It is a great honour to speak in this debate and to have the opportunity to share with the House and all those who follow our proceedings a little of the unique and extraordinary commitment and sacrifice of those who serve in our Royal Navy’s submarine service, delivering our continuous at-sea deterrent—our silent service.
“Indestructible retaliation…is the secret”,
could be credible, nuclear deterrence needed to go out to sea, where, as Admiral Arleigh Burke, the then chief of naval operations of the US navy, said
“the real estate is free and where they are far away from me.”
The creation of Polaris meant a deterrent system that could be effective because it was capable, reliable, available and invulnerable, and, most importantly, because there was the political will to use it in extremis. I always describe our nuclear deterrent as the most effective weapon of peace ever created, because by its existence and invulnerability it fulfils the modern function of military force to prevent war. Once the power and destructive force of nuclear weapons had been created, and demonstrated, those charged with trying to maintain global order and peace after two world wars had to find a way to harness the awesome and terrifying power of these weapons to reduce future risks to populations around the world.
We have been running CASD for 50 years, and it happens, at the sharp end, because the submariners who man our strategic deterrent agree to go to sea, below the waves, for 100 days or more at a time, in the harshest of watery environments in the depths of our seas and oceans, in a long metal tube reminiscent of a caravan with no windows. It is cold and pitch black, the sea is unforgiving and corrosive, and there are inordinate pressures on the submarine hull.
I ask Members to consider for a moment that, when the sailor closes the hatches as he enters his vessel, he will not be physically able to open them again until they resurface. The pressure of the water at depth means that once he is in, there is no getting out again until he resurfaces. That happens for months at a time.
What submariners at sea most fear, however, is not the external pressure on their metal tube, the lack of fresh food or milk, the lack of internet or the inability to get Amazon to deliver. What any submariner fears most is fire. The whole submarine will fill instantly with smoke—noxious smoke, creating zero visibility, so they cannot see their hand in front of their face; choking, acrid smoke from burning oil or plastic. The relationship and interdependency between every member of a submarine crew is like that of no other team on earth—or indeed on sea.
They have only themselves to rely on. They eat four meals a day together—frozen, dried or tinned food after using up all the fresh milk, fruit and vegetables over the first few days. They work six hours on, six hours off—every day—and getting into a warm bed for four hours’ sleep is normal, since the previous occupant will have just got out to go back on duty. It is not your average work routine.
We take completely for granted our ability to keep in touch with family and friends, more so than ever nowadays, through text, WhatsApp, email, a quick phone call, popping next door for a coffee with neighbours or nipping to the shops for that thing you ran out of. None of that is possible for those serving in our Royal Navy’s submarine service. They and their family can send and receive one message a week—short, read by the commanding officer and potentially censored. They will not be given the message if someone is ill, or has died, until they get back from the three-month patrol. Lovers develop codes to share their affection, away from prying eyes, with ploys that Alan Turing might have been proud of. Fundamentally, however, submariners on duty on HMS Vengeance, Vanguard, Vigilant or Victorious are out of contact with the rest of the world they are protecting.
For the past 50 years, the greatest unsung heroes of CASD have been and remain, in my humble opinion, the families of those who serve. Being the wife or child of a submariner is a job that most of us will never fully understand or appreciate. These sons and daughters, wives and lovers, parent and grandparents have to be stoic and as committed to their submariner’s service as the sailor himself or, since 2011, herself.
Imagine celebrating children’s birthdays or Christmas without dad and having to remember to plan to celebrate them at another time. For children that represents a displacement of normal routines, which makes no sense to their friends at school, and for partners there are the logistics of thinking about how to include their sailor in the special events of life that happen without them when they are deployed, such as the first day at school, the first tooth, the birth of a baby, parents’ evenings, broken bones from sports matches not cheered on, school plays missed, family events, weddings, funerals, and a child’s first steps and first words.
The sailor misses them, but the partner not only has to experience them without being able to share the joy, the anxiety, the sadness and the grief, but has to remember that when their husband or wife, son or daughter, returns from their tour that these events have happened and need to be shared and re-experienced. The spouse also has to deal with life’s challenges, which cannot be shared because of the silence in communications—things such as broken washing machines, insurance problems, money worries and decisions, problems with the in-laws and family discipline decisions. It is a strange and unique continuous stress, because it is single parenthood some of the time and then not. The spouse has to keep their children’s world stable in a profoundly unstable environment; be able to remain strong alone, going to sleep every night not knowing where their sailor is or being able to tell them that they love them.
For the sailor who has been isolated from all these ordinary normal day-to-day activities, it is a real challenge to return to normal life after 100 days underwater in a pressured tube, living with a nuclear reactor and fellow sailors in very close proximity. Normal life is noisy, full of confusion and complexity, and full of events, news, gossip and change of which they have no knowledge. It falls to their spouse or parent to try to help them adjust back to shore life just for a while before they deploy again.
Submariners man our bombers—the SSBN, or sub-surface ballistic nuclear vessel, as NATO describes it—tour after tour, with some serving below the waves for 20 years. That is extraordinary commitment not only by those who serve, but by their families who silently wait for their return and keep their world going while they are away.
The continuity of delivering our strategic deterrent is critical to doing all we can as key NATO allies to maintain global peace. In the past 50 years, whether the world has been more or less stable, the white ensign has commanded respect and admiration around the globe. The challenge of delivering the continuous strategic deterrent—one achieved by the Royal Navy since HMS Resolution began this continuous deployment rotation— continues to elude many nations’ navies. It requires a commitment from our manpower, from industry’s ability to provide engineering resilience, a political strength in the national psyche and the sheer will to meet all those challenges—every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month, of every year since April 1969, which is when I was born.
For the whole of my life there have been submariners willing to serve under the sea, and families willing patiently to wait for their return in order to deliver the continuous at- sea deterrent on our behalf. I pay tribute to every single one of them and thank them for their service to our nation’s security over the past 50 years, as well as to all those who are yet to join the extraordinary ranks of our exceptional, world-class, silent service.