Royal Navy Submarine Service

The Royal Navy Submarine Service is the collective name given to the submarine element of the Royal Navy. It is sometimes known as the "Silent Service", on account of a submarine being required to operate quietly in order to remain undetected by enemy sonar. The service currently consists of nine Fleet submarines (SSNs), of the Swiftsure and Trafalgar class, and four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), of the Vanguard class. It also operates the LR5 Submarine Rescue System.

All the Royal Navy's current submarines (with the exception of the LR5, which is strictly speaking a submersible rather than a submarine) are nuclear powered.


The United Kingdom was the last major maritime power to use submarines at the beginning of the 20th century, as the idea of submarine warfare was considered by many senior personnel in the Admiralty to be "Underhand, unfair and damned un-English (Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, 1901). However, those in favour of experimenting with submarine technology eventually won the argument, and the Royal Navy launched its first submarine, Holland 1, in 1901.

The Submarine Service proved its worth in World War I, where it won five of the Royal Navy's 14 Victoria Crosses of the war, the first by Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, Commanding Officer of HMS B11.

During World War II the major operating arenas were the Norwegian waters; the Mediterranean where a flotilla of submarines fought a successful battle against the Axis replenishment route to North Africa; and the Far East where Royal Navy submarines disrupted Japanese shipping operating in the Malacca Straits.

The first British nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought (S101) was launched in 1960 based around a US-built nuclear reactor. This was complemented by the Valiant class from 1966, which featured the Rolls-Royce PWR1 reactor.

Royal Navy submarines became an important part of the strategic nuclear deterrent with the introduction of the Resolution class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) from 1968. These carried US-built Polaris missiles and were later replaced by the Vanguard class submarines and the Trident missile system from 1994.

HMS Conqueror made history in 1982 during the Falklands War when she became the first nuclear-powered submarine to sink a surface ship, the ARA General Belgrano.

In May 1991 Oberon class submarines HMS Opossum and her sister HMS Otus returned to the submarine base HMS Dolphin in Gosport from patrol in the Persian Gulf flying Jolly Rogers (see below), the only indication that they had been involved in alleged SAS and SBS reconnaissance operations.

In 1999 HMS Splendid participated in the Kosovo Conflict and became the first Royal Navy submarine to fire a cruise missile in anger.

After Operation Veritas, the attack on Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, it emerged that HMS Trafalgar was the first Royal Navy submarine to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against Afghanistan,. HMS Triumph was also involved in the initial strikes . On April 16, 2003 it was reported that HMS Turbulent, the first Royal Navy vessel to return home from the war against Iraq, had launched fourteen Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The Jolly Roger and the Submarine Service

Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Royal Navy, summed up the opinion of many in the Admiralty at the time when he said in 1901 "[Submarines are] underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. ... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews. In response, Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton first flew the Jolly Roger on return to port after sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela and the destroyer SMS S-116 in 1914 while in command of the E class submarine HMS E9.

In World War II it became common practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy to fly the Jolly Roger on completion of a successful combat mission where some action had taken place, but as an indicator of bravado and stealth rather than of lawlessness. For example in 1982 returning from the Falklands conflict HMS Conqueror flew the Jolly Roger depicting one dagger for the SBS deployment to South Georgia and one torpedo for her sinking of the Argentinian Cruiser Belgrano. The Jolly Roger is now the emblem of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.

The Perisher

The Perisher (as the Submarine Command Course is better known) is a 24 week course all officers must take prior to serving as an Executive Officer on board a Royal Navy Submarine. It has been run twice a year since 1917, usually starting on 02 July and 14 November each year. It is widely regarded as one of the toughest command courses in the world, with an historical failure rate of 25%.

If at any point during the training a candidate is withdrawn from training he will be nominated for boat transfer and kept occupied until the transfer. His bag is packed for him and he is notified of the failure when the boat arrives. On departure he is presented with a bottle of whisky. A failure on Perisher means that it is very unlikely the candidate will return to the Submarine Service.


The Submarine Service has many traditions that are not found in the surface fleet. These include slang unique to submariners (such as referring to the torpedo storage compartment as the Bomb Shop and the diesel engine room as the Donk Shop), a special communications code known as the Dolphin Code and the entitlement of a sailor to wear Dolphins upon entering the service. (Which were only awarded after completion of training and qualification in ships systems - on board first submarine posting (Part III training)

Active submarines

Fleet submarines

As of 2006, the Submarine Service consists of two classes of Fleet (sometimes known as attack or Hunter-Killer) submarines - the Swiftsure class submarine and the Trafalgar class submarine. Since they are all nuclear submarines, they are classified as SSNs.

These submarines are armed with the Spearfish torpedo for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. Some are also armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles for attacking targets on land. This capability was used by HMS Trafalgar against the Taliban in 2001 during Operation Veritas. The Fleet submarines are also capable of surveillance and reconnaissance missions

Royal Navy Fleet submarines in active service
Name Class Pennant Number Launched
HMS Superb Swiftsure S104 1974
HMS Sceptre Swiftsure S104 1976
HMS Trafalgar Trafalgar S107 1981
HMS Turbulent Trafalgar S87 1982
HMS Tireless Trafalgar S88 1984
HMS Torbay Trafalgar S90 1985
HMS Trenchant Trafalgar S91 1986
HMS Talent Trafalgar S92 1988
HMS Triumph Trafalgar S93 1991

Ballistic submarines

The four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) of the Royal Navy are all of the Vanguard class. They were all built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd, now BAE Systems Submarines. The SSBN flotilla or bomber 'fleet' fleet tends to be almost a separate entity, for example it rarely uses pennant numbers preferring to use hull numbers, thus Vanguard 05, Victorious 06, Vigilant 07 and Vengeance 08.

The four Vanguard class boats are responsible for the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent, and use the Trident missile system. Each boat can carry up to 16 Trident II D5 Missiles, each of which may carry up to 12 nuclear warheads. It is UK Government policy to limit the actual number of warheads carried to 48 per boat.

There has been at least one SSBN on patrol at all times for over 30 years, for a total of over 300 missions.

Royal Navy ballistic missile submarines in active service
Name Class Pennant Number Launched
HMS Vanguard Vanguard S28 1992
HMS Victorious Vanguard S29 1993
HMS Vigilant Vanguard S30 1996
HMS Vengeance Vanguard S31 1998

LR5 Submarine Rescue System

The Royal Navy also operates the LR5 Submarine Rescue System, designed for retrieving sailors from stranded submarines. It is capable of rescuing 16 at a time.

Future submarines

The Royal Navy is to receive at least four new Astute class submarines, with deliveries due in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014; a further 3 or 4 are planned. The Swiftsure-class will be entirely decommissioned by 2010. HMS Trafalgar is to be decommissioned in 2008, followed by HMS Turbulent in 2011. The Astute Class submarine will be the largest nuclear Fleet submarine ever to serve with the Royal Navy, nearly 30% larger than its predecessors. Its powerplant is the Rolls Royce PWR2 reactor, developed for the Vanguard class SSBN. The armament of Astute class is to be 38 Spearfish torpedoes (the US equivalent is the Mk48 ADCAP torpedo), Tomahawk Block III/IV Cruise Missiles and submarine-launched mines. It is not known whether more Astute class submarines will be ordered.

Another development project is the Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC). These will follow on from the Astute class, and possibly replace the Trafalgar class. Reports (e.g. in Defense News) have suggested that the MUFC studies may result in a single class of multi-role submarines to replace the Trafalgar class, Vanguard class SSBNs and eventually the Astute class. This would require a submarine capable of launching conventional land-attack missiles, some form of nuclear missile (ICBM or tactical nuclear missile) as well as conventional submarine munitions including mines and torpedoes.

A new generation of ballistic missile submarines is also being planned, following a December 2006 Ministry of Defence white paper which recommended that the nuclear weapons should be maintained into the 2040s. It advocated the currently preferred submarine-based system, as it remained the cheapest and most secure deterrence option available.

See also

Further reading


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