Britain's deep-sea defence: out of time?

The United Kingdom's flagship military asset, its nuclear-armed submarine force, faces a coming 'swarm' of underwater technology.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 March 2016
HMS Artful. Defence Images/BAE Systems/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

HMS Artful. Defence Images/BAE Systems/Flickr. Some rights reserved.An accelerating debate over Britain's nuclear-weapons policy has focused on the government's plan to replace the existing, Vanguard-class Trident ballistic-missile submarines with the Successor-class. A decision to go ahead with the programme, which will take many years to complete and eventually cost around £150 billion, is likely to be made later this year.

More recently a new ingredient has emerged to complicate matters: whether the world’s oceans are becoming transparent through new detection technologies, which could make the new submarines obsolete before they are even launched. The very suggestion brings heated denials from government sources. But the issue will not go away and is worth examining,

There have certainly been spectacular examples of unexpected naval vulnerabilities in the past. The early 20th century saw the 'Dreadnought' revolution, as navies competed to develop what were, by the standards of the day, super-battleships. That era reached its peak in the Battle of Jutland in May-June 1916, fought between the British and German fleets; but the battleships continued to be 'capital ships' through to the 1940s, though some claimed that they were becoming vulnerable to air attack.

Those claims were demonstrated forcibly when two British capital ships, Repulse and Prince of Wales, were caught by Japanese planes off the coast of Malaya on 10 December 1941, three days after Pearl Harbour, and sunk with the loss of over 850 lives. In many ways this disaster, a prelude to the surrrender of Singapore in February 1942, marked the end of an era in both imperial and naval terms.

In this historical light, is it now possible to envisage the end of the line for large ballistic-missile submarines? If the answer is 'yes', the implications are considerable, as there will be even less of a case for replacing the current Vanguard-class boats.

The swarm response

The issue has been addressed by several UK-based NGOs, especially the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), and has begun to seep into the press. Much of the discussion relates to the new 'age of drones' – not the aerial variety but its undersea equivalent. Thanks to the requirements of the commercial undersea engineering industry, especially oil and gas, and because of the potential for drones to aid mine-hunting, a huge amount of civil and military research has been undertaken, both types yielding some impressive results.

It's true that there has been a competition between submarine development and anti-submarine warfare ever since submarines were first invented, with advantages to one or the other usually short-lived. But current developments may indeed have serious implications for the future of the Trident replacement programme.

The drone dimension, for example, is argued powerfully by David Hambling (see “Underwater drones may make hiding a missile sub harder”, New Scientist, 24 February 2016), and in considerably greater depth in a new BASIC briefing, which focuses more specifically on the undersea environment.

In other work, Hambling takes a more general view that drone technologies and allied developments will transform warfare, rendering many very expensive bits of hardware irrelevant. His remarkable new book Swarm Troopers makes an impressive case that the new technologies must be taken very seriously.

The future now

Of all the factors involved, three stand out: processes of miniaturisation, huge increases in computing power, and the application of widely available commercially-driven applications adaptable for military purposes. Altogether, a picture emerges of ever-cheaper systems that can both be produced in large numbers and integrated in much the same way as swarms behave in nature.

Old-style anti-submarine warfare (ASW) has been based on quite small numbers of sophisticated (and expensive) vessels and equipment; but autonomous systems are intrinsically smaller, low-cost, and increasingly effective over longer ranges.

The whole process is also driven by two military dimensions. First, the need for effective mine-hunting, given the low-cost and high-impact of mine-laying (see Richard Scott, “Keeping up with the Hunt", Jane’s Defence Weekly, 2 March 2016). Second, the concern of several western countries, especially the United States, about the proliferation of very quiet diesel-powered submarines, especially those with air-independent propulsion (AIP). A submarine running on AIP is much quieter than a nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, while ASW systems intended for countering AIP submarines can be even more effective against the larger missile submarines. 

The US may be leading the way in much of these efforts, but Russia and China (and other states) are certainly following. The developments go wider than just drones, for there are other technologies available. Many of the latter are already standard in ASW; but here too there are potentially transformative developments.

Magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) is one such standard. It is an example of a technology whose new forms of detection may still be hugely cumbersome but which – given the speed of miniaturisation – will have radically improved capabilities long before the current Trident boats are replaced.

Another example, one of the clearest, is the superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID). It may currently depend on unwieldy super-cooling systems, but these – not least through miniaturisation – also have the potential for rapid development.

A vital point to make is that many of these innovations do not belong to the distant future. The first unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) were reportedly deployed from the US navy’s Virginia-class attack submarines at the end of 2015. The navy is also trialling the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), which has no crew but can survey a substantial areas of ocean without refuelling for up to ninety days.

If all these factors are assembled, it is not difficult to appreciate the UK Ministry of Defence’s concern and annoyance that the issue should have been catapulted into the Trident replacement debate at this late stage.

A definite historical symbolism may be at work. If the current Vanguard-class British ballistic-missile submarines do end up being the last of their kind, they will have shared their fate with Britain’s last battleship, built during the second world war, commissioned in 1946 and scrapped only fourteen years later: an earlier HMS Vanguard. Will that endgame be an augur of the one to come?   

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