Sheila Weir has taken photos of the Vanguard submarine as it arrives home, looking like a sea monster fully covered in algae.
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We’ve seen our fair share of navy ships here at The War Zone that, how shall we put it, looked worse for wear. Surface combatants may develop severe rust and corrosion as a result of lengthy sea deployments, smaller crew sizes, and fast-paced activities. But even if they wanted to, submariners do not have the luxury of easy access to the majority of the structure of their vessel to keep corrosion under control and the filth off. Ballistic missile submarines spend very little time on the surface since their goal is to find a hole in the water and hide there for extended periods of time.
Recent photos of a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) of the Royal Navy’s Vanguard-class, taken by Sheila Weir after the sub allegedly finished a six-month deterrent patrol, highlight the tremendous beating these leviathans of the deep can endure while on missions for extended periods of time. The missile boat resembles a sea monster that has just awoken from a protracted slumber at the ocean’s bottom.
The in question photos were shot earlier today when the Vanguard class submarine made its way back to HM Naval Base Clyde, popularly known as Faslane, on the west coast of Scotland. There are four submarines in the Vanguard class; it is uncertain which particular one this was or where it traveled during its six months at sea. The Royal Navy routinely keeps the movements of these SSBNs under wraps. To maintain the credibility of the nation’s second-strike nuclear deterrence, one British SSBN is constantly on patrol out of HM Naval Base Clyde. The Royal Navy’s SSBNs have been the only source of nuclear weapons capability for the United Kingdom since 1998.
The imagery makes it immediately apparent how shoddy the sub appears. Its hull is covered with a brownish-green hue, which is a highly severe case of “marine [or bio] fouling” – the accumulation of diverse marine organisms on a vessel’s surface. The photos demonstrate that while anti-fouling paints can be used to assist in avoiding this, a method the Royal Navy and U.K. Ministry of Defense are still researching, the issue cannot be completely resolved.
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It should be observed that several of the anechoic tiles on the hull are gone in the images, which is common once a protracted deployment is over. To lessen the likelihood that the sub may be picked up by passive sonar, anechoic tiles are made to absorb the sound waves of active sonar and lower the sounds that the sub emits. The pictures clearly demonstrate where rust has developed underneath the missing tiles.
How accumulated the marine fouling is may be seen by contrasting the images from today with those taken of a Vanguard class sub departing from Faslane in late August. They further emphasize that the sub’s unkempt appearance was caused by the length of the patrol rather than its age. These boats are currently in their later stages of development.
The four Vanguard-class submarines of the Royal Navy were all commissioned in the 1990s with a 25-year service life. Each boat is equipped with 16 missile tubes for UGM-133 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as we have previously said. In actuality, though, just eight are employed. When on deterrence patrols, Royal Navy SSBNs can carry a maximum of 40 warheads, with each Trident missile having the capacity to carry multiple warheads or multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs).
The United Kingdom is now starting a $43 billion project to replace four of its Vanguard-class submarines with Dreadnought-class vessels. Early in the 2030s, the submarines are anticipated to join the Royal Navy. Trident missile modernization, which is anticipated to receive W93 warheads, will also occur.
As was previously said, while the sub’s precise movements during its six months at sea remain unknown by design, this hasn’t stopped knowledgeable commenters from attempting to piece together certain parts of its voyages. Tom Sharpe, a former commander in the Royal Navy, claims that the latest photographs show the sub engaged in warm-water activities along littoral and shallow beaches while traveling at extremely slow speeds.
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Others have questioned why, given that deployments typically last about two to three months, the warship was sent out on patrol for six months. The director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, Hans Kristensen, has questioned whether the prolonged time spent at sea indicates a problem with one of the Royal Navy’s other SSBNs. At any given time, one is always on patrol, one is undergoing maintenance, and two are intended to replace or accompany the vessel on patrol if necessary. Additionally, according to Kristensen, the patrol might have been an endurance test.
Whatever the cause, concerns about prolonged deployments of Royal Navy SSBNs have been voiced in the past, particularly with regard to operational safety. British Vanguard subs had been deployed at sea for a record-breaking five months each, according to a December 2022 article in The Guardian newspaper. The length of such deployments can have significant effects on crew morale and safety standards, according to Commander Rob Forsyth, Royal Navy (Ret’d), who commanded Polaris nuclear submarines in the 1970s.
“Today, reliable anecdotal evidence suggests that Royal Navy submariners serving aboard the United Kingdom’s current Trident patrols are serving for 150 days or more. That’s two to three times the length of just one of my own patrols,” he said. “The great danger is that this unchanging routine, week after week, leads to boredom, complacency and an inevitable drop-off in standards.”
Having said that, it is evident that longer nuclear submarine patrols are happening increasingly frequently in the Royal Navy. The recent photographs demonstrate that these definitely give the subs themselves a serious battering in addition to testing the crews’ endurance. The very worn submarine may be considered something of a badge of honor for its crew for having lasted such a protracted deployment deep underwater.