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Last Updated: Monday, 28 August 2006, 09:03 GMT 10:03 UK
New nuclear sub is lifeline for Barrow
By Toby Poston
Business reporter, BBC News, Barrow-in-Furness

A computer generated image of the new Astute class nuclear submarine
HMS Astute is the first of a new generation of nuclear attack subs

If British manufacturing really is dying, then the industry is making one of its last stands in Barrow.

The shipbuilding town on the isolated Furness peninsula in south-west Cumbria is home to 3,200 steelworkers, designers, engineers, fitters, electricians and other skilled workers building some of the Royal Navy's most secretive and deadly weapons.

HMS Astute, HMS Ambush and HMS Artful are a new class of nuclear attack submarines being built at BAE Systems Submarines' 169 acre site.

Astute, the first in her class, is almost complete.

She is being fitted out in the cavernous Devonshire dock hall, the largest construction complex of its type in Europe.

"Fitting out" means packing Astute's 97 metre-long pressurised hull with a nuclear reactor, four giant turbines, 100km of cabling, 10km of pipe work - more than one million components in total.

Once deployed, she will displace 7,800 tonnes of sea water and withstand pressure equivalent to 400 family saloon cars weighing down on every square metre of surface area.

The pressurised water reactor is designed to create enough steam to keep her turbines powered throughout her lifespan of more than a quarter of a century.

The reactor creates enough energy to power a city the size of Southampton, with the submarine's commander sleeping less than 10 metres away from its core.

Oxygen from sea water

Astute will create her own oxygen and fresh water from seawater and will be armed with Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of hitting a target 2,000km inland.

Unsurprisingly for an engineering project described as "more complex than the space shuttle", it has not run totally according to plan.

BAE Submarine Systems dockyard at Barrow-in-Furness
The Devonshire Dock Hall dominates the Barrow skyline

Five years ago things were looking bleak.

"The Astute business was in trouble," says BAE's Chris Nelson.

"The submarine was 900m over budget and running four years late.

"The relationship with the Ministry of Defence had deteriorated so badly that they were not going to give BAE another contract to build a surface ship."

US help

The recovery started in 2003 with the arrival of Murray Easton, BAE Systems Submarines' tenth managing director in as many years.

The contract with the MoD was renegotiated and a new bonus scheme was introduced for all non-executive staff.

This provided an extra 1,600 per employee in 2005, with a further bonus due on completion of the project.

Easton called in business psychologists to lift morale and repair the poor relations between management and staff.

He also realised that the yard would need help from farther afield.

The last submarine completed before Astute was laid down in 1993, and a series of redundancies in the intervening years had stripped the company of many of its most skilled engineers and designers.

So BAE brought in a team of experts from its US submarine counterpart Electric Boat.

Their arrival saw a number of major innovations in the building process - not least "modular construction" and "vertical outfitting".

Submarines are our bread and butter, they are our "niche" market
Councillor Terry Waiting, Barrow Borough Council

Areas of the Astute submarines like the command deck and forward engine room are now divided into modules, which are assembled in the workshop.

They are then taken to the Devonshire dock hall where they are carefully placed within the hull.

Ahead of schedule

This process was improved further with vertical outfitting, where modules can be dropped into place using overhead cranes and the improved 360 degree access makes it easier to install the complicated cable and pipe work.

It is estimated that these new processes cut 500,000 man hours from the build time for each of the first two submarines.

Electric Boat's techniques were also used to introduce visualisation software that gave workers a 3D image of the whole submarine - a virtual version of the wooden scale models that were used previously.

When, as planned, HMS Astute is unveiled on 8 June next year she will be seven weeks ahead of her revised schedule.

Submarines have been built in Barrow for 120 years

Although she will have cost an estimated 3.4bn, BAE hopes to be able to build the next two Astute class submarine's for less than 1bn each - although it has yet to agree the bill with the MoD.

The company is currently negotiating with the MoD for a contract to build another four Astute class submarines.

BAE has already been given the all clear to buy some of the special submarine steel that would be needed for the new boats.

And the company is hopeful of winning a contract to build the central hull of two new Royal Navy aircraft carriers - the CVF "Future Carrier".

But the big prize for BAE, and Barrow, is Trident.

Boom town Barrow

Jobs and money flooded into Barrow in the 1980s when the yard, then owned by Vickers, designed and built Britain's fleet of four Vanguard-class Trident nuclear missile carrying submarines.

In June, Chancellor Gordon Brown pledged to replace the Trident nuclear missile system.

The Vanguard class submarines are scheduled to be phased out in the 2020s - and most Barrovians are hoping that the new Trident platform will again be submarine based, and built in the town.

Whether it would take the form of a new class of submarine, or an adapted version of the Astute class is a hotly debated topic within the press.

A decision could be imminent, because design work for a new range of Trident submarines would have to start within the next couple of years in order to have a replacement ready in time.

According to local community leaders, Barrow without submarine building just doesn't bear thinking about.

It is estimated that in wages alone, BAE pumps over 70m per year into the local economy.

"If submarine building finished in Barrow it would be a devastating economic blow as it would most certainly lead to the end of shipbuilding in the town," says Councillor Terry Waiting, leader of Barrow Borough Council and chairman of the Keep Our Future Afloat Campaign, which promotes the use of the North West's naval shipyards.

"Submarines are our bread and butter, they are our "niche" market."

Delay blow to submarine order
19 Feb 03 |  England
1,000 jobs go at BAE Systems
21 Jan 03 |  Business

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