The UK’s planned dismantling of decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines formerly in service with the Royal Navy got underway in July as the former HMS Swiftsure was dry-docked at Babcock’s shipyard in Rosyth to begin preparations for final dismantling.

According to the UK’s Submarine Delivery Agency (SDA), detailing the development in a post on social media, HMS Swiftsure will be the first nuclear powered submarine to be fully dismantled at the end of 2026, and done so in a way that has “not been attempted by any other nation”.

Around 90% of components, including steel, can be reused for recycling in the process, which will all be undertaken at the Rosyth site. Commissioned into service in 1972, HMS Swiftsure was the lead boat in the Swiftsure-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) and operated until its decommissioning in 1992.

The Ministry of Defence’s Submarine Dismantling Project (SDP) is managed by the SDA and responsible for dismantling 27 nuclear submarines; 22 of which are decommissioned and have left service, while five currently continue to be operated by the Royal Navy.

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Following two public consultations, the UK MoD selected a three-stage approach to dismantling, having also engaged with Nato partners, likely to gather information on processes and recycling practices.

In Nato, the US and France are the only two other operators of nuclear-powered submarines, although countries such as Italy, Sweden, Germany, and Norway, among others, utilise conventionally powered diesel-electric submarines.

Royal Navy submarine recapitalisation

The outcome of the work being undertaken to dismantle HMS Swiftsure will in turn provide a better understanding in how to expand the process to HMNB Devonport, where the majority of the Royal Navy’s decommissioned submarines are housed. In total, seven of the submarines intended to be recycled in Rosyth, with the remaining 20 in Devonport.

According to a 2019 investigation by the UK’s National Audit Office into submarine defuelling and dismantling, the MoD had spent an estimated £500mn since 1980 on storing and maintaining its retired nuclear submarines.

The UK currently has five of the latest Astute-class SSNs in service or commissioned (Astute, Ambush, Artful, Audacious, and Anson), along with a single remaining Trafalgar-class SSN, HMS Triumph. A further two boats are under construction (Agamemnon and Agincourt), with each boat costing between £1.3-1.6bn and expected to service for at least 25 years with the Royal Navy.

In addition, the RN operates four Vanguard-class SSBNs (Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, Vengeance), which will be replaced by the incoming Dreadnought-class submarines, with the first-in-class currently in manufacture at the BAE Systems yard in Barrow-in-Furness, UK.

The UK has also begun the process to replace the Astute class with the planned AUKUS SSN being developed for use by the Royal Navy and Australia. The class is effectively an evolution of the UK’s SSNR (Submersible Ship Nuclear Replacement) concept originally intended as the Astute-class replacement.

The AUKUS SSN is likely to feature the under-development Pressurised Water Reactor 3 (PWR3) that will be installed on the Dreadnought-class SSBNs and feature a vertical launch system from which to fire embarked surface and land attack munitions.