Submarines: Is The Astute Cursed?


November 7, 2010: Britain's new SSN (nuclear attack submarine), the HMS Astute, is shaping up as a hard luck boat. Construction was full of problems. The boat was three years late and 50 percent over budget. Then, last month, during sea trials off Scotland, it got stuck on a sand bar off the Isle of Skye. It was towed off on October 22nd, after being stranded for ten hours. Then, things got worse, as the Astute collided with one of the tugs assisting it. The damage from both incidents was believed to be repairable locally, so that the boat can resume its trials. Maybe.

Britain is pitching its new Astute class SSNs as the quietest and most lethal in the world. The 7,200 ton boats are 104 meters (323 feet) long and carry a crew of 98. The Astutes are more spacious than previous British SSNs, and every sailor will have his own bunk, and more space in general. Sensors are of generally the same quality as those found in American boats, but the British, as in the past, have put more emphasis on silencing. Just how effective these efforts have been won't be known until the Astute has been at sea for a while.

The Astutes cost $2.5 billion each. Only three have been ordered so far, and the navy is hoping to get four more. The Astute is desperately needed, as most existing British SSNs will be retired in the next ten years. The Royal Navy is making a big public relations splash over the launching of the Astute, and its capabilities. This isn't about pride, but about getting public opinion, and members of parliament, behind paying for more Astute class boats. The recent grounding and collision generated a lot of publicity, but not the kind the Royal Navy was looking for.