I watched ”How to Build a Nuclear Submarine” on Sunday evening, part of a series of documentaries about significant engineering projects. This episode was about the construction of the Astute boats. I had a bit of a vested interest as I had a fair amount to do with the design of these boats when I was in the service. It was interesting, and pretty well presented. There was a fair amount of human interest, and some of the more challenging technical issues around build.
Astute is what we call a ”Fleet submarine”, otherwise known as an attack boat or, in Tom Clancy novels, Hunter-Killers. She has a number of roles; hunting down and sinking other submarines and surface ships, reconnaissance, indicators and warnings, launching conventionally armed land attack missiles, known as Tomahawk, and delivering special forces amongst others. She’s extremely capable, and while some discussion of her capabilities on the programme were somewhat overblown she is a phenomenal platform.
What disappointed was the last section, leading up to Astute going afloat and leaving the build yard at Barrow-in-Furness. She was all fitted out, and ready to go. At that point the ability of the camera crew to actually film any of her warfighting systems was extremely limited. That led to a tour of the boat immediately before sailing that emphasised such important things as; the Captains’ command chair, his cabin and how the bunk worked, the accommodation spaces, including huge TV, games consoles and how good the food is.
It’s typical of a problem that the Navy seems to have, filming what goes on ends up with a focus is on what appears to be a fairly cushy life. In direct comparison to coverage of colleagues in the Army, and sometimes Royal Air Force it looks as if the RN is a bit of a holiday camp. The really interesting stuff can’t be filmed, so we end up disproportionately focused on the occasional leisure time.
It’s a significant issue, particularly as the three services compete for an ever diminishing defence budget. I frequently find in conversation about my former life that there is a lack of understanding of what the Navy does. Most people don’t appreciate that the Royal Marines are an element of the Naval Service and under the command of Commander in Chief Fleet. The vast majority of people I speak to don’t appreciate that a significant number of RN personnel are deployed shoreside. Most of my peer group have now been in either Afghanistan or Iraq at least once. There are obvious roles; aviation, medical staff, bomb disposal but also logisticians, information and media operations, force protection, convoy drivers and vehicle mechanics. That’s before considering those RN in joint roles or on exchange with the Army or Air Force.
I ended up disappointed with the programme. After some very interesting discussion of the boat, we ended up finishing on the superficial trivia that detracts from letting people know about what the RN does.