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HMS Vanguard
HMS Trafalgar
HMS Superb off coast of Gibraltar.

The Royal Navy currently has a Fleet of fifteen nuclear powered submarines. These submarines can be divided into two distinct categories the Submarine Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) and the Submarine Nuclear (SSN) of which the Royal Navy has four of the former and eleven of the later. The primary role of the SSBNs is to provide the United Kingdom's strategic nuclear deterrent. The SSNs have a more varied role that is primarily to promote peace and security by providing conventional deterrence.

The SSBN, Britain's Nuclear Deterrent Force

Since 1968 the UK has deployed a force of four SSBNs armed initially with Polaris missiles as the nation's ultimate guarantee of security. This minimum deterrent force was provided until the early nineties by the four Resolution class SSBNs. During the 1990s the highly sophisticated and stealthy Vanguard class of submarine replaced the Resolution boats, at the same time the Trident missile system was brought in to replace the ageing Polaris missiles.

The Vanguard class is the largest submarine ever built by the Royal Navy. It is over 150 meters in length and has a displacement of 15,900 tonnes when dived. Each of the four Vanguards is equipped with a highly sophisticated tactical weapons system for self-defence and has the capability to carry sixteen Trident 2 D5 missiles with a range of over 4,000 miles. The range and accuracy of the Trident weapon system will maintain the effectiveness, invulnerability and credibility of the UK's independent Strategic deterrent well into the 21st century.

In 1997 the new Labour Government produced the Strategic Defence Review, which included a rigorous re-examination of our nuclear deterrence requirements, concluding that, a minimum deterrent remains a necessary element of our security. Deterrence, however, should be based on the minimum capability necessary to deter any threat to our vital interests and as a result the UK made reductions from Cold War weapon numbers.

This deterrent requirement is met by the Trident force and is assigned to NATO. As such it constitutes a force for European and global stability and is now the UK's only nuclear weapons system. The stockpile of operational warheads has been reduced, as has the number of warheads carried by each SSBN. None of these changes have affected the strategic effectiveness of the Trident system, nor do they make nuclear use easier to contemplate, more likely, or more applicable to action; the UK would only ever use its nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances in defence of our vital interests.

The SSN, Hunter-Killer Submarine

The Royal Navy operates a flotilla of 11 Trafalgar and Swiftsure Class submarines; sophisticated and capable platforms equipped with modern sensors and weapons which give them an all-weather warfighting capability in all environments. Operating independently before the arrival of any task group, they offer many advantages over conventional surface vessels, including:

  • Covert surveillance and intelligence gathering
  • Insertion and recovery of Special Forces
  • Operate independently of the supply train

Once other forces arrive in theatre SSNs are able to integrate quickly, providing the Task Group with defence from both submarine and surface ship based attack, making them an extremely potent weapon.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the SSN fleet however, is their ability to fire the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM). This adds a major new dimension to the fleet, widening the range of choices available to the UK government in contributing to operations worldwide. The UK is the only country other than the US to operate and deploy the Tomahawk cruise missile system. TLAM, a highly accurate, unmanned strike weapon capable of delivering a large warhead over long range.