The Best and … Uh, Well, the Most Expensive.

There were scandals a few years ago regarding test-cheating by operators of the US’ strategic missile systems. [nyt] But that’s just cheating. What about “rank incompetence” in the forces that prop up the nihilist triad of ‘mutual assured destruction’?

There’s a British whistleblower who describes some mind-boggling incompetence in the UK’s small Trident ballistic submarine force.

By the way, the next time the US is getting all bent out of shape about the potential for North Korea to sell ballistic missiles, remember that the US gave the British everything they needed in order to build Polaris, then Trident missiles, and the Vanguard-class British nuclear ballistic missile sub is a domestically-built clone of a mostly US-designed ship. It’s totally OK for the US to proliferate sub-launched ballistic missile technology to another country, but imagine the shit-fit that would happen if one of the US’ competitors in the worldwide arms market tried to sell such technology.[1] The US did not proliferate H-bomb making techniques to the British … oh, I can’t keep a straight face: of course they did.[2] And France learned from the UK/Canada, then taught Israel, and Israel taught South Africa. Meanwhile, the Soviets leaked a bunch of information to China, who then proliferated to Pakistan, while the Canadians proliferated to India and the Pakistanis set up an Ebay store in the form of the A Q Khan network who proliferated to Libya, Iran, North Korea. [3]

Not so Astute

Not so Astute

Anyhow, the British nuclear ballistic missile sub force is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the American one (only smaller, shabbier, colder, and wetter) – and it’s not a great model of naval competence. The inaptly-named HMS Astute ran aground off the Isle of Skye and required a pair of tugs to dislodge it. There’s nothing as “stealthy” as a ballistic missile submarine stuck on the surface, balanced on a big rock.

It is the “largest and most advanced” sub of its kind (in the Royal Navy) but it’s a sad testimony to the fall of Britain’s famous naval competence. [4]  Which… was largely imaginary anyway. By the way, budget cuts and mismanagement have pretty much obliterated the Royal Navy, a feat the even less-competent Germans and Spanish never managed.[w.i.b.]

The submarine got stuck, for unknown reasons, during a routine exchange of crew members.

“At some point she touched the rudder on the bottom and they weren’t able to get her off immediately,” a Navy spokesman said.

I’m baffled that anyone could call “navigated onto a rock” ‘unknown reasons’ but perhaps it was a fast-moving stealth rock.

georgiaA better excuse would have been that they had deliberately done it so as to reduce the embarrassment of the US Navy’s Nathaniel Greene and the Atlanta, both nuclear subs which ran aground in 1986.[5] The Nathaniel Greene, a ballistic missile sub, would presumably have been packing a complement of 16 nuclear-armed Trident missiles (the Astute, likewise, except Trident-2s instead of Trident-1s)

Last year the USS Georgia hit a channel buoy then ran aground on a sand bank. The reports say that the commander was “reassigned to Submarine Group 10” which I assume is the gulag leg of the triad where careers go to die. In Russia, he would have gotten a 9mm in the back of the skull. [6] None of these are minor incidents. For one thing, the anechoic rubber cladding on those submarines is expensive and when you scrape it on a rock, you’ve just spent millions of dollars. The unclassified cost of the Georgia‘s sandbank sojourn is $1 million. I suspect that is a seriously downplayed number.

Meanwhile the US press chose to report that a Russian “signals intelligence” ship was roaming up and down the coast (of course it was) – that’s the ship Donald Trump said he wants to destroy in international waters, by the way[nyt] – presumably they were having a ROFL-fest recording the conversations between the tugboats and the red-faced secret squirrels on the sandbank-decorating $2 billion ornament. The Georgia is no stranger to embarrassment, unfortunately [7] – in 2003 a missile-handling team accidentally tore a hole in the nose of a Trident missile (motto: “but nothing nuclear leaked out, so it’s OK”) and there were court marshals galore when it turned out that the weapons handling facility that was supposedly training people how to move MIRV’d ballistic missiles around had been padding the scores. And:

In December 2010, a bolt inadvertently left in one of the sub’s engine housings did $2.2 million in damage and forced the boat into three months of repairs.

As my old friend Sazz said, “you can count on the Navy to really fuck things up.”

The British whistleblower who told his story to Wikileaks had some pretty awful things to say. [wikileaks] Maybe they’re true, maybe they’re not – but I’m inclined to believe pretty much any story of military incompetence that is remotely possible.

A problem occurred with the Main Hydraulic Plant. I stood at the laundry where the mechanical engineers (ME’s) hangout; to gather information. Somehow sea water was getting into it. The amount of actual hydraulic oil in the plant had fallen to 35% the rest was sea water. An ET ME SM called the officers plans to deal with the situation “stupid”. Weeks had past and the problem was still there. I then heard a Leading ME say there’s an estimated 4-5 hundred Litres of sea water in the main hydraulic rep tank. The problem was there until the end of the patrol. Hydraulics is used to open the muzzle hatches. This defect stopped them from doing a Battle Readiness Test (BRT) which proves that the muzzle hatches could of opened whilst on patrol, and that if we needed to we could’ve launched.

That was on the HMS Victorious, not the HMS Vengeance – which was the British ballistic missile submarine that tried to launch a Trident missile off the coast of Florida (!) that veered toward land before its safety systems kicked in and it flew into the water. Or, maybe it just was so confused it flew into the water and the British claimed it was safety systems not further incompetence. Either way, it was just a very expensive test missile without a warhead, or now there would be a JBUFU going on off the Florida coast while everyone tried to find the warheads. There was some embarrassment and awkwardness after that, especially because the British had just been talked into spending another $60 billion on their undersea F-35.[cnn]

I could sometimes here alarms on the missiles Control and Monitoring Position (CAMP) while laying in bed. I later found out that I would’ve been hearing them more frequently if they didn’t mute the console; just to avoid listening to the alarms This is the position that monitors the condition of the missiles, and they muted the alarms. One of the watch keepers told me and laughed about how they would deal with any issues; they would deviate from set procedures because the procedures can be “long and winding.” He said “sometimes you just know that you can adjust a valve slightly and that would solve the problem. Following the procedures might take you down a long and winding path.” You might think that’s no big deal, just an engineer using his engineering skills; if he was caught doing this kind of action on an American submarine it would cost him his job and possibly his freedom. If you work on the Strategic Weapon System you must follow the procedures, mistakes can be catastrophic.


A mistake was made on the Panel in the control room. A small mistake from this position can cause a disaster. The fixed firefighting system Weapon Stowage Compartment (WSC) fog spray was accidentally activated by the control room panel operator. None of the electrical isolations that are required to be made were made; creating a high risk of fire in a compartment which contains torpedoes. It sprayed seawater over everything in the compartment; torpedoes, lights, torpedo monitoring panel; everything. I was called down to help with the clean up by the coxswain; the place was flooded. Lucky there was no fire, this time. The coxswain exclaimed “I wonder why anyone wants to work here, everything is dangerous; one little thing and we’re all f**ked!” He also expressed concern about water spraying on electrics. Someone then said “lucky it’s your last patrol then.” We all laughed.

These systems not only endanger all of humanity – they are unreliable, expensive, and managed by blockheads. The more we have, the higher the probability one will fail catastrophically.


Just in case some of you didn’t catch it, a nuclear ballistic missile submarine costs about the same as a wing of F-35s. I kind of didn’t want to belabor that point, but it’s a noteworthy indicator of how ludicrously expensive F-35s are. Since new missile subs would probably be subject to the same engineered overruns as F-35s, there will be a tendency to leave the ageing sub fleet out longer.

Electrical fault triggering a fire and propellant explosion in the missile battery is what blew the Kursk’s bow apart [wikipedia] and killed (some slowly) all 118 of her crew.

Advice: do not read the entire whistleblowers’ report before bedtime. It’ll ruin your sleep.

With regard my comment about “British naval competence” being imaginary: the Royal Navy was big and very professionalized with lots of rituals and a long history. But winning because you’re big, or your enemy is less competent than you, is not the same thing as competence. Even the incredible Horatio Nelson’s idea of strategy was to shoot faster than the enemy while charging straight at them: a strategy that works OK if you’re numerically close. (Nelson’s charge into the middle of the French/Spanish line worked because the French/Spanish command/control wasn’t very good, i.e.: they had superior incompetence at the critical point of the battle.)

My comment above: “By the way, budget cuts and mismanagement have pretty much obliterated the Royal Navy, a feat the even less-competent Germans and Spanish never managed” is a reference to a piece in “War Is Boring” which describes the Royal Navy’s current capabilities. It’s … incredible: [w.i.b.]

Today the Royal Navy is capable of routinely deploying no more than six warships on short notice. The British fleet, once the world’s mightiest, is now down to fewer than 90 ships in total — a token force.


  1. AndrewD says

    Just one thing Marcus, h.M.S. Astute is a Hunter Killer sub, not a Boomer but getting stuck on a rock is still very embarrassing.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Yeah, the Royal Navy just hasn’t been the same since Hornblower and Aubrey retired.

    Not even has a “JBUFU” listing, and a general search turns up one Johnny Bufu and a lot of pages in Italian.

    Got a spare clue for a po’ boy?

  3. says

    I’m not sure how I got that wrong. I think I had a brain-fart while reading the referenced first article (which for some reason starts talking about the Vanguard class, which do appear to be boomers) Mea culpa!

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 4: … a Joint British-US Fuck Up.

    Très apropos.

    Closest I could find at UrbDic was JBUG (Just Between Us Girls), the 1st 3 letters of which could apply here too.

  5. blf says

    And then there’s the ongoing British aircraft carrier comedy. Broadly (this is all from memory), someone decided the one aircraft carrier they had needed to be replaced. So two bigger ones were ordered. To help pay for them, the existing one was scrapped, meaning there are currently none. And then they discovered they couldn’t afford two. But canceling the contract for one of them would be more expensive then building the bloody thing. Oops.

    Ok, to help pay for the two, one will be sold (I don’t think it has been), and they’ll “defer” buying the aircraft. End result is the British will wind up with one, possibly two, aircraft carriers they can’t pay for and cannot afford to operate, and no aircraft to use on the one they intend to keep anyways.

    At least the carriers are not nuclear-powered, unlike France’s only carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, which until fairly recently spent more time in drydock getting (re-(re-…))repaired then it did floating.

  6. Brian English says

    So, that’s the Trident I see mentioned in the Guardian when talking about UK defense? A knock off of a US sub?
    It’s getting to be laughable, or would be, if countries weren’t ploughing the next generations health-care, amenity and infrastructure, not to mention ameliorating climate change, into white elephants. Australia is going to spend somewhere near 20 billion ozzie battlers on some variant of F-35 that doesn’t have legs. I wonder if the guys who are championing this purchase have noticed that we don’t have an aircraft carrier (hello! we’ll buy one from the UK) to get these technological chimaera (it’s all things to all parties, and does none of them very well) close enough so that they can reach a target and return for a months servicing?

  7. komarov says

    Years ago I read an article – BBC probably – that the Navy had trouble (or would soon be having trouble) crewing their nuclear subs because nobody wanted to serve on them. I’m beginning to see why. Maybe they’ve addressed the shortage by relaxing their standards, letting crew aboard that in better times would have been posted in such noble positions as bilgepump observer on the HMS Training Ship No. 49 for a long and hopefully uneventful career.*

    One way or another, an unpopular service that’s loosing veterans and can’t find replacement who learn from them is bound to deterioate. With ageing tech there comes a point where learning the manuals and procedures isn’t enough anymore, thus exacerbating the loss of experience. That’s dangerous with conventional weapon systems. With the trefoil in play there should come a moment where sane minds say, ‘We can’t operate these subs anymore and have to retire them even if we have no replacement ready’. Presumably the subs would sooner be automated if it meant hanging on to the precious nuclear capability.**

    *Peeling potatoes may be more traditional but involves knives and is therefore not suitable for everyone.

    **If UKnuke is True: FireMissile()
    Else If SonarContact is True: FireTorpedo()
    Else If Stuck is True: FireFlare(); LaunchBuoy()
    Else: FireAtRandom()
    Navigation could be crowdsourced to Twitch.

  8. says

    Brian English@#9:
    Trident is the name of the missile – currently Trident-2. The previous program was Polaris. The US gave the Brits the tech for both, and with sub-launched ballistic missiles, the sub is usually built around the launcher. I believe Polaris was the first successful SLBM – it’s pretty amazing stuff – launching a missile while submerged.

    The Brits made their own nuclear sub power-plant: it’s a Rolls Royce!

  9. Dunc says

    Extra fun facts: the Trident subs and their associated weapons are based in Scotland, around 50 miles from the city of Glasgow (Scotland’s largest city, home to 600,000 people) because the Navy regards it as too dangerous to host anywhere in England. And they wonder why so many of us want independence…

  10. Sunday Afternoon says


    Indeed – Faslane in the Gare Loch. Bonus fact – the US Navy used Holy Loch for a long time for their boomers – about the same proximity to Glasgow.

  11. says

    Sunday Afternoon@#12:
    courts martial not court marshals

    You are completely right. I can’t believe I made that mistake – it’s a term I’ve been familiar with and used correctly for years. Braino!

  12. Dunc says

    @14: Yeah, and once you add in the former naval dockyard at Rosyth (just a couple of miles of open water from Edinburgh), you realise that for most of the Cold War, a full-scale nuclear exchange would have killed somewhere around 90% of the population of Scotland in the first ten minutes. Growing up, I could never decide if that was a good thing or not…

  13. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Has the movie “Pentagon Wars” Been brought up recently?

    It’s absolutely hilarious, until you realize it’s about 90% true….then it quickly become frightening and/or depressing.

  14. says

    Crimson Clupeidae@#17:
    Oh, goodness, I had never heard of that. I’ve queued up a copy! Sounds like it’ll maybe be worth a review.

    I can imagine the script-writing process: get a bunch of old pentagon reformers in a room and say “what’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard of?” then wrap a plot around it, after they foam on for a few days.

    Remember: Doctor Strangelove was not a documentary, though Kubrick’s idea of impossible silliness (the doomsday device) turned out to be real.

  15. Dunc says

    Also remember, Kubrick originally intended Dr Strangelove to be a serious drama, but found the subject matter so absurd that he almost couldn’t help turning it into a comedy:

    I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.

  16. Crimson Clupeidae says

    You’ll enjoy Pentagon Wars, I’m sure.

    I remember the first time I showed it to my wife. Sheep specs….well, she thought that was the most absurd thing she’d heard. Then I mentioned it was a real thing…..