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The Upholder Fiasco


HMS Upholder

The defence cuts were initially aimed at saving revenue for the Treasury. Then the concept at making the Royal Navy leaner and fitter with a further round of reductions to men and equipment was announced in the Front-line First review of 1992.

To many serving in the fleet it now appeared that anything which was not cost effective or productive was a potential candidate to be retired or sold-off. The exception everyone presumed was, of course, new vessels including the Upholders - but even they tell victim.

While many people may not agree with the decisions to sell various warships to Pakistan, India, Chile and Brazil, they can often accept the financial reasons for disposing such ships, which due to their age would clearly cost more to maintain and refit as the years passed.

But nobody, including Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, could understand why the brand new Upholder submarine squadron was withdrawn from service and listed for sale in what must surely be the most questionable Government decision in respect of equipment procurement for the Royal Navy in the past 50 years.

The boats were ordered after the Falklands War with a detailed study to find a new generation of conventional class submarine, with an enhanced capability to detect and classify subsurface contacts, as well as being available to mount inshore operations in shallow water, in support of the Navys special forces.

Vickers, won the contract and were able to integrate construction features of their Trafalgar Class SSNs into the Upholder design and in 1986 the first of the new class was launched at Barrow in Furness. Fitted with sensors and all the computer power of a nuclear submarine she was described at the time as a technology leap forward for the Royal Navy.


HMS Ursula

But within months it was soon revealed that HMS Upholder, the first of class, had problems with her bow doors. Water had poured in during trials off the west coast of Scotland when the tubes were opened. This problem later transpired to be a design fault which prevented Upholder from firing any missile or torpedoes.

When HMS Upholder eventually entered service in 1989, she was already a year late into service and had the distinction of being the first fighting vessel to join the fleet which could not, albeit for technical reasons, fire a shot in anger - her doors were sealed awaiting a refit to repair the problem.

At the time the Government had plans to build seven Upholders, but the initial option was scrapped and finally just four entered service. Projected in service completion costs had been forecast at 500 million GBP. But by the time all four had undergone a refit to rectify the tube problem, the figure soared to 900 million GBP.

In 1992 it was announced that the entire Upholder squadron would be retired from service and listed for sale - despite the fact that two of the four vessels had only just entered service (HMS Ursula and HMS Unicorn), while HMS Upholder and HMS Unseen had not been deployed in any operational roles.

These vessels are packed with technology and are still widely regarded as being among the best of their type in the world, but despite serious misgivings from senior officers concerned about the decision to sell off the Upholders, they were withdrawn and berthed at Barrow in Furness to await a buyer.

Ironically the Royal Navy now has to enlist the help of the Dutch, Spanish and other NATO countries to supply conventionally powered boats to support the fleets Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) packages at Plymouth so that RN ships can exercise anti-submarine warfare tactics.


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