HMS Audacious finally leaves Barrow amid growing Astute programme secrecy

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HMS Audacious being escourted by tugs while leaving Barrow (BAE Systems)

In April 2020, three years after it was officially launched, HMS Audacious, the fourth Astute-class nuclear-powered submarine, finally left the shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness after repair work to replace a faulty part. Subsequently, official data has censored the Astute project end date and shows a nearly £800m increase in project budget since the previous year. The submarine was first launched in April 2017 and underwent trials in the dock at Barrow the following January. However it was not sent for sea trials, which would have been the next step towards bringing the submarine into service, and appears to have been returned to the Devonshire Dock Hall for repairs. According to the Secretary of State for Defence, part of the repairs involved replacing a faulty part with one intended for one of the other Astute submarines.

In answer to parliamentary questions in February, the MoD claimed that the delays would not affect the Dreadnought nuclear-armed submarine build schedule. The Dreadnought submarines will be built in the facility in Barrow currently being used to build the Astute fleet. However, data recently released by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) shows that the Delivery Confidence Assessment (DCA) for the Astute programme has been downgraded from Amber to Amber/Red, meaning that successful delivery of the project is “in doubt”. The IPA data also shows that the project budget increased from £9.9bn to £10.7bn between September 2018 and September 2019, and the project end date has been withheld from the data on grounds of national security. The project start date has also been removed from the data on national security grounds, but it is unlikely to have been retroactively changed from 17th March 1997.

When news broke last year about the length of the delay to the submarine, its in-service date was expected to be early 2021. Audacious was commissioned into the Navy before leaving the shipyard in April, but the Navy is likely to carry out sea trials before the submarine enters service, a process that has sometimes taken years in previous Astute-class submarines. BAE Systems put in place new working procedures and kept the team working on Audacious in place while work in other parts of the site was restricted due to Covid-19. Work on HMS Anson, the fifth Astute-class submarine, was paused as the workforce was redeployed to help with repairing HMS Audacious.

Within the IPA data it is stated that the MoD and BAE Systems have between them managed to “improve” or “recover” the project timetable. In March the Public Accounts Committee were told that some risks to the Astute project had not materialised, and that an additional 600 members of staff are planned tobe recruited at Barrow. The IPA data predicts that the additional staff and more training will help them to improve the situation. However the parliamentary answers in February only committed the government to delivering the Astute submarine fleet by the end of 2026, 20 months later than the previous project end date. The Amber/Red DCA and the censoring of the current project end date and start date, suggests there is potential further delays to the Astute project, and a possible knock-on effect to the Dreadnought schedule.