Britain continues to have problems with its aging fleet of SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines). The latest incident involved HMS Victorious, which was on its way to the United States for a secret mission but was forced to cancel that trip when it was forced to surface because of an electrical fire. The smoke produced by the fire endangered the crew and repairs had to be made, causing Victorious to return to Britain. The secret mission apparently involved a test launch of one of two Trident SLBMs (sea launched ballistic missile) at an American test range. This is a normal mission for SSBNs. Britain has four SSBNs, all built in the 1990s. All will reach the end of their three-decade service life in the 2020s. For Victorious, the retirement date is 2025 and the new Dreadnought class SSBNs are late, with the first one not entering service until the early 2030s. .
Britain is not the only nation with this problem. The dozen new American Columbia class SSBNs, with only one under construction (since 2016) and a second one ordered in 2020. The first of the older Ohio class SSBNs will retire in 2029 and the first Columbia is not expected to enter service until two or three years later. The Ohios were built to last 30 years but ways were found to extend that to 42 years. Now it has been discovered, by carefully examining all the components of the many Los Angeles SSNs retiring, which subs are most in need of replacement when a nuke reaches its planned retirement date. Some of the older SSBNs can safely be kept in service longer by re,,cing components as needed to maintain the current force of 18 Ohio SSBN. Given the continued “unexpected delays” with the Columbias, it’s either keep the Ohios going or get by with fewer SSBNs in service. Either option is now possible and that sort of decision depends more on politics than anything else. Another issue is that older boats have more unexpected problems.
Britain is in a somewhat different situation because they maintain a force of only four SSBNs. The new 17,000-ton Dreadnought class boats will be larger, quieter and have longer service lives. All the Royal Navy will say about the “quieter” is that the increased size of the new SSBN is related to that. The new quieting tech includes improved sound reducing anechoic coating for the hull as well as a double-hull design that further reduces detectable sound from inside the sub. There are also new rudders and propulsion tech. British nuclear subs, especially the SSBNs, have been among the quietest nuclear boats ever and that will apparently continue. The Dreadnoughts are 153.6 meters (504 feet) long, carry twelve Trident II SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles) and have a crew of 130.
The current four Vanguard SSBNs are 150 meters (465 feet) long, displace 14,000 tons, have a crew of 135, and entered service in the 1990s. They carry 16 Trident II missiles. The four new Dreadnought class SSBNs are supposed to enter service by 2030 and replace the elderly Vanguards. There are only four British SSBNs in service because that is the minimum number to ensure that one is always at sea, ready to launch its SLBMs. The initial delays building the Dreadnoughts were mainly political. They cost (adjusting for inflation) three times more than the Vanguards. That cost was not unusual because each of the four Dreadnaughts cost about $10 billion compared to $9 billion for twelve new Columbias. These new American SSBNs are 20,000-ton boats that are 171 meters long, with a crew of 140 and carrying 16 Trident II SLBMs. There are berths for another fifteen personnel, usually SEAL commandos or technical specialists.
Britain has had more than its share of technical problems with its smaller SSBN force. In late 2012 one of the British Vanguard- class SSBNs suffered a rudder failure after test firing a SLBM off North America (Florida). The sub had just undergone a refurbishment that cost over half a billion dollars. After the rudder problem was discovered, the Vanguard entered an American shipyard in nearby Georgia for repairs. The Royal Navy has not revealed details of how a sub fresh out of a three-year refurbishment could suffer a rudder failure four months later.
This is not the first such embarrassment for the Vanguard-class. The rudder problem comes several years after another Vanguard collided with a French SSBN while submerged in the Atlantic. The damage to both boats was superficial but it was embarrassing how two SSBNs could have bumped into each other in the middle of an ocean when France and Britain coordinated their SSBN patrols to avoid such incidents. That procedure was modified to avoid any future incidents. The “bumping” incident was due to how quiet both SSBNs were and even their passive sensors could not detect a nearby SSBN running silent.
Britain has long cooperated with the United States in designing and building common components for their SSBNs. In 2009 Britain hired an American submarine builder (General Dynamics) to design a Common Missile Compartment (CMC) for the new Dreadnought SSBNs, which were then expected to begin replacing the current Vanguard class boats in the 2020s.
The U.S. Navy will use the CMC for the Columbia class SSBNs. This makes sense because Britain buys the ballistic missiles for its SSBNs from the United States. It would be too expensive for Britain to design and build its own SSBN ballistic missiles. Thus, the CMC will have to be designed by an American firm, with access to data on the characteristics (especially the dimensions) of future missiles for SSBNs.
Although Britain uses the American Trident II SLBM, the British SLBMs are considered a Trident variant because the British subs have differences in electronics and other components that influence performance of the missiles. This has caused problems. In a mid-2016 incident a British SSBN conducted a test firing of a Trident SLBM and a malfunction caused the missile to head towards the U.S. east coast rather than out into the Atlantic. It was the only Royal Navy test firing since 2012 and only the fifth since 2000. There are not a lot of these live tests because they are very expensive due to the cost of one SLBM, but these tests are necessary to ensure the huge investment in SSBNs (several billion dollars each) and weapons work.
This Trident failure was rare and found to be specific to the British version of the Trident. Details of the problem were kept secret lest potential enemies benefit from that knowledge. Problems with SLBMs are not new. During the early 1960s, a flaw in the warheads of the American Polaris SLBM meant the nuclear device would not detonate. The error was not detected for a while. When it was, the problem proved immune to numerous solutions. Meanwhile the missiles might as well have carried rocks in their warheads. Polaris was eventually replaced by Trident but that bit of hard-earned wisdom motivated SLBM manufacturers and users to pay attention to quality control and testing.
Britain and the United States have long cooperated on designing nuclear submarines, especially SSBNs. Despite that the U.S. and Britain are designing two different SSBNs. But each sub will have many common features, like the CMC, and that will save a lot of money for both nations. The current 18 U.S. Ohio class SSBNs were built between 1979 and 1997. The U.S. decided to replace the Ohios with a similar design that incorporates more modern tech as has been used in the Seawolf and Virginia class SSNs.
Meanwhile the British SSBN force, and especially the Vigilant, continue having problems with the crew. In September 2020 the Vigilant’s weapons engineering officer, a lieutenant commander, was relieved and sent back to Britain after he showed up for duty drunk. At the time the SSBN was at the American Kings Bay submarine base undergoing maintenance at the Trident Refit Facility.
During October 2017 the British Royal Navy dismissed nine HMS Vigilant SSBN sailors when they tested positive for cocaine use. These drug tests took place because of an investigation of the sub commander violating navy rules prohibiting sexual relations between male and female crew, especially senior and junior officers. The captain, it turned out, was rather too close to one of his two female junior officers. The Royal Navy has several female officers qualified to serve on nuclear subs and recent photos indicate one of them was involved with the sub commander. In addition, numerous members of the crew are accused of participating in parties involving drug use. This has led to mandatory drug tests for all sailors assigned to nuclear subs.
Problems like this on modern subs, both nuclear and non-nuclear, are increasingly common. That’s because the countries with the high-tech subs, especially the nuclear ones, also have the personnel qualified to join the sub force complete special, lengthy and costly training before serving on such expensive boats. There are unique problems finding the skilled people for SSBN crews because they are expected to spend long periods of time at sea and out of touch with the world for security purposes. One solution to the skilled sailor shortage is to recruit women. That works better on shore bases and surface ships than it does on SSBNs. The HMS Vigilant was an example and now recruiting will be more difficult because of the bad publicity and crew shortages will get worse. There is no easy answer and it even occurs with high-end diesel-electric subs. The drug use and fraternization rules are there to maintain crew capabilities, especially in a crisis. There is no easy or simple solution for this.
Meanwhile the U.S. Navy is upgrading and refurbishing its Trident II SLBMs so that these weapons will still be effective until 2040 and beyond. There have already been upgrades to the electronics and mechanical components in the guidance system. Upgrades are underway to the reentry body (heat shield and such that gets individual warheads to the ground intact). Some of the upgrades are classified and details on all of them are kept secret for obvious reasons.
The Trident II is one of those rare complex systems that consistently perform flawlessly. They do exist. For example, test firings of production models of the Trident II have never failed. There have been 148 of these missile-launches each involving an SSBN (ballistic missile carrying nuclear sub) firing one of their Trident IIs, with the nuclear warhead replaced by one of similar weight but containing sensors and communications equipment.
The test results for the Trident while in development were equally impressive, with 87 percent successful (in 23 development tests) for the Trident I and 98 percent (49 tests) of the Trident II. The Trident I served from 1979-2005, while the Trident II entered service in 1990 and may end up serving for half a century.
Trident II is a 59-ton missile with a max range of 7,200-11,000 kilometers (depending on the number of warheads carried). Up to eight W76 nuclear warheads can be carried, each with the explosive power equal to 100,000 tons of high explosives. The navy ordered another 108 Trident IIs in 2019 at a cost of $31 million each.