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Britain has started work on a new fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines that is likely to enter service towards the middle of the century, days after signing a new defence accord with Australia and the US to help Canberra acquire similar vessels.
Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, announced the award of the contracts to BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, worth £85m each, for the initial design work on a next generation of hunter-killer submarines that will ultimately replace the seven Astute-class boats, which are still being delivered to the Royal Navy.
The announcement came days after the UK and US signed a pact to work with Australia to help it design and build its own fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines. It remains unclear what type of design Canberra will choose but it is likely be based either on the Astute design or the US navy’s equivalent, the Virginia-class.
The three-year contracts will sustain about 250 jobs at BAE’s Barrow-in-Furness site in Cumbria, the UK’s only submarine manufacturing facility, and another 100 at Rolls-Royce’s factory in Derby. Rolls-Royce has been the UK’s sole provider of reactors to the Royal Navy since it first introduced nuclear-powered submarines just under 60 years ago.
The government said industry involvement in the next-generation design would also include UK defence contractor Babcock International, which maintains the fleet of submarines.
Wallace said the multimillion pound investment would “ensure that this vital capability will be ready to replace our Astute-class submarines as they come out of service, whilst supporting high-skilled jobs across the midlands and north west of England”.
Defence analysts said the early design contracts would ensure that vital skills would be maintained across British yards.
Ian Booth, chief executive of Britain’s Submarine Delivery Agency, an arm of the Ministry of Defence, said it was “essential that work on the next generation of underwater capability commences as early as possible”, adding: “This relies on some of the nation’s most experienced defence nuclear experts from the very beginning of the design phase.”
Trevor Taylor, of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said awarding the initial contracts was “a sensible thing to do from an industrial policy perspective”, adding that the sector required “a drumbeat of work to ensure that critical skills [were] maintained”.
The Astute programme encountered problems when it began in the 1990s, hampered by a shortage of skills and issues with the advanced design, resulting in delays and rising costs.
The programme, valued at more than £11bn, has so delivered four out of a total of seven boats to the Royal Navy. The first, HMS Astute, became operational in 2014, while the fifth, HMS Anson, is due to start sea trials next year. The seventh submarine — Agincourt — is due for delivery before the end of 2026.
The Astute-class, which carry torpedoes and conventional cruise missiles, are replacing the seven older Trafalgar-class submarines, two of which are still in service.
Britain’s planned new fleet of submarines are not expected to enter service until the 2040s at the earliest, according to industry experts. The MoD has previously said the Astute boats have a 25-year service life.
The Royal Navy’s hunter-killers are designed to sink ships and submarines and play a key role in protecting the boats that carry the UK’s nuclear deterrent. They can also hit targets on land when submerged with their cruise missiles and put special forces on covert operations ashore.
The government has promised to publish a refresh of the national shipbuilding strategy this autumn in the wake of the UK’s new defence and security industrial strategy, published in March.
The US is already working on a successor to the Virginia-class attack submarine and announced this year that it aimed to procure its first next-generation boat in the early 2030s.