Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines have been going on patrols of record-breaking length, prompting fears of increased safety risks posed by submariners spending too long at sea.

Data provided by Nukewatch and seen by The Ferret and The Guardian, found that two Trident-armed Vanguard submarines each spent 157 days out on patrol in 2022. Commenting on the findings in a blog post for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), former Royal Navy submarine commander Rob Forsyth noted that these patrols were now regularly lasting in excess of 150 days.

He also raised issues with crews maintaining discipline and concentration during these extended patrols, adding that ones he commanded in the 1970s rarely lasted more than 60-70 days. Forsyth pointed to recent media reports of submariners involved in drug use and inappropriate sexual behaviour towards female colleagues noting that they “almost certainly are a consequence” of prolonged periods of time on patrol.

The news comes amid growing concerns about the state of Britain’s nuclear weapons. While Royal Navy doctrine stipulates that one of its four nuclear-armed subs should be continuously at sea, one of them, HMS Vanguard, has been in deep maintenance since 2015. This has added pressure to the remaining subs and crews, limiting time for maintenance and rest. In November, it was reported that HMS Victorious recently had to resurface, abandon its mission, and return to port after a fire broke out onboard. It wasn’t armed at the time.

CND General Secretary Kate Hudson said: “The deteriorating state of Britain’s nuclear subs and the added psychological pressure of crews spending five months at sea should be a massive cause of concern to the government and the public. These weapons are already catastrophically dangerous without the added risks of malfunctioning equipment or personal error as a result of a drop in standards. It’s time for the UK government to put an end to the Trident programme, scrap its replacement, and instead invest in rebuilding our public services.” 

Photo credits: Tam McDonald and Will-Haigh