Stealth & Secrecy Under The Ocean Waves
As unusual places to have lunch go, 100ft beneath the Firth of Clyde is pretty hard to beat. Yet to the officers in the wardroom of the Sovereign it all seems pretty unremarkable. I suppose that when you have breakfasted below the North Atlantic and dined under the Arctic pack ice a calm sea five miles off Largs is nothing to write home about.
Even to a novice submariner, there is no sense of being under water, or anything else, only a vague claustrophobia soon forgotten. Making polite conversation in this cramped, shabbily dignified room, it's hard to believe that you're in a nuclear powered, 300 million pound war machine, which can circumnavigate the globe without coming up for air. It could, quite literally, be anywhere.
Today, though, it's off the west coast of Scotland offering a rare opportunity to see around a machine which, despite being 26 years old, is one of the most feared weapons on, or under; the planet Sovereign is a Swiftsure Class attack sub, powered by its own nuclear reactor which can run for up to 10 years, and armed with homing torpedoes costing 750,000 pound a shot; long-range Harpoon missiles, each of which can sink an aircraft carrier and, if need be, Tomahawk Cruise missiles, which can land a payload right on the desk of any despotic tyrant you care to mention.
Up close, though, it looks disappointingly careworn, due to some of the rubber tiles used to deflect sonar and absorb noise having been ripped off by water during its latest tour of duty "It's the stealth aspect that makes us so dangerous," said Sovereign's captain, Cdr. Justin Hughes.
The Americans have got a stealth bomber, but one of those got shot down. We can go anywhere we want, do what we like and no one will find us. We are, in fact, pretty invulnerable.
That's why submarine technology is what everyone is afraid of. Now that the former Soviet Fleet is flogging off its old boats, anyone who can afford one and has someone reasonably competent to drive it, presents an enormous danger.
"For example during the Falklands, Argentina had one rather elderly diesel boat and it tied up an enormous amount of our resources looking for it. If that had got to one of our carriers, the consequences could have been dreadful.
This knowledge goes a long way to explaining the submariners' esprit de corps. They see themselves as the Royal Navy's secret weapon, which, indeed they are. Denied the glamorous ports of call of surface ships and working in, it must be said, fairly unpleasant conditions. Few apply for a transfer. 'They are better paid, more highly skilled more dangerous. No wonder they look down on their colleagues above them.
If anyone knows the truth of this it's Commodore David Russell, the RN's Deputy Flag Officer Submarines. He passed the highly stringent command course while still in his 20s, helped develop Nato battle tactics and commanded Britain's first Trident missile sub the Vanguard. More recently he advised the Government on nuclear defence before taking up his current appointment in May. Even so, Sovereign's officers and crew seem far from overawed by his presence, chatting and joking easily with him.
"The atmosphere is different, it's not the Brigade of Guards", he agrees. "You are living and working very closely together after all, but that doesn't mean any lightening of discipline, orders are obeyed. It's partly because submarine crews are all involved during the Perisher (RN slang for the command course) and they know what it takes to pass it. So they have the utmost respect for their command. He may not always be easy to like, but they know that he can do his job." That job involves the lives and welfare of the other 115 crew. Squeezed into the boat like toothpaste into a tube, they work six hours on/six hours off shifts, often in temperatures of more than 400C.
There aren't even enough beds to go round, instead ratings employ 'hot bunking', doubling up of sleeping accommodation while their colleagues are on watch. "It's not pleasant, but you learn to sleep any place any time you have the opportunity," said one crewman. When they're not working or sleeping, officers and ratings spend their time reading, writing, listening to music and watching films. Because the nuclear reactor runs non-stop, the only limit on Sovereign's time at sea is supplies. Three months is the usual load, but that can be stretched if need be.
"We load as much fresh food as possible, but it's the first to run out." says a sweating cook, "after that we have to get adventurous with tins of Spam." Quorn and Soya mince are also used: even vegetarians are catered for in today's Navy and it seems no foods are forbidden. "Curry night is always popular" says the cook defiantly: Indeed, apart from the heat and an all-pervading odour of oil, the air in Sovereign seems fresher than that in a modern jet. Scrubbers clean and re-circulate their air and the sub even has its own desalination plant.
"There is this mythology about sub crews being dirty and unwashed, but it's not true", says one officer. "We have a laundry and showers and because we live so close together, we like to keep pretty clean, as you can imagine." Living close together is one way to put it. Even the officers' quarters resemble those Tokyo capsule hotels and getting to bed requires gymnast like contortions.
"There's a knack to it," agrees Commodore Russell "but once you're in it's surprisingly cosy: Tomb like is not the right phrase, I suppose, but they, feel very secure and, I must admit, I rather enjoy it." That anyone could sleep so soundly just feet away from a nuclear reactor is surprising, but few on board think twice about it. The reactor compartment takes up a huge chunk of the boat, Sovereign is on her third and, when that comes to end of its useful life, the sub will be scrapped.
Nuclear power sounds very sci-fi, but all it is, is a glamorised boiler for a steam driven prop shaft. The reactor tunnel is shielded from the core by a foot of lead and the amount of radiation released it is claimed, is the same as that you would pick up on a typical summer's day: Even so, it's not somewhere you spend any more time than you have to.
Much more interesting is the weapons hold. Torpedoes and missiles are all guided "smart bombs", the Harpoons are so clever in fact, that once released they workout their own optimum plan of attack. The torpedoes are designed, not to strike their target but explode under the keel, breaking a ship's back.
Back in the control room, there is a dummy torpedo firing - water is loaded into the tubes and shot out. As air rushes back in to replace it, the pressure in the sub changes suddenly causing the ears to pop. It's one of the few occasions when you remember where you are.
The other is getting to look through the periscope. Thirty metres above us, a small merchant ship chugs along, blissfully unaware of the sub's baleful unstaring eve following its every move. For a moment you sense the feeling of power enjoy by submarine crews: invisible, seeing all powerful.
There must be a down side and there is. "We are isolated." Says one senior officer. "Because we practice stealth our contact with home is limited, we get a few headlines on the radio and that's it. Whenever we get into port we devour any newspaper or magazine we can our hands on." and even if we have forgotten the 100ft or so between us and what submariners call the roof, they haven't.
We're shown one of the escape chambers and told how, if the worst happened, watertight doors would be shut and those sailors who survived would move patiently from air tap to air tap, until it was their turn to make for the surface.
The safety officer smiles: "a subject we don't dwell upon".