Unveiling the Astute-Class: Britain's Cutting-Edge Nuclear Submarine

Astute-Class Submarine 3
January 8, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Astute-classAstuteSubmarinesRoyal NavyMilitaryNATO

Unveiling the Astute-Class: Britain's Cutting-Edge Nuclear Submarine

The Astute-class can carry 38 weapons – usually a mixture of Spearfish and Tomahawk Block IV/V cruise missiles. The ability to launch Tomahawk missiles makes the Astute especially dangerous, as each Tomahawk can hit a target, within a few meters of accuracy, up to a range of 1,000 miles.


Summary: Here, we explore the evolution of British submarine prowess with the Astute class, a technological marvel designed to replace the Trafalgar class. Unveiling its origins from Cold War anti-submarine warfare to present-day advancements, we delve into the Astute's impressive features, including world-leading sensors, Tomahawk missiles, and unique optronic masts. Written by defense expert Harrison Kass, this article provides an in-depth look at the cutting-edge technology defining Britain's submarine naval strength in the 21st century. 

How the Astute-Class Was Born

The days in which the British ruled the world’s waterways are over – but the island-based nation is still capable of fielding impressive vessels. And the latest British nuclear-powered submarine, Astute-class, continues a long and venerable seafaring tradition, introducing novel technologies and abilities.


Built by BAE Systems, at Barrow-in-Furness, the Astute will replace the Trafalgar-class, becoming the default British SSN. In all, seven boats are scheduled, with the first becoming operational in 2014 – the culmination of a program that had begun decades earlier, in 1986.

The Origin of the Astute-Class Submarine 

In 1986, the British Ministry of Defence began exploring prospective replacements for the Swiftsure- and Trafalgar-class submarines. Initially known as SSN20, the project was a Cold War venture that continued the Royal Navy’s emphasis on anti-submarine warfare, working to counter the increasingly sophisticated Soviet submarines. SSN20 was designed to match the capabilities of Soviet submarines – with improved nuclear propulsion, enhanced firepower, a more complex “integrated sonar suite” and combat systems. While researching and designing SSN20, the British – caught up in the Cold War defense spending fervor – did not concern themselves with price. Costs were not considered a “constraint.”

Yet, like America, when the Cold War ended, the British reevaluated their spending priorities. In 1990, SSN20 was canceled. A new submarine design program was started – this time with an effort to constrain costs; the British opted to build a new class that was derived from the existing Trafalgar-class (which was in turn derived from the preceding Swiftsure-class). The new project, beginning in June 1991, became known as the Batch 2 Trafalgar-class, or B2TC.

The Design of the Astute Submarine

The Astute “has been outfitted with many technological firsts,” reported Peter Suciu in the National Interest recently. “Each of the boats is equipped with world-leading sensors, carries Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles and Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes and can circumnavigate the globe submerged, producing their own oxygen and drinking water.”

The Astute-class can carry 38 weapons – usually a mixture of Spearfish and Tomahawk Block IV/V cruise missiles. The ability to launch Tomahawk missiles makes the Astute especially dangerous, as each Tomahawk can hit a target, within a few meters of accuracy, up to a range of 1,000 miles.

The Astute also features an upgraded version of the Submarine Command System, known as the Astute Combat Management System, which receives data from the boat’s sensors and displays the results on command consoles, enhancing the crew’s situational awareness. The Astute also uses Atlas Hydrographic DESO 25 high-precision echosounders. And notably, the Astute does not use a conventional periscope; instead, the Astute features two CM010 non-hull-penetrating optronic masts, which carry thermal imaging, low-light TV, and color CCD TV sensors.

Additionally, the Astute carries the Sonar 2076, which is an integrated passive/active search and attack sonar featuring bow, intercept, flank, and towed arrays. According to BAE Systems, the Sonar 2076 is the world’s best sonar system. The Astute itself has more than 39,000 acoustic tiles, which mask the vessel’s sonar signature, granting the boat better acoustic qualities than any other submarine in the Royal Navy.

“Unlike other nuclear-powered submarines, the Astute-class was developed to utilize state-of-the-art anti-acoustic tiles,” Suciu reported. “Each hull is fitted with more than 39,000 acoustic tiles that mask the vessel’s sonar signature and all the submarine to glide through the water almost silently. The little noise the boat gives off has been compared to that of a “baby dolphin.”


For power, the Astute-class relies upon a Rolls-Royce PWR2 (Core H) pressurized water reactor with a pump-jet propulsor. Originally designed for British Vanguard-class submarine, the PWR2 has a 25-year lifespan and does not need to be refueled – meaning the Astute can technically operate for 25 years without interruption. In addition to providing propulsion, the PWR2 is also used to recycle air and water. But, although the PWR2 can operate indefinitely, the Astute is usually only stocked with about 90 days of food at a time. However, “deployments on the submarines can vary in length, with overall assignments lasting three years,” Suciu reported. “Two full crews rotate shifts to allow the vessel to remain at sea for as long as possible. Crews may serve between 60 and 80 days before resurfacing and rotating out.”


The Future of the Astute

Four Astute-class vessels are already in service: the Astute, Ambush, Artful, and Audacious. The Anson was launched in 2021, and is currently working towards gaining operational status. Meanwhile, the last two planned boats of the Astute-class, the Agamemnon and the Agincourt, are under construction, and are expected to be launched within the next two or three years. Given that the Astute is packed with cutting -edge technology, and is replacing the Trafalgar-class, which has been in service since 1983, we can reasonably expect the Astute to be a fixture of the Royal Navy for decades to come.


About the Author: Harrison Kass 

Harrison Kass is a defense and national security writer with over 1,000 total pieces on issues involving global affairs. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken. Email the Author: [email protected]