Naval Giant: The Vanguard-Class Missile Submarine Has Just 1 Mission

Vanguard-Class Submarine SSBN Royal Navy
May 22, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Royal NavyNavyMilitarySSBNSubmarinesVanguard-ClassTrident

Naval Giant: The Vanguard-Class Missile Submarine Has Just 1 Mission

The Royal Navy's Vanguard-class submarines, a cornerstone of the UK's nuclear deterrent since the Cold War, are nearing retirement.


Summary: The Royal Navy's Vanguard-class submarines, a cornerstone of the UK's nuclear deterrent since the Cold War, are nearing retirement.



Vanguard-Class Submarine: Key Facts You Need To know 

-These 16,000-ton behemoths, equipped with Trident missiles and advanced sonar, have served for decades, deterring threats and ensuring national security.

-Their legacy will continue with the incoming Dreadnought class, which will inherit the Trident system, maintaining the UK's sea-based nuclear capability into the 2060s.

The Royal Navy’s fleet of Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines is aging and soon to be replaced, but these SSBNs proved their worth over decades of service. The Vanguard ships are the largest of their kind manufactured in the United Kingdom, displacing nearly 16,000 tons when submerged – twice the displacement of the preceding Resolution-class Polaris submarines. 

Four Vanguard-class vessels were introduced to the Royal Navy in 1994 as part of the Trident nuclear program: Vanguard (S28), Victorious (S29), Vigilant (S30), and Vengeance (S31).

The History of the Vanguard-Class

Like most Western military systems created during the Cold War, Britain designed the Vanguard class to deter the Soviet Union. Unlike the U.S., whose deterrence strategy involved a full nuclear triad, the UK focused primarily on sea-based nuclear deterrence. Resolution-class vessels were equipped with Polaris missiles. 

When determining the armament of the new Vanguard ships, it was decided that the American-made Trident would deliver the best long-term capability insurance against the USSR’s growing arsenal. Then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked to purchase Trident missiles, and the two countries reached an agreement in the early 1980s.

Specs & Capabilities

The British Ministry of Defense selected Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (currently BAE Systems Submarines | Maritime) to build the Vanguard. The lead ship of the class – the HMS Vanguard – was commissioned in 1993, followed by the HMS Victorious in 1995, the HMS Vigilant in 1996, and the HMS Vengeance in 1999. Each of these ships is powered by nuclear propulsion, allowing them to sail for longer periods of time without needing to refuel. The class’s endurance is estimated at 60 days. 

The Vanguard carries the UK’s essential nuclear deterrent, the Trident missile. These weapons can be fired at targets up to 4,000 miles away and are ejected from the ship’s ballistic missile tubes via “high-pressure gas before igniting when they reach the surface of the water,” as explained by the Royal Navy


The Vanguard SSBNs are also fitted with four 21-inch (533mm) torpedo tubes and can carry up to 16 Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes. Capable of traveling faster than 90 miles per hour, these torpedoes can strike targets with a 660-pound explosive charge, giving the Vanguard ships both anti-submarine- and anti-surface-warfare capabilities. 

The Vanguard’s sensors are also sophisticated, including the Thales Underwater Systems Type 2054 composite sonar system. Reportedly, this sonar system is so advanced that it can locate ships positioned more than 50 miles away. 

Although the Vanguard-class ships are nearing the end of their service lives, the Trident missiles they carry are expected to be carried over to their successors, the Dreadnought class. These incoming ships will remain in service with the Royal Navy until at least the 2060s.

About the Author: Maya Carlin 

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin

All images are Creative Commons.