The U.S. Navy has the best fleet of nuclear attack submarines on the planet today – period. However, while many would argue Russia or China should take the number two position, the Royal Navy and its Astute-Class submarines need to be considered in the mix for sure: The Royal Navy’s HMS Audacious completed its first NATO patrol in the Mediterranean last month. It is the senior service’s newest and most advanced submarine – the fourth of seven new cutting-edge £1.3bn Astute-class submarines. These are the most powerful attack submarines ever operated by the Royal Navy.
HMS Audacious joined her sisters – HMS Astute, Ambush, and Artful –in January of this year after formally being commissioned in September 2021. She completed her sea trials last year.
Astute-Class: Maiden Voyage
After loading Tomahawk missiles – which are just one part of the boat’s powerful armory alongside the Spearfish heavyweight torpedo – in Gibraltar, HMS Audacious sailed into the Mediterranean and completed exercises with NATO allies, including training with Greek, Turkish, and United States allies. The training tested the submarine’s ability to evade, track and engage her foes underwater and on the surface. The drills also offered NATO allies the chance to pit their wits against a nuclear attack submarine – a relatively rare training opportunity for many navies, as they looked to hunt down Audacious beneath the waves.
“These exercises helped HMS Audacious to demonstrate her prowess as the newest, most capable SSN that the UK has to offer while also strengthening NATO capability and interoperability and demonstrating our resolve towards NATO Missions,” said Commander Jim Howard, commanding officer of HMS Audacious.
The Astute-class was the first nuclear submarine in the world to be designed in a 3D computer-aided environment. Moreover, the boats have been outfitted with many technological firsts, including not having an optical periscope. Instead, high-specification video technology has been employed, which enables the crew to scan the horizon and get a 360-degree view to address any potential threat.
In addition, unlike other nuclear-powered submarines, the Astute-class was developed to utilize state-of-the-art anti-acoustic tiles. Each hull is fitted with more than 39,000 acoustic tiles that mask the vessel’s sonar signature and allow the submarines to glide through the water almost silently.
The little noise the boats give off has actually been compared to that of a “baby dolphin.” Each of the submarines costs a reported £1.6 billion to build, but the capabilities offered are essentially priceless.
Straight “A” Submarines
The first four submarines in the class, HMS Astute, HMS Ambush, HMS Artful, and HMS Audacious are now in service with the Royal Navy. The fifth boat, HMS Anson, is currently conducting its sea trials. Two additional boats – the future Agamemnon and Agincourt – are now under construction at the BAE Systems site in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.
Each of the Astute-class boats is roughly 97 meters (318 feet) in length and has a crew of around 100 sailors, with a capacity for 109. The attack submarines are powered by a Rolls-Royce PWR2 (Core H) reactor and fitted with a pump-jet propulsor, the same reactor that was developed for the Royal Navy’s Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines.
That particular nuclear reactor, which powers the submarines and has a 25-year lifespan before needing to be refueled, is also used to recycle air and water. It provides a theoretically unlimited endurance for the submarine and could circumnavigate the globe without surfacing. Each of the boats is typically supplied with about 90 days of food.
The Astute-class submarines have stowage for 38 weapons and typically carry a mix of Spearfish heavy torpedoes and Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles, which are capable of hitting a target to within a few meters, to a range of 1,000 miles (1,600 km). The submarines’ countermeasures suite includes decoys and electronic support measures (ESM).
The boats are also fitted with a dry deck shelter, which allows Special Forces – such as the Royal Marine Commandos or Royal Navy Special Boat Service (SBS) operators to deploy whilst the submarine is submerged.
These submarines certainly get straight A’s for their capabilities.
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.