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Forget the U.S. Navy: The Royal Navy Is a Nuclear Submarine Superpower

The Dreadnought-class is the future replacement for the Vanguard-class of ballistic missile submarines,
The Dreadnought-class is the future replacement for the Vanguard-class of ballistic missile submarines.

Back in mid-June of last year, in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Falkland Islands War, 19FortyFive published a story on the Royal Navy’s HMS Conqueror and her sinking of the ARA General Belgrano. Well, one good submarine story deserves another.

Conqueror was a Churchill-class attack submarine commissioned in 1971, but the Royal Navy’s subs have not remained frozen in time. Let’s take a look at the latest and greatest in British submarine developments.

Royal Navy Vanguard and Dreadnought-Class Attack Submarines: Analysis 

In 1906, the name HMS Dreadnought was bestowed on a battleship so revolutionary that she rendered all other battleships obsolete overnight. She also spawned an entire generation of battleships named dreadnoughts. Fast-forward 40 years, and the last British battleship, HMS Vanguard, was commissioned. Move forward another 76 years to the present day, and battleships have long left the Royal Navy’s arsenal.

But the Dreadnought and Vanguard namesakes still run strong: The Royal Navy now applies them to submarines, and Dreadnought-class subs will eventually replace their Vanguard-class predecessors. 

The Vanguard-class subs – Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance – have served since 1993 as the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent force. They are slated to stay in service until sometime in the 2030s. Meanwhile, in keeping the Royal Navy’s Continuous At Sea Deterrence principle, which has been in effect since 1969, the British shipbuilding industry has been working what they call the Successor programme. The name of the first Successor boat was announced on Oct. 21, 2016: The Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought class is being built by BAE Systems, headquartered at Barrow-in-Furness, England. The boats are slated to carry a crew complement of 130 officers and ratings, with a displacement of 17,200 tons, a hull length of 152.9 meters, and an expected lifespan of 30 years. Armament will consist of four 21-inch torpedo tubes for the Spearfish heavyweight torpedo, along with 12 ballistic missile tubes for Lockheed Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

A total of four Dreadnoughts are planned, with two currently being built, at a unit cost of £7.75 billion ($9 billion) and a total program lifetime cost of £31 billion.

Astute-Class Attack Submarines

Okay, you may say, all well and good, but what about the newest British submarines that are already operational?

That brings us to the Astute class. As per the official Royal Navy info page

“The Astute-class submarines are the largest, most advanced and most powerful attack submarines ever operated by the Royal Navy, combining world-leading sensors, design and weaponry in a versatile vessel…In the first part of 2012, they proved their ability to prepare and launch Tomahawk missiles, successfully firing 2 missiles from the Gulf of Mexico and accurately hitting the targets on the test range in Northern Florida.”

The Astute boats’ predecessors, the Trafalgar-class hunter-killer subs, entered into service in 1983. Only one, the HMS Triumph (S93), remains in service. The first ship of the Astute class to enter into active service, the HMS Astute (S119), was commissioned in August 2010 and followed by the Ambush, Artful, and Audacious. Meanwhile, the HMS Anson has been launched but is still awaiting official commissioning. Agamemnon and Agincourt are under construction, with the latter expected to be commissioned sometime in 2026. In June 2022, Audacious carried out NATO security patrols in the Mediterranean. It was her maiden operational deployment.

The Astutes carry a complement of 98 officers and enlisted sailors. They sport a hull length of 97 meters, and a surface displacement of 7,400 tons. Armament consists of six 21-inch torpedo tubes, with stowage of up to 38 missiles. In addition to the aforementioned Spearfish torpedo, the Astutes wield the latest version of the Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile (TLAM), the Tomahawk IV, which has a range of over 1,000 miles. 

Looking Forward

Between the old – the Vanguards and Traflagars – and the new – the Astutes and the Dreadnoughts – the present and the future of Britain’s submarine fleet is bright.

That said, the belligerence and bellicosity of Russia and China drive an additional sense of urgency for the Royal Navy to get its newest subs into service as soon as it can. 

Astute-class Submarine

Astute class submarine HMS Ambush is pictured during sea trials near Scotland. Ambush, second of the nuclear powered attack submarines, was named in Barrow on 16 December 2010 and launched on 5 January 2011.

Astute-Class Submarine

Astute-Class Submarine. Image Credit: Royal Navy.

Astute-Class Submarine

Royal Navy Astute-Class Submarine.

AUKUS Submarine Deal

Image of Astute-class Submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.


Astute-class Submarine. Image: Creative Commons.


Image: BAE Systems

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).