A confidential Ministry of Defence memo says that corrosion on the UK’s new fleet of hunter-killer submarines was caused by cost-cutting and warns that quality controls have been ignored, the Guardian can reveal.
Written by a senior analyst at the MoD, the memo says the corrosion is a “cause for major concern”, and that the first three Astute class boats are likely to experience “severe problems” in the future.
“Has the objective been the prevention of corrosion in submarine components or was it just a cost-cutting exercise?” the memo asks. “It seems a decision has been taken to keep the painting to a minimum in Astute class build to reduce costs? It has to be accepted that the rust effected [sic] areas will not be 100% removed … It could be categorically stated that corrosion life of these components has been compromised and further corrosion problems could be expected before the planned maintenance period.”
The disclosure comes after a Guardian investigation revealed that HMS Astute, the first of seven new hunter-killer boats, has been beset with problems during sea trials, raising questions about its performance and reliability.
The £9.75bn fleet was commissioned 15 years ago to become a cornerstone of the UK’s naval attack capability, but a range of design and construction flaws have emerged.
Defence officials admitted corrosion was found on the submarines but insisted the problem had been rectified. They said it should not affect any more boats in the fleet.
However, the memo suggests the damage to the Astute, and its sister submarine HMS Ambush, was extensive and warns that the boats will have to spend more time being repaired in the future.
The memo says this is “clearly a Quality Assurance failure”, adding: “But there has not been any effort taken to find out the reasons for this failure. It is important that the MoD/Astute project finds out who was responsible for such a quality failure and more importantly how to avoid such QA failures in the future.” Expert advice was ignored “in the name of meeting a schedule”, it says.
The memo concludes: “It seems that the first three Astute Class Boats would have the same problems and therefore, the Submarine In-Service team could expect sever [sic] problems in the future.
“These failures show a lack of giving prominence to the materials and corrosion issues and taking decisions mainly with the objective of reducing costs. The MoD … seems to be concentrating on the procurement costs without consideration to through-life costs.
HMS Astute also encountered a flooding problem during sea trials last year, it has emerged.
Officials said the attack vessel let in tens of litres of water due to a corroded metal cap on one of its cooling pipes. As a result it was forced to resurface.
Electrical switchboards were also found to be fitted incorrectly and concerns were raised about the accuracy of instruments monitoring its on-board nuclear reactor.
Despite the teething problems, defence officials said the issues had been rectified and it was “normal for first-of-class trials to identify areas where modifications are required”.
The history of procurement disasters at the Ministry of Defence is a long and dispiriting one and nobody wants the Astute submarine programme – already costing close to £10bn – to join the list. In some respects, it already has, because of the delays and budget increases over the last 15 years
In an industry where a small nut or bolt can cost up to £1,000, and be required to perform an important role, this is a necessity. The QA regime is there for safety reasons and to give confidence that other cogs in the system do not jam.
The cap that failed on the water cooling pipe on HMS Astute was supposed to have QA1 status, but somehow a cap made of the wrong material [Really? That IS unacceptable] was installed. The MoD and BAE Systems, which has the contract for building the Astute submarines, have refused to be drawn on how this happened and why they think it cannot happen again
John Large, a nuclear submarine expert said. “The implications of these revelations are that the submarines are likely to be held over out of service longer during future maintenance spells and, of course, there are costly safety and operational issues arising from this,”
Every penny counts at the MoD at the moment. Thousands of people – serving personnel and civil servants – have been made redundant. Thousands more will go next year too.
The MoD cannot afford another procurement embarrassment.
The boat has yet to start formal service, Astute – four years overdue and £2bn over budget – has been surrounded by controversy since it was first commissioned 15 years ago. Is this really acceptable? Do we have to live with such apparent incompetence? What would be the outcome if we behaved as incompetently as that?