HMS Sovereign

A submarine that saw service during the Cold War era

Colour photograph of HMS Sovereign at sea
HMS Sovereign at sea (RNSM)

HMS Sovereign was a nuclear-powered, attack submarine (SSN). Construction began on 18th September 1970. She launched on 17th February 1973, and commissioned on 11th July 1974.

The Cold War resulted in the need for improved anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability in order to keep track of Soviet submarines. The Royal Navy realised that their own submarines could be successfully used to perform this role. This led to the evolution of SSN attack submarines.

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Swiftsure Class

Photograph of 3 crew members of HMS Sovereign at North Pole
3 crew members of HMS Sovereign at North Pole (RNSM)

HMS Sovereign was one of six Swiftsure Class submarines designed to perform an ASW role. The boats located and, if necessary, would destroy enemy submarines and warships. Sovereign did not carry any nuclear missiles, but carried Tigerfish and Spearfish torpedoes, as well as Harpoon missiles.

The Swiftsure design originally developed from the previous Valiant and Churchill Class attack submarines. Although they had a parallel sided hull as opposed to the 'humpback whale' design of the earlier SSNs as the Admiralty wanted to change the shape and provide more internal space. The design also fitted an improved weapon loading system, with torpedo tubes reloaded in 15 seconds.

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The Cold War

The Cold War was a period of competition, expressed through economic and military power, that opposed Western capitalist and Eastern Communist ideology against one another from the 1940s to 1980s. It officially ended with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in 1991.

There had been an alliance between the Allied Powers and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during World War Two, but this deteriorated when the Soviets occupied several Eastern European countries after the war. Various Western countries established a military alliance known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 to counter Soviet power. The USSR regarded NATO as a threat and formed the Warsaw Pact of Central and Eastern European states in 1955. These organisations represented the two opposing sides in the Cold War.

The two sides never engaged in open hostilities, resulting in the term the ‘Cold War'. Instead the war consisted of an arms race, economic warfare, and a space race, as well as the use of espionage and propaganda. Additionally, the superpowers supported ‘proxy' wars, each providing military back up to opposing sides in various civil wars, such as in Korea and Vietnam.

The threat of nuclear weapons defined the Cold War. The Soviets accepted the possibility of fighting a nuclear war, but the United States and its Allies preferred to focus on means of deterrence. They sought to discourage the Soviets from using nuclear weapons by threatening nuclear annihilation in retaliation. Long range bombers and land based missiles, as well as nuclear powered submarines, were developed in order to make this threat credible.

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Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War

The role of the Royal Navy initially declined after the close of World War Two, due to the growing power of the United States and also the decline of the British Empire. However, the threat posed by Soviet submarines during the Cold War created a new purpose for the Royal Navy Submarine Service. It was no longer affordable for the Navy to maintain a large surface fleet, so submarines became the main means of intercepting and, potentially, destroying the Soviet fleet.

Nuclear power led to the creation of the true submarine. Boats were now able to stay underwater permanently, limited only by the endurance of the crew. Submarines also became the most important means of military defence for the United Kingdom as they were responsible for carrying the British nuclear deterrent, Polaris ballistic missiles, throughout the Cold War. Trident missiles then replaced these during the 1990s.

The most important operations carried out by Royal Navy ballistic submarines (SSBNs) from the 1960s onwards were nuclear deterrent patrols. The patrols had to remain undetected for weeks on end, ready to fire their missiles at a moment's notice. Hunter/killer attack submarines (SSNs) also played an important surveillance role during the Cold War, tracking the Soviet submarine fleet.

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Submarines in the Arctic

HMS Sovereign took part in Operation Brisk during 1976. The submarine surfaced at the geographical North Pole as part of the exercise on 20th October 1976. The operation tested the submarine's navigational and operational capabilities in such freezing temperatures.

Ice pick from HMS Sovereign
Ice pick from HMS Sovereign (RNSM)

Photograph of crew of HMS Sovereign playing cricket at North Pole
The crew of HMS Sovereign playing cricket at North Pole (RNSM)

The Royal Navy, along with the US Navy, increased its under ice operations as the Cold War progressed. Such trials paved the way for particularly extensive involvement in the Arctic region during the 1980s which sought to counter Soviet interests by locating Western submarines in this critical region. The naval power that seized control of this area would establish itself in a dominant strategic position, helping to deter the threat of war.

The invention of the nuclear submarine during the 1950s allowed Western navies to begin under ice operations in an attempt to secure the Arctic Ocean. The world's first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, pioneered a route from Alaska to Greenland in 1958, becoming the first submarine to pass underneath the North Pole. USS Skate became the first submarine to break through the Arctic ice and surface at the Pole during the following year. The Royal Navy's submarines also undertook expeditions to the Arctic throughout the 1960s, such as HMS Grampus in 1963. Then HMS Dreadnought became the first British submarine to surface at the North Pole on 3rd March 1971.

Painting of HMS Grampus under Arctic Ice by D A Rapkins
HMS Grampus under Arctic Ice by D A Rapkins (RNSM)

Photograph of HMS Dreadnough at North Pole
HMS Dreadnought at North Pole (RNSM)

Western powers believed that Soviet submarines would operate in or around the Arctic during peacetime, as well as fight in this region during wartime. Nuclear submarines therefore led to a technological transformation of this area, turning it from a barrier into a potential access route to the enemy. This made Russia far more vulnerable than at any time in the nation's history, with the 8000 mile long Soviet Arctic frontier becoming the one weak zone in the USSR's borders.

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Arctic naval strategy

During the 1970s, the Soviet's naval strategy increased its submarine fleet in homewater ocean areas near and under the ice. The Soviet Navy wanted to prepare the survivability and flexible readiness of their SSN force to launch nuclear strikes, as well as defending the Soviet homeland from sea based attacks. These missions required that the Soviets control a sizeable portion of the Arctic Ocean.

This led to a technical and tactical race between the two superpowers to develop an Arctic naval strategy in the 1980s. Although, there were actually more advantages in controlling this region for those in the West than the Soviets.

Controlling these areas denied places to hide and patrol areas to Soviet submarines. The Polar ice offered a direct, covered submarine route to the USSR. Ballistic and cruise missile arcs to key areas within the USSR were only located a short distance from the Arctic. Naval dominance of the Arctic could create a situation that locked the Soviet Northern Fleet into a defensive posture and neutralise it, eventually destroying it as an effective fighting force. Forcing the Soviet Northern Fleet to patrol the Polar region also meant that the USSR had to extend its defensive perimeter yet further. This would increase the Soviet Navy's force allocation problems, especially for modern SSNs. In addition, under-ice operational capability protected Western submarines against any unexpected Soviet technical breakthrough in non-acoustic detection, with most non-acoustic submarine signatures blocked or attenuated by ice.