Yesterday’s Sunday Herald carried an exclusive article by Rob Edwards headlined: ‘Facilities poor and cramped. Revealed: flaws of HMS Astute’.
The paper has obtained a secret report for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) which shows that this nuclear powered ship, trumpeted as cutting edge development in stealth hunter-killer submarine warfare, has ‘less recreational space for submariners than boats built 45 years ago’.
The report, acquired under Freedom of Information legislation – a 2009 internal report by ‘senior officials on the Defence Board’, has also been heavily censored before its release. This means that the factual material the Sunday Herald has got and has been able to publish is significantly less than the report contains.
Alongside this, the paper reveals that the submarine service is struggling to meet its operational targets in circumstances where there is a serious dearth of the necessary skills.
This means that specific crew rotations are not always possible and that some crewmen are having to return to sea much more quickly than is the norm.
The reasonable implication is that this cannot but create additional – and perhaps sometimes unendurable stresses – in men whose working lives are already governed by confined and claustrophobic circumstances few of us would consider.
In the case of a submarine like Astute, still working up, there is intensive sea time to be done to test and refine her systems.
Add to this the need, through shortage of men and certain skills, to use crews more intensively. Add also physical living conditions equivalent to those experienced by submariners who could be the grandfathers of those presently serving.
And add to all of this the discoverable psychological fragility of a young man of 22 who was somehow accepted into the service.
Together, this picture suggests the all too familiar reality that the MoD itself should be in the dock alongside Able Seaman Ryan Donovan, accused of de facto complicity in murder and attempted murder.
The report obtained by the Sunday Herald (the article is on Pages 10, 11 and 13) is ‘a detailed examination of the human resource shortages plaguing military nuclear operations’.
Its conclusions – that it is necessary ‘to ensure that the quality of life for our submariners is improved’ – state clearly that: ‘We must not repeat the retrograde step made with the Astute class, where the sailors will have less mess-deck space than in HMS Valiant built 45 years ago’
There is frequent repetition of the phrase ‘mistakes made with the Astute class’.
Yet we are still building the class – because there is a contract to do so.
It is unimaginable folly to persist with a design formula officially known since 2009 to be profoundly flawed and, by so doing, to expose submariners to additional stresses and the service itself to crises and the continuing possibility of crises.
And if indeed Astute grounded by the Skye bridge because she was, as reported, going in to recover a shore party, it is easy to understand why, in the conditions aboard, shore parties are not just desirable but imperative.
And this raises the question of just what conditions will be like on the extended submerged tours the Astute class will do when they they are at sea on full operational duty.
The ‘significant skills shortages’ are said to relate, in part, to ‘the resurgent civil nuclear power programme’ which is obviously attracting appropriately skilled engineers and is expected to do so until between 2019 and 2024.
Some skills shortages identified – and remember that this was in 2009 – include:
- 7% shortage in submarine reactor engineers
- 14% shortage in civilian safety experts
– with the engineering capacity managed through ‘limited time ashore’.
Ultimately the question to be answered is how the Astute’s design, with its obvious inability to meet the needs of a crew of around 110 ever got off the drawing board in the sate that has now been built?
In 2009, the lavatory and bathroom facilities were judged inadequate and privacy of any kind is an impossibility.
There are seven of the class to be built.
Astute is still on sea trials and the second in the class, Ambush, was launched a few months ago in January 2011. The officer killed in the Southampton incident, Lt Cdr Ian Molyneux, was scheduled later to transfer to her.
The 3rd, Artful, has been in building since 2005 and the 4th, Audacious, since 2009.
Others are in various stages of building and planning and, in what looks like a scramble not unconnected with the options open to the less than Strategic Defence review, the seventh and last, Ajax, was confirmed in October 2010.
There does seem to have been a culpable political dimension to the situation.
Very shortly before the last Westminster election of May 2010 – on 25th March – BAE Systems were given the go-ahead by the UK’s then Labour government to begin construction on the 5th and 6th of the Astute class boats.
They were given a £300 million contract for the ‘initial build of boat 5 (Agamemnon) and ‘long lead procurement activities’ for boat 6 (Anson) – and in that same week the then government re-affirmed the commitment to the building of all seven of the Astute class.
Yet the report obtained by the Sunday Herald was published in 2009, in the year before this commitment was made, condemning more generations of submariners to conditions current in 1966.
Those who pay the piper were given no chance to call the tune; and, with money paid and contracts confirmed, the incoming piper was left with fewer tunes in the repertoire.