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Ben Wallace: Submarines rather than ships could be the Royal Navy's future

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 01/09/2022 Dominic Nicholls, Danielle Sheridan
An Astute class submarine with HMS Queen Elizabeth in the background - Jay Allen /Royal Navy © Jay Allen /Royal Navy An Astute class submarine with HMS Queen Elizabeth in the background - Jay Allen /Royal Navy

Submarines could be the future of the navy rather than ships, the Defence Secretary has said as he launched a major review of its fleets.

Ben Wallace has asked naval chiefs to assess the “balance” between the surface and submarine fleets.

The study is expected to take no longer than six months. It may align with a wider review of foreign, defence and security policy that defence sources have said could be ordered by the new prime minister.

Mr Wallace pointed to the emerging threat of surveillance technology and long-range weapons in nations such as China and Russia as a cause for concern.

Comparing Britain's 27 major surface vessels and 11 submarines, Mr Wallace said: "We’re planning on growing our surface fleet, but is our sub-sea fleet big enough?

“If it isn't, do we trade one off against the other [or] do we find money from elsewhere?"

Speaking to The Telegraph in Barrow-in-Furness at the commissioning of HMS Astute, Britain’s latest hunter-killer submarine, Mr Wallace said: “We should ask ourselves what the role is for sub-sea in the future.

“I’m commissioning a review to determine if we have the right balance between the surface and sub-sea fleets for the future.

“Our adversaries cannot replicate the skills we have in Barrow or the expertise of our submariners and they may well be the deciding factor in a future conflict.”

Submarines can remain undetected even when very close to an adversary’s coastline, enabling covert eavesdropping of communications, the deployment of special forces teams or the launch of advanced technology such as reconnaissance or suicide drones.

Concern over other nations' long-range weapons

At present only the US and UK submarine services could get inside the defences of a country such as China, Mr Wallace said.

“It’s extraordinary what Royal Navy submarines do," he added. “Sub-sea has a barrier to entry that means all those proliferation challenges, that are going to threaten our air forces and our surface ships, don’t present themselves.

“The barriers to land, air and surface platforms are huge. Even the new stealth planes can eventually be seen when you’re close to the target. But you can still remain undetected by submarines.”

Military forces on the sea, on land and in the air are increasingly able to be targeted at long ranges from so-called Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) systems - but submarines are more able to evade attack.

These missile and radar weapons, which are relatively cheap, are seen by Western defence chiefs as a threat of the future.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace speaking at BAE systems in Barrow-in-Furness as HMS Anson was commissioned into the Royal Navy - Peter Byrne /PA © Provided by The Telegraph Defence Secretary Ben Wallace speaking at BAE systems in Barrow-in-Furness as HMS Anson was commissioned into the Royal Navy - Peter Byrne /PA

A defence source said: “The Ukraine conflict underlines that missile ranges and surveillance systems in space and on aircraft are now such that even surface ships still in harbour can be targeted and destroyed.

“Submarines can remain undetectable to modern space-based assets and long-range missiles and hypersonic [weapons].

“Even as capabilities to detect submarines improve, their greater depth, distances and deception plans keep them hidden beyond anything on land, or in the sky or space.

“Britain and its allies continue to have a significant industrial and technical advantage in sub-surface technology relative to our adversaries, developed over decades of specialisation in capability development and operations.

“Our integration of capabilities as well as our torpedo and sonar technologies can fundamentally hold at risk any enemy maritime force and can pop up inside A2AD bubbles to engage surface targets in a way that no other assets can replicate.”

Liz Truss promises extra cash for defence

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary who is expected to win the Conservative Party leadership race, has promised to raise defence spending to three per cent of GDP by 2030, giving the MoD an estimated extra £20 billion.

A new paper by the Rusi think-tank says income tax will need to increase by 5p to hit Ms Truss’s pledge.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of RUSI, warned “the most likely source of funding for increased defence spending would be an increase in taxation revenues”.

“If the entire cost of the defence increase were to be funded in this way, it would be equivalent to an additional one per cent of GDP by the end of the decade,” he said.

“This amounts to around 5p added to all rates of income tax, and, or, a 5p increase in the standard VAT rate.”

Mr Wallace said any future defence spending commitments would depend on the outcome of the review but may include new submarines or underwater autonomous vehicles.

“Autonomy under the sea is as important as anywhere else," he said.

“If, suddenly, something becomes very vulnerable, or more vulnerable than it was, is there a way to deliver the same effect? It may simply be a matter of different weapon systems.

Mr Wallace said “barriers to entry” such as A2AD systems “still require brains forward”.

“Autonomous sub-surface vessels still need to communicate back, they can’t think for themselves, and are therefore vulnerable.

"How dangerous can the next generation of submarines be? What if they were able to launch surveillance payloads, better special forces insertion and support capabilities or suicide drones?” 

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