fort Rosalie conducting a replenishment at sea with USNS Matthew Perry, part of the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group (CSG-9) on operation Inherent Resolve – the fight against ISIS. ASaC Sea Kings from 849 Naval Air Squadron, flying from RFA Fort Rosalie also provide airborne surveillance in the region.

RFA Mounts Bay

CARRIBEAN SEA. RFA Mounts Bay remains on a long deployment in the Caribbean region, currently visiting Bridgetown, Barbados.

ENGLISH CHANNEL. RFA Tidespring conducts RAS with Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad during Operational Sea Training in the SW exercise areas last week. The 4 Tide-class tankers are at various stages on their way to join the fleet and will give the RN the largest number of support ships possessed by any European navy, by a considerable margin. The strength of the RFA is foundational to the RN’s ability to operate around the globe. (Photo: @matt_bromage)

HMS Clyde

SOUTH ATLANTIC. HMS Clyde is permanently assigned to the Falkland Islands as guardship.

ANTARCTICA. HMS Protector delivers supplies and equipment to the British Antarctic Survey base at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula at the end of January. She continues to support the BAS, currently, she is in the Weddell Sea.

Astute class submarine

At least 2 Astute or Trafalgar class submarines are probably at sea right now

Stormy seas

This is the Vanguard class submarine currently on patrol and carrying the nation’s nuclear deterrent.

from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/portrait-of-an-active-fleet-the-royal-navy-in-the-last-7-days/

Reflecting on the demise of HMS Ocean

HMS Ocean made her final entry into Devonport today and will be alongside until decommissioned in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen on 31st March. The impending loss of HMS Ocean has been known about for very a long time and has attracted considerable comment and opposition.

Difficult choices

Lack of manpower dictated that keeping HMS Ocean in service was never an option for the RN, once it was decided that HMS Prince of Wales would join the fleet after all. We have always argued that HMS Ocean should have been retained in reserve pending a similar replacement. Depending on who you listen to, some say this is not a viable option because its too expensive to keep modern warships in reserve, better to sell in running condition and get a few quid for her now than suffer the inevitable deterioration that occurs when a ship is inactive. Others argue we could maintain her in usable condition as a low-readiness asset without great expense. As an example of how it can be done, HMS Bulwark is currently non-operational in Devonport but has a skeleton crew and is being maintained in a much better state than her sister Albion when she was kept in mothballs between 2011-15. Albion required a two and a half year refit to bring her back to fighting condition. (She deployed this week to replace HMS Duncan as flagship of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 in the Meditteranean). Despite the very uncertain future for the two LPDs, the RN is making the best use of them and underlining the value of amphibious forces.

Second-hand bargain?

Sources in Brazil say they have already agreed to purchase Ocean for £84 Million, although the MoD has so far refused to confirm this. If true, the Brazilians will probably be getting a bargain but it is unclear if the sale includes the powerful Artisan radar system, the three Phalanx mounts and assorted other removable equipment needed to make her an effective warship. There are those who claim HMS Ocean is a “worn out old heap” but this not really the case. She was built to mostly commercial design standards with a nominal 20-year hull life which has been reached. However the ship had a £90M refit 2015-16 and despite some mechanical issues, she has life left in her. There are plenty of other warships that have, and will have to, serve the RN far beyond their intended lifespan. With more regional interests, the Brazilian navy is unlikely to run her as hard, or deploy her as far as the RN would, so will probably be able to keep her going for another 10 years. Like almost any type of kit, the running costs will increase with age and spares may harder to find.

While some corners were cut in the construction of Ocean, what can be said is that the taxpayer has obtained great value for money from a large ship that cost less than £200M (around the cost of a contemporary frigate). Procurement done this way perhaps should be considered more often for specialist ships. In contrast, the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (QEC) take the complete opposite approach, designed to the highest warship survivability standards and intended to last 50 years, if properly maintained and upgraded.

The world’s largest LPH

Excitement grows as HMS Queen Elizabeth makes continuous good progress towards initial operating capability. The QEC will assume the LPH role of HMS Ocean, with the second vessel, HMS Prince of Wales taking the lead in developing this capability. We still strongly contend that using the carriers in this way is unsound, inviting risk and putting too many eggs in one basket. Doubtless the RN will somehow manage to make the best of what they have but should not have been put in this position.

As would be expected, the construction of PoW has benefited from the lessons learned from QE. The internal fitting out of PoW, while she was in dry dock, was more extensive and she weighed 3,000 tonnes more than her older sister at the same point when she was floated out into the basin in late December.

The 2015 SDSR allocated £60 million to modify the QEC for the Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) role. HMS Prince of Wales is being fitted with additional communications systems for amphibious operations, improved accommodation for the embarked military force and additional ammunition storage. The number of helicopters operating spots is being examined (Potentially 10 Merlins could be launched simultaneously). It should be noted the QEC has no capacity to embark or land vehicles and heavy equipment in the modest way that Ocean could. The RN is reliant on the LPDs for this. (The Bay class auxiliary landing ships do carry a single landing craft (LCU), compared to the 4 that the LPDs can operate.)

Scheduled to be decommissioned at the end of March, her CO stated recently that Ocean will be maintained at 5 days notice to deploy, for the next few weeks at least. A planned farewell tour of UK ports appears to have been scrubbed from the programme and Ocean has in effect, come home early. The government doubtless does not want to draw attention the controversial loss of another warship. The RN has at least managed to secure the presence of Her Majesty at the decommissioning ceremony, a fitting farewell and tribute to those who have served on this fine ship on operations around the globe.



from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/reflecting-on-the-demise-of-hms-ocean/

In photos: HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in Gibraltar

HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in Gibraltar this morning for her first overseas visit. Here are some images of her arrival and operations since leaving Portsmouth last week.

Escorted by HMS Somerset

Looking really purposeful…

Photo: David Sanchez / @86_dmjs

Photo: David Sanchez / @86_dmjs

image: Moses Anahory / @MAnahory

Approaching Gibraltar


Image: Boatshed Gibraltar / @boatshedgib

“It is a great privilege for me to be bringing our new aircraft carrier into Gibraltar for her first ever overseas port visit. It’s the perfect stop for HMS Queen Elizabeth as we conduct our flying trials in the waters off the Iberian Peninsula. Our visit also underlines the incredibly rich history and special relationship the Royal Navy and Royal Marines share with Gibraltar. I am personally very lucky to have visited the Rock many times in my naval career, but well over a quarter of my sailors have not yet experienced what, for the Royal Navy, is something of an iconic run ashore.” Captain Jerry Kyd, CO, HMS Queen Elizabeth


Wildcat from HMS Somerset providing force protection lands at RAF Gibraltar. Photo: David Sanchez / @86_dmjs

As the ship made her way in heavy seas towards Gibraltar, the fifty FOST personnel on board have been testing the ship’s company’s response to fire, flood and casualties

While at Anchor in Mounts Bay on the 6th February, Merlins from 820 Naval Air Squadron and MOD Boscombe Down landed on to carry out flying trials.

Merlin goes down on the aft lift

The first 27 Squadron RAF Chinook, configured for trials, was brought down on the aircraft lift and into the hangar. It’s a tight fit but the QEC hangars and lifts were designed to handle this aircraft from the outset. The non-folding rotors are very unlikely to be addressed unless the RN can find some money and persuade the RAF to marinise a few aircraft. The operation looks precarious but the decks have non-slip coating and wheels are locked with brakes and chocks while the aircraft and rotors are secured by multiple lashings. It is interesting to speculate what would be the highest sea state in which this evolution could be safely undertaken.

From this angle it does not look like such a tight fit – with some clearance to spare

The Chinook in the hangar. On the Invincibles and HMS Ocean, this would only have been possible by removing the blades entirely, a lengthy and difficult procedure. Although non-folding blades are far from ideal, with careful arrangement other aircraft can be stowed around or even partially under the rotors in the very large hangar.

4 Merlins and 2 Chinooks in the hangar

4 Merlins and 2 Chinooks in the hangar

from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/in-photos-hms-queen-elizabeth-arrives-in-gibraltar/

One of our submarine orders is missing

There is deepening concern that the funds for the completion of the seventh and final Astute class submarine are not available. Failure to build this vessel would not only be damaging to the Barrow construction yard and its supply chain, but also to the protection of the UK, at a time when the undersea threat is increasing.

Until very recently government ministers talked confidently about the delivery of the final 4 Astute boats. (The first 3 have commissioned into the RN.) “Four Astute class and the first Dreadnought class submarines are currently in production.” (Defence Procurement Minister, Harriet Baldwin, 25 April 2017). Despite the stated plan for 7 boats, the emerging crisis in defence budget has raised concern that the £1.64 bn need to complete the 7th boat cannot be found. Barrow MP, John Woodcock asked the Defence Secretary on 25th January in Parliament to confirm that the boat would be funded. The answer was less than convincing. Although sympathetic, Gavin Williamson said it was “too early in the [Modernising Defence Programme] process to comment”.

The NAO report on MoD finances delivered last week says the ten-year equipment plan is somewhere between £4.9 bn and £20.8 bn short of commitments already made. The general lack of funds and potential cuts at the MoD are not a surprise but the axing of a submarine would be a big shock. The NAO discovered the full £1.4Bn cost of the Type 31e programme had not been accounted for, now it appears the funding for a submarine has not be put aside. This is indicative of the problems enveloping the MoD and why the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond who, as Defence Secretary, had a large hand in creating this situation, must provide a bail-out to the department.

Initial work on the 7th Astute class submarine actually started back in March 2014. This submarine has never been formally been allocated a name, although many have speculated she will be called HMS Ajax. In 2015 the National Audit Office reported on progress with Ajax to be “the fabrication of main sub units within the new assembly shop with the production of the gear case and assembly of the main machinery raft delivered to baseline.” It is known that contracts for some of the very long-lead items for Ajax have been already been purchased, including the reactor core, number H13 (from Rolls Royce, 2012) and heat exchangers (from DCNS, 2013).

Interminable delay and rising costs

“Subject to negotiations with the contractor, they [HMS Agamemnon and HMS Ajax] are expected to be handed over to the Royal Navy in 2023 and 2024 respectively.” (Armed Forces Minister, Lord Howe, November 2016). Since boats 4-6 are averaging 9 years from keel-laying to commissioning, Ajax should have had her keel laid before the end of 2015 in order the achieve her previously announced in-service date of March 2024 (to replace the last Trafalgar class boat HMS Triumph). With a programme of this kind, it would normally be expected that build times would be reduced as lessons were learned, but there has been surprisingly little improvement the time needed to construct an Astute.

The delays and issues with the first 3 Astute boats are well documented and can largely be attributed to loss of specialist skills after the Vanguard submarines were completed. There is much less transparency about why boats 4-7 have continued to experience delays. For the MoD and BAE Systems, difficulties and mistakes can be conveniently hidden behind the extra secrecy that surrounds the submarine and nuclear enterprise. Even the National Audit Office has been unable to fully understand and analyse the financial problems of the programme.

Astute class submarine build programme

HMS Astute commissioned in 2010 and if boat 7 is actually completed, will commission sometime after 2024 at best. It will have taken more than 14 years deliver the 7 Astute boats. This contrasts very poorly with the 7 preceding Trafalgar class boats, delivered with few problems over an 8 year period. Defence inflation runs ahead of baseline inflation adding dramatically to the cost of the later boats as delays have mounted. The first boat, HMS Astute cost around £1.2Bn. After very protracted negotiations, the £1.4Bn contract to build boat 6, HMS Agamemnon was signed with BAE Systems on 18 the April 2017. In 2015 boat 7 was forecast to cost £1.64Bn. The recent report on MoD finances by the NAO said that the cost of the final 4 Astute boats had risen by an alarming £365M in the last year. Rumours of serious flaws with the reactors and propulsion systems of the Astutes have circulated for some time but it had been promised that these issues had been resolved after boat 3. There are clearly significant further difficulties that are swallowing money and being kept from the public.

The last thing we should cut

As we have highlighted many times, the Royal Navy’s attack submarines (SSNs) are arguably Britain’s single most important conventional asset. The list of tasks for our SSNs grows longer. These include; protecting the deterrent submarine, trailing increasing numbers of Russian submarines close to the UK and in the North Atlantic, providing the only Tomahawk missile launch platform and gathering sensitive intelligence that often goes straight to the desk of the Prime Minister. It is our submarines that are by far the best deterrent to our adversaries on the high seas, representing the greatest threat to warships and other submarines. 7 boats is already an inadequate number and a further reduction would be a gross error. It would also be a colossal waste of money, as millions of pounds have already been spent on the initial stages of construction.

The House of Commons Defence Select Committee recently heard evidence about the importance of the Arctic and North Atlantic to the security of the UK. When asked what are the main challenges for the RN in that area today, Professor Eric Grove said “maintaining the operational availability of a very limited number of submarines. There are not enough SSNs, there should be at least 8… when they work the Astute class submarines are magnificent, they have best ASW potential of any submarine in the world”. In current circumstances, Britain should be considering ways to increase the submarine force rather than reduce it, even if it must come at the expense of other capabilities.

If the Treasury fails to reduce the budgetary pressures on the MoD and tough choices are forced on the RN, then however reluctantly, cuts to the amphibious capability or the size of the F-35 buy must be made before reducing our submarine fleet. Without the capability to dominate the undersea domain, carrier strike or amphibious operations incur increasing risk.

Alarm that the boat will not be completed may yet prove to be unwarranted, although delayed delivery is now unavoidable, we call on government to formally name the 7th boat and sign the contract for her construction as a matter or urgency.

The unquestionable importance of attack submarines means this should be done now, abandoning or delaying boat 7 should not even be an option for consideration in the 3 – 6 month defence review process currently underway.


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/one-of-our-submarine-orders-is-missing/

HMS Queen Elizabeth sails for training, flight trials and Gibraltar

HMS Queen Elizabeth sails from Portsmouth today for around 6-8 weeks. During this voyage, she will conduct Operational Sea Training and head into the Eastern Atlantic to commence, what will be the first of many flying trials, beginning with the Merlin helicopter.

Since commissioning on 7th December, the ship has been alongside conducting further engineering work and the minor leak on the stern seals that was the cause of such media hysteria before Christmas has been replaced. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance and their contractors are expected to continue snagging and final work on the ship for up to 6 months beyond the commissioning date.

SAT (Air)

While still in Portsmouth, a Merlin Mk2, ‘Dolphin 14’ from 820 Naval Air Squadron landed on board for two days in mid-January to conduct Sea Acceptance Trials (Air) which tested that the systems on the flight deck and in the hangar designed to support embarked were working correctly. The aircraft was connected to electrical supplies and the telebrief system which allows non-wireless communication with the ship before take off.  Refuelling arrangements were also tested and firefighting and rescue crews took the opportunity to rehearse emergency drills, damage control and fuel spillage procedures with a real aircraft. Taken below the Merlin was lashed down in the mid-section of the hangar with the fire-curtains lowered. This completion of this short trial gives confidence that the ship is ready and safe to operate aircraft at sea.

Merlin Mk2 Helicopter Hangar HMS Queen Elizabeth

The first aircraft taken into the vast hangar. The Merlin brought down on the forward aircraft lift is moved by the by the Remote Aircraft Mover (RAM) mini tractor.


A specialist team from FOST has been on board for some time starting to compile the unique Queen Elizabeth class training syllabus for a new class of ship that is very much larger than anything else there’s been in the fleet for a long time. For the first 2 weeks, the ship is likely to operate in the Western Approaches as the FOST staff focus on ensuring the ship’s company is fully competent in safety and survival procedures. Fire, flood, casualty and evacuation exercises are likely to be the main focus, the warfare elements that usually comprise a large part of a FOST period will be conducted at a later date. Further Sea training periods are scheduled for next year and beyond as more aircraft are embarked and the ship becomes more ‘warlike’, before achieving initial operating capability in 2020.


With sea training completed, the focus will be on conducting First of Class Rotary Wing (FOCRW) trials. QinetiQ and military test pilots from the Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron (RWTES) based at MoD Boscombe Down, will fly Merlins out to the ship. The ship and the aircraft are fitted with sensors and instruments to determine the sea states, roll, pitch and wind limits within which it is safe for the three Merlin variants to operate from the Queen Elizabeth class. Data from these repetitive trials will be used to compile the Ship Helicopter Operating Limitations (SHOL) clearances for the Merlin. Every aircraft type has to be tested and certified for each class of ship it may fly from, to ensure the limits of safe operation are understood. In time, the QEC will be required to conduct trials with many other types including Wildcat, Chinook, Apache and the F-35B Lightning II. The Eastern Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay should provide a variety of testing weather conditions for the flying and test the ship in higher sea states than have been experienced so far. This round of trials is likely to only involve 2 or 3 Merlin aircraft, a full Squadron (820 NAS) will embark for the first time in mid-2018.


Although not yet confirmed, HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to visit Gibraltar for fuel, stores and a brief rest period at some point during the trials period. The ships programme remains fluid and the timing of visit depends on the progress of the flight trials but the ship can probably be expected sometime in late February or early March. The Rock is a vital staging point and logistical support hub with connections to the Royal Navy going back centuries. QE can expect a big welcome in Gibraltar and will provide an iconic photo opportunity. The visit will also be a helpful reminder to the Spanish they would do better to improve relations with post-Brexit Britain, instead of making repeated futile incursions into the waters of the territory. There are considerable numbers of junior sailors for whom QE is their first ship, and this will be their first foreign run-ashore. (Invergordon does not count) Few sailors have a bad word to say about the Rock and it’s sure to be memorable for everyone. Expect the QEC to be regular visitors to the base for many decades to come.


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/hms-queen-elizabeth-sails-for-training-flight-trials-and-gibraltar/

Understanding and responding to the Russian naval threat

Russian naval activity is now at its highest levels since the Cold War. This threat posed to Britain and NATO is often counter-balanced by those who say that the Russian Navy is actually in decline, hampered by budget problems and shipyards struggling to deliver new vessels. With the head of the British Army publicly admitting this week that we are ill-matched to counter the Russian threat on land, it is also instructive to consider what threat they pose at sea.

Head of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Korolev stated that in 2016 their submarine fleet had spent more than 3,000 days at sea and this figure will keep rising for the foreseeable future. Of particular concern to the RN, are submarine penetrations, either close by or within UK territorial waters and attempts to track and record the acoustic signature of Trident submarines.“The Russians are operating all over the Atlantic, they are also operating closer to our shores.” says NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “Russian submarine incursions are stress-testing our military, political and media response… it is a challenge we must take seriously, our values & way of life is being challenged… access to the sea is crucial to our prosperity” (Colonel John Andreas Olsen, NATO representative giving evidence to the Commons Defence Committee, 24th Jan 2018).

The Russian Northern Fleet is the most important and its activities are of most interest to the RN, in particular, its submarines. Its order of battle in 2018 is 8 x SSBNs, 17 x SSN / SSGNs, 6 x SSKs and several mysterious nuclear-powered ‘special purpose’ boats. Availability is hard to assess, but assuming 25-30% are deployed, there are probably around 6 Northen Fleet attack boats at large at any given time. 13 submarines have been added to the Russian Navy’s order of battle since 2014. Just a few of them are new construction, most are formerly inactive, but newly upgraded late Soviet-era boats.

The Russian surface fleet is also an odd mix of large and very old Soviet-era vessels and small modern combatants. On paper at least, the capital ships of the Northern fleet comprise 1 aircraft carrier, 1 nuclear-powered battle cruiser, 1 cruiser and 7 large destroyers. All of these vessels were designed in the 1970s and laid down in the 1980s. Some have undergone lengthy modernisations and, despite their age, are powerful combatants. For example The Kirov class Battle Cruisers Pyotr Veliky is already capable of launching 20 P-700  ‘Shipwreck’ supersonic anti-ship missiles. Her sister ship Admiral Nakhimov is completing a very slow refit but should emerge sometime after 2020 capable of launching the potentially far more lethal 3M22 Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missiles. It is planned the Oscar class ‘carrier-killer’ SSGNs will also be upgraded to fire new generation missiles and are a long-range threat to surface ships that are difficult to counter.

The dilapidated aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ and battlecruiser ‘Pyotr Velikiy’ escorted through the English Channel by HMS St Albans, January 2017. Russian warship transits of the Channel and the North Sea are an obvious parade of Russian power to which the British media often over-reacts, while submarine activity is a much greater problem. These large but ageing vessels constructed in the Soviet era offer Putin highly visible status symbols but are an expensive drain on resources that could be spent on modern platforms.

Putin has given priority to nuclear weapons and development of their delivery platforms. Three of the eight planned Borei class SSBNs are in operational and the initial problems with their Bulava SLBMs appear to have been overcome. The Russians also retain nuclear-tipped torpedoes and cruise missiles in their naval inventory, although it is unknown if and when they are deployed. It was revealed in 2015 the Russian are developing the Status-6 (NATO reporting name ‘Kanyon’) nuclear-armed UUV which can be launched from a torpedo tube. Having a range of more than 6,000 miles, it is designed to attack ports and coastal areas by creating a tsunami and contaminating the area with radioactive cobalt-60. This an exceptionally dangerous and hard to counter weapon, immune to Western missile defence systems.

The network of undersea cables which carries the majority of internet traffic critical to our economy now offers the Russians another hybrid warfare opportunity to exploit. The Russian navy has at least 9 ‘special purpose submarines’ and several ‘oceanographic research ships’ capable of interference with subsea cables. This kind of activity was carried out by both sides in the Cold War but in the days when data carried by this network was a fraction of what it is today. Russian vessels have been observed operating near to these cables on many occasions and interference operations by their submarines are even more difficult to detect or deter. Only be increased surveillance, which requires more maritime assets, can this activity be prevented.

Yantar is a modern Russian spy ship that has been observed operating near subsea cables. She is equipped with 2 deep-diving mini-submarines and her missions may include cable cutting, cable tapping, recovery of sensitive equipment and other underwater intelligence missions.

Assessing naval strength is not simply a matter of counting numbers of ships and submarines. The quality of the platforms and their capabilities are what is important. Making such assessments is complex and many elements are highly classified, but in general terms, the majority of their fleet is old, but partially or fully modernised. Russians vessels tend to be solidly constructed, more heavily armed than NATO equivalents and benefit from industry skilled and developing anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems. The less obvious quality of personnel training, propulsion systems, sensors, electronics and general situational awareness are probably inferior to NATO in many areas.

The limitations on Russian naval ambition

Publicly the Russian state has announced it intends to design and construct very large and ambitious warship classes. The c 90,000 ton Project 23000E Shtorm aircraft carrier, the 17,550 ton Project 23560 Lider class cruiser and the 24,000 ton Lavina class assault ships. Fortunately for NATO, the Russian economy and shipyard infrastructure is very unlikely to be able to deliver such ships, and must be seen as something of a fantasy fleet.

The Russian navy has a total of 24 major surface combatants but only 3 frigates of the Admiral Grigorovich class were laid down after the end of the Cold War. A few modern Steregushchiy class corvettes and smaller Admiral Gorshkov class frigates have also been built, along with several icebreakers, research ships and intelligence gatherers. Submarine construction is slightly more healthy and in theory, Russia can produce more submarines per year than the US. While the USN initiates a new submarine design every decade or two, Russian submarine designers continuously develop new classes. Recent financial problems have resulted in priority being given to exporting Kilo-class conventional submarines as a generator of foreign currency.

The backbone of the Russian navy is the Akula, Sierra, Victor III and Oscar class attack submarines. All of these, once impressive, platforms are Soviet designs and most have passed their 30th birthday. The only replacement SSNs coming out of Russian yards are the Yassen class, of which just two of the planned eight have been delivered since the first was laid down in 1993. The Yassens are known to be sophisticated and stealthy boats, almost on a par with NATO’s best. Lack of funds, skilled labour and supply chain issues are restricting delivery schedules and there will be a huge gap in capability when the older generation of SSNs reach the end of their useful lives. As the RN fully appreciates, old submarines become costly to maintain and spend increasing time alongside being maintained. In the past, Russia has succumbed to the temptation to send old or poorly maintained boats to sea, with an increased risk of accidents.

The best Soviet SSN design – the Victor III. Impressive, stealthy but approaching 30 years old, with few replacements under construction.

Putin’s domestic popularity is increased by his ‘strong man’ actions in Ukraine and Syria but the resulting Western sanctions and the loss of access to important shipyards and factories in Ukraine have severely hampered the efforts of the Russian Navy to modernise. Constrained by internal corruption and sanctions, the Russian economy is stagnant and very dependent on oil exports. There is little hope oil prices will recover as Russia eclipsed by the USA as the world’s largest fossil fuel producer and the world transitions to greater use of renewables. In simple terms, Russia’s infrastructure, economy and declining population cannot sustain its superpower ambitions. This inherent weakness is also a danger to peace and insecurity may propel Putin to further aggression.

In broad terms, the Russian navy is in a long-term decline, quite unable to replace its existing capital ships or nuclear submarines fast enough. Despite these problems, it will remain a powerful threat to NATO at sea, especially during next 10 -15 years.

Faced with the reality that their capital ships may never be replaced or believing such vessel to be inherently vulnerable, the Russians may adopt  a pragmatic new asymmetric naval strategy, based on small heavily armed combatants and conventional submarines with long-range cruise missiles (The conflict in Syria has provided a convenient showcase for this new capability, both as a show of strength and for export sales purposes).

How to respond?

Britain has never traditionally been a land power, even at the peak of the Cold War the British Army of the Rhine (numbering 55,000 troops that could be reinforced by a further 100,000 from Britain in a crisis) together with all the other NATO land forces were overmatched by the Soviets. The scale forces on both sides are very much smaller today but the Russian superiority remains. On paper, NATO may have more soldiers, but regular large-scale battlefield exercises are lacking and many European armies are in a poor state. The Army of the Russian Western Military District is a cohesive force, rapidly modernising, and becoming adept at using cyber, UAVs and unconventional warfare with recent battlefield experience in Syria and Ukraine.

From a UK perspective, given our limited resources it would be sensible to support NATO by playing to our strengths and adopting a maritime-first strategy while assertively encouraging continental Europeans to strengthen their armies. A strong and capable British Army with a significant presence on the continent is desirable but even if the money was available, it is questionable if it could recruit, train and retain at least another 20,000 additional troops needed to reconstitute a credible contribution to a deterrent on mainland Europe. (Not to mention the huge investment needed to modernise its tanks, vehicles and equipment) On the other hand, an uplift of two or three thousand personnel for the RN would be transformational and is a more achievable target.

It is at sea where Britain can do most to further NATO’s cause.

Increased Russian activity in the North Atlantic is behind the announcement that NATO plans to re-establish an Atlantic Command centre. Maritime Command (MARCOM) at Northwood has been strengthened, doubling its personnel numbers to at least 200 while the US Navy plans to revive its Atlantic command facility in Norfolk, Virginia. The nuclear deterrent is the cornerstone of UK protection and the range of naval assets to protect our SSBNs is perilously thin. Rear Admiral Roger Lane-Nott wrote recently, “The Submarine Flotilla is in a difficult place… The Anti-Submarine Warfare capability of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force is at an all-time low”. Keeping the sea lines of communication across the Atlantic remains as strategically important today as it as it has been for more than a century and we must become better equipped for this task. Building and maximising the availability of the 7 Astute class SSNs should be a priority for the RN, second only to the deterrent. Instead of considering cuts we should also be improving our amphibious capability, especially as means of reinforcing NATO’s Northern flank to protect Norway.

The Russians may play down the importance of UK Carrier Strike capability in public and have labelled them mere “missile magnets”. This is inconsistent with their own efforts to keep their ancient aircraft carrier operational and their plan to build new carriers. In reality, the UK Carrier Strike group and its F-35s clearly concern the Russians, any further investment, to both better defend the carrier and enhance its offensive striking power, would be money well spent. Since the UK mainland UK has virtually no defence against a potential volley of cruise missiles fired from submarines or bombers our best defence is to be able to strike back in kind. Vastly increasing our stocks of Tomahawks to launch from our SSNs, Type 45s destroyers and Type 26 frigates should be a priority.

British politicians with the courage to stand up?

President Trump maybe mostly reviled by Europeans but has appointed a very competent and perceptive Defence Secretary supportive of the NATO cause. James Mattis has authored a new national defence strategy that identifies the threats from China and Russia who “want to create a world in line with their authoritarian model”, as by far the most serious threat to the US and its allies. Terrorism is correctly identified as a far less significant and non-existential threat, despite its prominence in the media. This is every bit as true for Britain, with the increasingly aggressive Russians being the closer immediate concern. The US is beginning to address these threats with a significant rise in defence spending but China and the Pacific region is its biggest challenge. Across Europe, endless defence cuts have at least been slowed, but few countries are planning major increases. Britain is now conducting its own defence review (now named the ‘Modernising Defence Program’) but most expect that, even in the best-case scenario, the MoD may get a small bail-out which will just about maintain the existing hollowed-out force. In reality, the Navy needs a major uplift in funding to match the threats it is now confronted with.

“This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom” (Winston Churchill, October 1938)

Faced with a nuclear-armed power, with a strong, unpredictable leader who will probe for weakness and get away with what he can, British politicians must face up to this inconvenient reality. The Russians are adept at exploiting information, cyber and other non-direct military means to de-stabilise and threaten its opponents. There are plenty in Britain who just want to believe this is “fear-mongering” by vested interests, playing up threats for their own ends and that Russian intentions are benign and of no direct concern. This is a dangerous head-in-the-sand mentality that plays into Putin’s hands and is contrary to the overwhelming evidence of Russian intentions, aggression in Crimea and Ukraine, cyber attacks across Europe, including interference in the US elections and Brexit referendum. To bow to the shrill voices of appeasement who prefer to spout comforting lies instead of the unhappy truth, is to ignore the lessons of history and will encourage further instability and risk the peaceful prosperity that Europe has enjoyed for so long. We must continue to engage and respect Russia but remember that it is strength, not international law or the trappings of soft power that contain them.


from Save the Royal Navy http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/understanding-and-responding-to-the-russian-naval-threat/