During October 2017 the British Royal Navy dismissed nine sailors from HMS Vigilant one of its four SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines) 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. So far about ten percent of the HMS Vigilant crew are charged with serious violations.
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 navy, complete the training and serve on these costly (multi-billion dollars for an SSBN) boats. The problem the skilled people on SSBN crew 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 British SSBN force has other problems. There were revelations earlier in 2017 year of a mid-2016 incident where another of the Royal Navy SSBNs had conducted a test firing of a Trident SLBM (sea launched ballistic missile) and 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 ($22 million each). But these tests are necessary to be sure the huge investment in SSBNs (several billion dollars each) and weapons actually work.
This Trident failure was rare and is believed specific to the British version of the Trident. In any event details of the problem are 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 particular bit of wisdom motivated SLBM manufacturers and users to pay attention to quality control and testing.
Meanwhile Britain has had more than its share of technical problems with its smaller SSBN force. In late 2012 one of the British SSBNs suffered a rudder failure after test firing a SLBM off North America (Florida). The sub (the HMS Vanguard) has just undergone a midlife 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. The rudder problem comes years after the sub collided with a French SSBN while submerged in the mid-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.
There are other problems with the Vanguard and its three sister ships. The major one is that there is, as yet, no certainty that they will be replaced when they wear out by 2030 or so. There is some work under way to design and build a new generation of British SSBNs. In 2009 Britain hired an American submarine builder (General Dynamics) to design a Common Missile Compartment (CMC) for Britain’s next class of SSBN, which are to begin replacing the current Vanguard class boats in the 2020s.
The current Vanguard boats 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, weighing 59 tons, with a range of 11,300 kilometers and carrying up to eight warheads. A new class of SSBNs is expected to be about the same size but that will cost up to $30 billion, and there is growing support in Britain for doing away with their SSBNs altogether. The British government had ample support in parliament to design and build four new Dreadnought class SSBNs to enter service by 2030 and replace the elderly Vanguard SSBNs.
The U.S. Navy will use the CMC for its next class of 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.
Britain and the United States have long cooperated on designing nuclear submarines, especially SSBNs. 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 18 U.S. Ohio class SSBNs were built between 1979 and 1997. The 16,000 ton Ohios were built to serve for twenty years, but that has been extended at least 15 and possibly 30 years. The U.S. has 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. One option Britain may consider is simply buying four of the new American SSBNs, although such boats would be full of British designed and built equipment as are the current Vanguards.
Meanwhile the U.S. Navy is upgrading and refurbishing its Trident II SLBMs so that these weapons will still be effective until 2040. 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 recently bought another 108 Trident IIs at a cost of $31 million each.
The success of the Trident is in sharp contrast to the problems Russia and China have had developing SLBMs. The latest Russian SLBM, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30), was almost cancelled because test flights kept failing. The Bulava finally successfully completed its test program on December 23rd, 2011. That made 11 successful Bulava test firings out of 18 attempts. The last two missiles make five in a row that were successfully fired. As a result of this, the Bulava has been accepted into service, with a development test firing success rate of 61 percent, but some last minute glitches led to more tests and Bulava entering service in 2013. But since then there have been failures during tech launches.
While the Bulava has problems the Russians have a track record of eventually getting workable SLBMs into service. Not so the Chinese (so far) and their JL (Julang) 2 SLBM, which was supposed to enter service in 2008 and finally (according to the Chinese) did so in 2015. In the meantime the new Type 94 SSBN designed to carrly the JL-2 also has problems. There are four in service but they spend little time at sea and there have not been many test launches of the JL-2 SLBM.
The JL-2 has had a lot of problems, as have the SSBNs that carried them. The 42 ton JL-2 has a range of 8,000 kilometers and would enable China to aim missiles at any target in the United States from a 094 class SSBN cruising off Hawaii or Alaska. Each 094 boat can carry twelve of these missiles, which are naval versions of the existing land based 42 ton DF-31 ICBM. Few Chinese SSBNs have yet gone on an extended combat cruise because these boats have been very unreliable and the twelve JL-2 SLBMs each carries are not much better off.
But the Chinese are persistent and eventually they get modern weapons systems of their own design and manufacture to work. With their SSBNs and SLBMs it’s not a matter of if but when.