Trident patrols are now regularly five months long, up from just two months during the Cold War, writes Commander Rob Forsyth RN (Ret’d) in this guest article. What might the implications be for those serving aboard?
In the 60 years since I joined the submarine service, one of the most common questions that I’ve invariably been asked is whether we were subject to psychological tests for selection. The answer is no. International space programmes go to great lengths to select candidates who are temperamentally suited to living for extended periods in the space station, by employing advanced psychological testing techniques and training. In contrast, submariners in the Royal Navy – today, as then – undergo nothing similar.
This lack of psychological assessment was rarely troubling during my appointment as the Second-in Command (and on occasion, in command) of a Polaris missile-equipped Resolution class submarine, HMS Repulse, at a time when our regular continuous submerged patrols never exceeded 60-70 days. The only public exception to this rule, notably listed in the Guinness Book of Records, was a continuously-submerged patrol of 111 days carried out by an SSN, HMS Warspite, between 25 November 1982 and 15 March 1983. At the time, this was considered exceptional by other submariners – sufficiently so for the captain to later be invited to No 10 Downing Street with his wife for tea with the Prime Minister – and viewed with considerable curiosity as to the effect on the crew. In addition to the universal weight loss, boredom, insufficient stocks of toothpaste and pallid complexions, I am told that operating errors, flare ups between crew members and disciplinary problems started to be a problem after the half-way mark, around 50 days in.
Yet today, reliable anecdotal evidence suggests that Royal Navy submariners serving aboard the United Kingdom’s current Trident patrols are serving for 150 days or more. That’s two to three times the length of just one of my own patrols. This is the direct consequence of HMS Vanguard having spent nearly seven years out of commission, while undergoing a reactor refuelling programme at HMNB Devonport, leaving the remaining three boats to maintain Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD) – something that the Ministry of Defence itself, in seeking Parliamentary approval for successive classes of SSBNs, argued was not sustainable with only three hulls. Had I been invited to conduct patrols of these lengths on a regular basis then I would have been seriously concerned as to the crew’s ability to withstand the inevitable additional psychological pressures.
It is, therefore, appropriate to consider the human factor – by way of the crews’ reactions to these excessively long patrols – and how they might be affected in any way that increases the risk of a serious nuclear weapon or submarine incident. Chatham House has documented at least 13 ‘near miss’ nuclear events between 1962 and 2002 in their April 2014 report ‘Too Close for Comfort’. Since then, a further ‘near miss’ occurred in February 2009, when HMS Vanguard collided with the FN SSBN Le Triomphant while both were submerged. Although no public statement has been made, human error was almost certainly a factor.
Maintaining Collective Harmony and Good Health on Patrol
My own personal experience aboard HMS Repulse is that our average 64 day long patrols were quite long enough. Added to this was the ever-present, mind-sharpening aim of having to be at 15 minutes notice to fire at all times, which kept us on our toes. Nevertheless, despite the strong sense of purpose that prevailed in the Cold War, a major effort was still needed to keep crews stimulated and alert and not allow them to withdraw into themselves. On one patrol, I even resorted to taking my ‘dog’ (a scrubbing brush on a string) for a pre-church Sunday morning walk to generate an unusual diversion! Indeed, submariners can be surprisingly accommodating of individual quirks of character, provided crew members are all equally good at the universal responsibility of keeping the submarine safe. Moreover, the Resolution class had relatively large recreation spaces, in which dining and social activities for most of the off-duty crew members could take place at the same time.
The Vanguard class, on the other hand, are very much more restricted for social space. Crew members spend much more time in their individual bunk spaces with the digital devices which have replaced group viewing of projected films as the main entertainment. This leads to much isolation and introspection. With patrols now lasting 150 days or more and with the strategic weapon system stood down at ‘several days’ notice to fire’, it must be an even greater challenge to keep everyone mentally alert and sharp at their jobs. The great danger is that this unchanging routine, week after week, leads to boredom, complacency and an inevitable drop off in standards.
On such patrols, personal relationships are tested to the limit. Although submariners are surprisingly tolerant of each other, friction will inevitably exist between some and, with nowhere to hide, the longer a patrol continues the greater the chance that animosities will result in anti-social behaviour. And while the majority of crew members will observe the ‘no touching’ rule between men and women crew members, which has its own practical challenges in such cramped conditions, the longer a patrol the greater the risk that intimacy-starved crew members will lose their self-control and act inappropriately to their fellow crew members.
Mental stress does not only come from inside the submarine – it can come from external factors as well. The only communication between family and crew members is a very short ‘familygram’, generally sent weekly. This cannot be in code nor contain any distressing news and is read by and, if necessary, censored by a member of the off crew. While very important to the recipient and awaited with great excitement, they know that any bad news could be withheld and only communicated at the discretion of the CO, and that this may only be on the day of return to harbour. These messages are read against a background of having left behind families and loved ones, who have to totally manage their lives for a very long time without the support of a key member. Some will have been struggling to keep family life going even before deployment, and the fact of not being able to send return messages to their family nor be sent ashore for any circumstances is undoubtedly a mental burden for crew members.
There are also well-known physiological changes. These include Vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight, a general lack of fitness, and the loss of long sight and spatial awareness – this means no driving for at least a couple of days on return home. At the end of the patrol, reintegration back into a relatively unstructured world – after weeks adapted to a very routine-led, hierarchical and disciplined environment – is a serious challenge. During my own patrols, a few became what was known as ‘patrol happy’ and returned on board at the earliest opportunity; some even volunteered for back to back patrols, a practice that was strongly discouraged.
The negative effect of these cumulative factors must no doubt lead, from time to time, to a breakdown in morale – along with loss of the respect and self-discipline that is so important in a submarine both for harmonious living and, ultimately, in keeping the submarine and its nuclear weapon system safe. The recent examples of cocaine use and inappropriate sexual behaviour – including reports of ‘sexual bullying’ – reported in the media could well be a consequence. Such lengthy patrols might also put submariners’ wild partying and other excesses while alongside in the United States into context. In one case, a weapons officer reportedly arrived drunk for duty and was sent home for investigation. These are only the reported incidents, and may be indicative of broader issues with crew discipline.
When such excesses take place in a nuclear weapon responsible environment, it gives rise to a whole new level of concern sufficient to question as to whether these very long SSBN patrols which are required in order to maintain CASD with only three operational submarines is a direct threat to nuclear safety. Such threats could range from an operating error leading to a nuclear reactor meltdown (similar to that which very nearly occurred on 2 May 1976 in Liverpool when HMS Warspite’s reactor cooling system was accidentally shut down while fighting a diesel engine room fire), to a navigation error, to a missile incident in the worst case scenario. In complex social and technological systems, we must remember that accidents are ‘normal’ at the best of times – and even more likely in situations of greater stress.
The implications of these prolonged patrol lengths on nuclear safety is a subject which the Ministry of Defence will not acknowledge or discuss under the blanket of secrecy generally imposed on any information concerned with nuclear weapons or nuclear propulsion safety. With strategic tensions with Russia now so high, the United Kingdom has curtailed its voluntary nuclear transparency measures and the majority of Freedom of Information requests or Parliamentary Questions are rejected on grounds of national security. One can only hope that there is an awareness that patrol lengths may be having a negative impact on crew wellbeing. Speaking from the outside, as a concerned citizen and former-submariner, it is hard to establish the human cost and associated risks of abnormal behaviour, unless an incident draws attention to it – by which time, of course, it will be too late.
About the Author
Commander Rob Forsyth RN (Ret’d) is a former Resolution-class SSBN Executive Officer with 20 years service in the submarine service including command and as Teacher of the United Kingdom’s ‘Perisher’ Submarine Command Course.
Image: © Crown copyright 2013