NATO has to be feeling optimistic about undersea warfare. One of the United Kingdom’s best submarines recently completed its first patrol for the alliance in the Mediterranean. The Royal Navy’s HMS Audacious, part of the skillfully produced Astute-class of nuclear fast-attack submarines, was introduced in September 2021. The Royal Navy sent the Audacious on its maiden patrol in January after months of rigorous testing.
A Big and Smart Sub
The Audacious is part of a seven-submarine group that makes up the Astute-class. The first three were named HMS Astute, HMS Ambush, and HMS Artful. Audacious is the fourth. The next three – Anson, Agamemnon, and Agincourt – are under construction or undergoing testing. The Astute-class is 318 feet long, 30% larger than other British submarines. These are the biggest and most powerful attack subs in the Royal Navy.
The Astute-class has the aptly named Astute Combat Management System. This can show real-time images of adversarial shipping from its sophisticated sonar – an application that uses real-time data and algorithms for a detailed picture of the undersea or surface battle space. It can search the horizon and get a 360-degree view without using an optical periscope.
The Astute-class uses land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from 533mm tubes. These missiles were used against targets in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The two-ton Tomahawk can skim over waves and shore terrain for over 1,000 miles. The inertial navigation Tomahawks will be upgraded to the Block V model in 2024. The Block V will be more difficult to jam, with adept counter-measures, and its cruise missiles will have better accuracy. The Astute-class also carries Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes that have a fiberoptic data link with the combat management system. Thirty-eight total weapons (cruise missiles and torpedoes) are on board.
The Astute Has Global Reach
These submarines are extremely quiet, thanks to as many as 39,000 anti-acoustic tiles. The tiles repel sound waves and deaden sound coming from inside the submarine. This allows the boats to sneak close to shore and deploy special operations forces.
Another quality aspect of the Astute-class is its nuclear reactor. A Rolls-Royce PWR2 (Core H) reactor powers the boat, and a pump-jet propulsor further improves its low acoustic signature. The reactor can operate for over 20 years, giving the sub global reach, and the vessel makes its own oxygen and drinking water.
Astute-class boats were matched up with the USS New Mexico Virginia-class attack submarine in battle simulations in 2012. The Astute-class performed well in the drills. Royal Navy Comm. Iain Breckenridge said, “Our sonar is fantastic, and I have never before experienced holding a submarine at the range we were holding USS New Mexico. The Americans were utterly taken aback, blown away with what they were seeing.”
The Royal Navy is right to be proud of the Astute-class. They will be able to conduct more NATO patrols to interact and train with friendly surface fleets and other submarines from partner countries. The Astute-class has a range and duration that is only limited by the amount of food onboard for the crew. The subs are stealthy enough to mask acoustic signature and evade enemy sonar – even moving as “quiet as a baby dolphin.” The Astute-class subs are ready to serve the Royal Navy and set the standard for undersea warfare over the next several decades.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.