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Astute-class Submarines

Volume 760: debated on Monday 2 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the time to build an Astute-class submarine has reduced as the shipyard has gained experience of building that type of vessel.

My Lords, the build time and commissioning for each Astute-class submarine continues to reduce as lessons are learnt. For the first boat, HMS “Astute”, this took 170 months from the start of manufacture until operational handover to the Royal Navy. The second boat, HMS “Ambush”, achieved this in 149 months.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. As he will know, the first build of any class always takes longer. Perhaps he could write to me with the answer to this question: how long has HMS “Artful”, which is the third of the SSNs, taken from laying down to sea trials, compared with HMS “Agamemnon”, which is the one that is being built at the moment? All the information I have is that these lengths of time are suddenly starting to stretch out, which means that more money will be spent. Is the Minister aware that the US is now very concerned that the stretching out of timescales may impact on any future submarines, and worried about the impact on the common missile compartment that the Americans are funding to a large extent, but that we will be using?

My Lords, I will write to the noble Lord on the point that he asks about. The Astute submarine programme required the UK’s nuclear submarine design build capability to be re-established following a 10-year gap since the delivery of the last Vanguard-class submarine. The consequences are still being felt across the whole of the submarine enterprise. Further improvements are still needed and we are working very closely with our key suppliers to ensure that they make those improvements.

My Lords, women officers and ratings will be able to serve on Astute-class submarines from about next year, but this will not be the first class to do so. Seven women officers have completed the submarine officer training course and are now serving in the submarine service on board the Vanguard-class submarines, and in headquarters appointments. Women ratings will commence training this year.

My noble friend and the Minister have already referred to the positive experience effects that one always gets in building any class of vessel, or in any engineering project, but does he recall that in addition to those effects that one can expect, there was a particular problem at the beginning of the Astute-class programme because of the break in continuity and expertise from the previous submarine-building programmes of the Trafalgar class? Does he therefore accept that it is vital that we do not run into those problems again, and those excess costs and wastes of money, and that this time there is absolutely no gap between the end of the building of the Astute programme and the beginning of the successor class programme?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. Designing and building submarines is one of the largest programmes, and most complex activities, that the MoD and UK industry undertake, and the noble Lord is well aware of that. Addressing the technical issues associated with nuclear submarine capability is exceptionally challenging, and is reflected in the time it takes to design and build a submarine.

My Lords, in view of the vulnerable international situation, have the Government been in discussions with BAE Systems about how to speed up the production of these necessary submarines with Tomahawk missiles if the international situation gets worse, or are we stuck on a timetable that has no connection with the international scene?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. We continue to look for ways to optimise manufacturing schedules. For example, we are introducing new technology to support modular build, an innovative means of testing and commissioning different systems.

My Lords, the stretching out of delivery times affects the cash flow of subcontractors, and those difficulties can be hideously compounded by delays in the settlement of their bills. Is there oversight of the rate of settlement of bills and, if so, is it satisfactory?

My Lords, I cannot answer my noble friend’s question from the Dispatch Box, but I will take it back to my department and undertake to write to him.

My Lords, can my noble friend give an indication of the extent of Soviet submarine activity off our shores and our ability to maintain surveillance?

My Lords, I am aware of this but it is probably difficult for me to say too much about the subject from the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, I was not going to ask about that subject but, as we know, at one stage we had 16 attack submarines but now we have six, and that has an impact on antisubmarine warfare by submarines. My question really goes back the build rate—the drumbeat—of these submarines. The drumbeat was extended unnaturally because we did not wish to have the submarines coming off the production line quickly. That means that each boat costs more than it should have done. Is that not correct, or does the Minister believe that we had to build them over that timescale?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right but we are working with industry to try to speed up the manufacture of these submarines, and I think we are being very successful in that initiative.

My Lords, could my noble friend give a word of description of how the naming of warships occurs in the Royal Navy? Contingent on his answer, would HMS “Adaptable” be a possibility?

My Lords, I wish I could answer that question. For the benefit of the House, I have mentioned the first three submarines: HMS “Astute”, HMS “Ambush” and HMS “Artful”. The fourth is called “Audacious”, the fifth is “Anson” and the sixth is “Agamemnon”. For the seventh, we are still waiting to decide on the name.