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The Swiftsure Class nuclear-powered submarines represent a formidable striking force, able to deploy quickly and covertly around the world. They are nuclear attack submarines (SSN) who may operate either individually or in support of a fleet. The Swiftsures are hunter-killers but can perform a number of other duties including land attack (with Tomahawks), surveillance, and mining. Swiftsure introduced a hull form shorter and fuller than that of the Valiant class in order to provide greater volume and create a stronger pressure hull for operation at greater depths and speeds than the previous class. The fin is smaller and the retractable diving planes are located below the water line.

The Swiftsure class of nuclear submarines have been in service with the British Royal Navy since 1973, although the later boats did not enter until the 1980s. Carrying names traditionally associated with battleships and cruisers, the first of the class was completed in the early 1970s and by 1980 all were in service. Some reports claim that three of this class of vessels (HM/S Superb, Spartan and Splendid) were sent to the Falkland's war. In fact only the Splendid and the Spartan saw action during the Falklands War in 1982. During the Falklands War, Superb was spotted sailing from Gibraltar, which prompted erroneous press speculation that she was sailing to the South Atlantic to enforce a maritime exclusion zone. They were not responsible for the sinking of the General Belgrano which was accomplished by then Commander Wreford-Brown in HM/S Conqueror, another SSN, though of the earlier Valiant class SSN.

They can also play a full role in a task group, often being the first British military units to arrive in a crisis zone. They can gather important intelligence information using their own sensors or land Special Forces on scouting missions. As hunter-killers, seeking out other submarines, the Swiftsures are deadly weapons using the spearfish torpedo. The weapons are controlled by a cutting edge combat system and a highly trained crew. Swiftsure Class submarines are by the nature of their mission destined to remain unseen. But the government's continued commitment to fielding them in the front line is a visible demonstration of their unrivalled value and relevance to UK defence.

Swiftsure Class submarines are capable of launching precision strikes with cruise missiles up to 1,000 miles inland, minimising civilian casualties while maximising influence upon events on land. In 1999, HM/S Splendid became the first Royal Navy submarine, and indeed the first non-American warship, to be fitted with the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM). During Operation Allied Force in 1999, the Splendid launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles against targets in Serbia.

Although this class of vessels is now quite old, several refits have extended their operational life, and they are still considered to be very capable vessels, although whether this is for a hunter-killer (SSN to SSN) role or as a land-attack role, is open to much speculation. Updates to the Swiftsure and Trafalgar submarines provide enhanced capabilities, including the ability to launch Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles. The submarines are fitted with a formidable range of sensors, including a hull mounted 'passive' and 'active' sonar and a very capable 'passive' towed array sonar to seek out the enemy. Electronic Warfare systems also contribute to the submarines' ability to build up an effective picture of their operating environment. Technical difficulties associated with the sonar upgrade to the Swiftsure and Trafalgar submarines centerd on software engineering and associated signal data processing. The total estimated cost of the enhancement programme is 687 million.

With their nuclear propulsion, these submarines can move swiftly, remaining unseen beneath the waves for many months. In fact, a Swiftsure Class submarine could circumnavigate the world without having to surface. It has a crew of 116 men and while space is at a premium aboard, the crew's living conditions are comfortable. As a submariner, you have to be able to get on with other people! Swiftsure and Trafalgar Class submarines are powered by Pressurised Water Reactor Mk1 plant, while Vanguard and Astute class submarines are powered by Pressurised Water Reactor Mk2 plant. In July 2007 the MoD signed a partnering contract with Rolls-Royce worth up to 1 billion over 10 years for the provision and through-life support of pressurised water reactors for the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines over the next ten years. The contract covers the reactors and equipment that translate the massive power of the nuclear fission plant into the high pressure steam that drives the submarine's turbines, providing electrical power to the boat's systems and powering its propulsion system. The Nuclear Steam Raising Plant drives not only current submarines but will also power the new Astute submarines. Rolls-Royce has been supplying Nuclear Steam Raising Plants to the Royal Navy for almost 50 years from their production site at Raynesway in Derby, and this new contract will help secure the future of staff working in this part of the business.

HMS "Swiftsure" arrived in Devonport in January 1979 for a refit scheduled to start in March 1979. Work was not started until April 1980 due to an industrial dispute. This was the first SSN refit at Devonport and, pending completion of the submarine refit complex, much of the work had to be accomplished using interim facilities. The refit was badly affected by the Civil Service dispute in 1981. The dispute which arose before HMS "Swiftsure" was taken in hand was over the terms of the agreement under which shift working was to be organised for the duration of the refit. A new pattern of shift working was essential for nuclear refitting tasks and the unions were reluctant to accept that negotiations, both on the shifts and on associated allowances, would be restricted by the limits of the shift working agreement in use at Rosyth, which was considered by management to be right for the job. As if December 1981 HMS "Swiftsure's" refit remained scheduled for completion in the second half of 1982.

Not unexpectedly for a first of class refit, a number of technical problems had arisen. The dockyard remained confident of meeting the revised target completion date of March 1983. By April 1983 HMS Swiftsure was undertaking her post-refit trials. As is normal on completion of these trials, the submarine returned to Devonport for a short defect rectification period prior to rejoining the fleet for operational duties. The final cost of HMS Swiftsure's was estimated is approximately 85 million. This figure represents dockyard total production cost and includes a full share of all dockyard and headquarters overheads.

The older nuclear-powered submarines of the Valiant / Churchill classes were prematurely withdrawn from service as a result of serious cracking in the primary cooling circuits of their nuclear reactors. The Swiftsure class have similar power plants and experienced similar problems. After cracks were found in its reactor during a refit, HMS Swiftsure did not receive a second refit, and was operationally decommissioned in 1992. Swiftsure was not required to sustain the plan for a long-term force level of around 12 nuclear-powered submarines, and she was consequently paid off in April 1992, after 19 years in service. Other reports claim that HMS Swiftsure was decommissioned in 1992 due to damage suffered to her pressure hull during trials, but this seems to be in error. By June 1992 HMS Swiftsure had been defuelled at Rosyth and was being prepared for storage afloat there. The core removed from HMS Swiftsure is stored ashore in containers authorised for this purpose.

The Swiftsure Class of nuclear submarines were designed with a hull life at construction of at least 25 years. Past experience with UK submarine programs suggests that even a 5-year life extension would involve some risk. The lives of the previous Resolution-class SSBNs ranged between 25 and 28 years, but there was a significant loss of availability and increase in support costs towards the end of their lives. The longest life extension for any UK nuclear powered submarine was to 33 years for one of the Swiftsure-class conventional role submarines but again availability was significantly reduced during its later years.

Three Swiftsure class submarines underwent refits in the mid-1990s, both at Rosyth Royal Dockyard. HMS Sovereign at a cost of 192 million from August 1992 to May 1998 and HMS Superb at a cost of 200 from December 1994, due to complete Autumn 1998. The scope and length of both refits were extended to include additional repair work on nuclear steam generators. HMS Sceptre underwent a refit at Rosyth, the cost of which was estimated to be 154 million.

The Astute class submarine is scheduled to slowly replace the the Swiftsure class. The Astute Class will be the largest, most capable and widely deployable attack submarines that the Royal Navy has ever operated, and will replace the Swiftsure and Trafalgar Class, which have been in-service since the 1970s and 1980s respectively. The Astute Class will have improved communications systems to support joint operations and an enhanced ability to operate in shallower littoral environments compared with previous classes.

HMS Superb was suffering technical problems that caused her to lose speed as she travelled down the Red Sea in May 2008. Commander Steven Drysdale was in charge of HMS Superb when he decided to take a short cut to get to the Persian Gulf in time for operations. The new route was drawn directly across the spot where an underwater pinnacle was marked on the map, making it more difficult to see. Commander Drysdale misread the 132m depth of the stone pinnacle as 732m and ordered the sub to dive. Commander Drysdale and Lieutenant-Commander Cutler decided to dive to 250m instead of 100m in order to travel faster in colder water. The 32 million submarine, which was capable of carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles, suffered damage to its sonar equipment when it crashed and had to return to Britain. The sub's nuclear reactor was intact but its sonar navigation equipment had been badly damaged. Superb, which had 112 crew on board, is now stuck on the surface and unable to dive. HMS Superb was decommissioned four months later, although the Ministry of Defence said this was not because of the accident. Commander Drysdale, who crashed the nuclear submarine into a large rock after mistaking a figure 1 for a 7 on a chart, was reprimanded by a court martial March 16, 2010.

On 26 September 2008 the Royal Navy's longest-serving submarine was decommissioned in a ceremony at a naval base Plymouth. Nuclear-powered HMS Superb came into service in 1976 as one of six Swiftsure class hunter-killer vessels. During the ceremony, the ship's company lined up on the quayside at Devonport while a Royal Marines band played and a ceremonial guard was held. The vessel was taken to Devonport instead of her Faslane base after hitting rocks in the Red Sea in May.

In March 2000 HMS Sceptre's engines powered up without warning during repair work and the 3500-ton sub lurched forward towards the dock wall. Workers and anti-nuclear campaigners claim the incident could have sparked a Chernobyl-style meltdown. One member of staff at Rosyth naval dockyard said: "If it had hit the dock and cracked the reactor, then that would have been goodnight Scotland." The nuclear-powered vessel pulled a huge dockyard crane off its tracks, broke free of its moorings and caused thousands of pounds worth of damage.

On 03 February 2005 HMS Sceptre docked at Gibraltar for repairs. Some of the repairs were external, with work required on the sub's casing, fin and periscope. The British Government had told Spain about a damaged cooling system. The Government claimed that repairs concern only the submarine's diesel turbo generator. There was no question of a nuclear repair being carried out. Spain's government knew a week earlier that the ailing British nuclear submarine was heading for Gibraltar, and complained only when it learned the vessel's problem was more serious than originally believed. Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said he had asked Britain to stop sending nuclear subs to Gibraltar, but that the British had assured him this one would be there no longer than a week.

In March 2010 HMS Sceptre, a Swiftsure-class nuclear powered submarine, was said to have been sent from southern Africa to make Argentina think twice about laying serious claims to the Islands. At that time it was the oldest seagoing vessel in the Royal Navy. The move wa in response to Argentine MPs debate on a bill imposing a 30-day deadline on firms to axe ties with the Falklands or face being kicked out of the south American country.

HMS Sceptre, is due to end her career in 2010.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:59:46 ZULU