HMS Astute – a new hunter-killer sub that doesn’t work very well…

Having spent a chunk of my life in shipbuilding, I can tell you that such a scenario is hardly novel, but it’s a tad disheartening to see the Guardian getting its ill-informed knickers in a twist over HMS Astute, the first-in-class of a new series of hunter-killer submarines built, somewhat eccentrically, one might think, by BAE systems – not exactly an established name in the construction of warships** – and riddled with faults.

**So no real surprise to find the whole project is something of a cock-up, but that’s another story. As, presumably, is what we intend to do with 7 subs which are intended primarily for offence, to seek out and destroy enemy subs, especially those carrying missiles. As I said a while ago, about about Trident, a viable enemy isn’t even on the horizon, and the biggest single threat is from terrorism.

Of course, if we still had a viable shipbuilding industry (substantial parts of which had experience building nuclear subs), this wouldn’t have happened. Possibly.

Possibly, because there are always problems with new ships and boats (subs are boats, btw – a ship is built from the keel up, just as a building is built from the foundations up; a boat is not, it’s built as a single unit, a bit like a car – build the shell, fit out the interior), especially when that boat is the first of its class.

Normally such problems would be worked out and remedied long before the vessel is commissioned (put into service with the Navy), with neither crew nor anyone else blabbing to the press, not least because they would be bound by the Official Secrets Act. And why aren’t they? Why isn’t the Guardian? I am.

One of the biggest hindrances to building a first-in-class vessel (or, indeed, any naval vessel), is the Admiralty. I don’t believe I’m breaching the Official Secrets Act, by which I’m still bound 30 years after leaving the industry, by saying that these clowns couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. Or, quite possibly, even arrive at the right brewery.

They will, at the outset, present the tendering companies (the tendering process is long, complex, and expensive), with a specification. The successful bidder will then spend years in absolute purgatory as the Admiralty (or, to be more precise, Ministry of Defence, Navy, aka ModNavy – who might well have a different moniker these days), changes just about everything in the specification it possibly can, not once, but multiple times, sometimes needing what has been built to be, at least partially, torn down and rebuilt.

Sometimes this is occasioned by new developments in technology, but more often than not, changes upon changes upon changes are inflicted on the hapless builder for no discernible reason but sheer perversity. I well remember, on one warship (not a sub), that both buyers, and workforce were almost moved to tears of frustration when, time after time, the colour of the anti-corrosion plating on nuts and bolts was changed (not, I should add, that any particular variety of plating was significantly better or worse than another). A change order would arrive, the original order, which might well have been delivered, and possibly partly used, would be cancelled, and the suppliers persuaded/bullied into taking it, or the residue, back. Then, while the suppliers were halfway through manufacturing the new order, it would be changed back. Repeatedly! And that’s just nuts and bolts – you really don’t want to know – and I can’t tell you without risking getting my collar felt – about more critical parts of the vessel’s construction.

The surprise isn’t that a new vessel, like Astute, is riddled with faults.

The surprise is that it works at all.


NB: I was a buyer, but on the yard side, not the ship side – it was my job to keep the workforce fully equipped and at work, and all the plant and machinery running, and I was bloody good at it. Looking back, though, it was an absurdly massive task for one person – no wonder I eventually became too ill to work.


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