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Super Submarine not Astute

October 24th 2010

The British Navy’s newest and most high-tech $1.6billion (£1billion) nuclear super submarine, called the HMS Astute, is apparently not as astute as they had hoped. While cruising on sea trials, the sub ran aground on a shingle bank on the Isle of Skye, off the Scottish coast.

For all their high-tech instrumentation, the crew still had to rely on pen and paper. They still had to use sea charts to navigate. The stranded Astute was using coastal charts, which were out-of-date.

The problem is that the seabed changes with the currents, and apparently the shingles had moved since the sea charts had been printed.

Fortunately the sub is so new that it is yet to enter service, sometime next year. But it was an embarrassment.

The Astute’s nuclear reactor is fuelled with all the fuel it will need during its planned 25-year service. There was no danger of a nuclear leak from this incident.

It is with some relief that we still need the human mind to interpret and evaluate the signals we get from our instruments. Google Maps and GPS still need the human mind to navigate, as a Swedish couple learned when they ended up in the Alps after following their GPS coded to guide them to the island Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. The couple even argued with the local mountain people that they were in the right place: their GPS said so!

Another embarrassment from this incident (the grounding of the HMS Astute, not the Swedes) was that the tugboat used to pull the submarine off the shingle bank was the Anglian Prince, an emergency tug vessel due to be cut in the British Government’s latest cost cutting budget.

As the local MP, Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil said, “The most expensive and technologically advanced submarine in the world has had to be pulled to safety by a tugboat the Government wants to scrap. It is only when a major event happens, such as this, that the value of the standby tug is realised. We can’t afford to lose the tug.”

Is this not typical of bureaucrats esconsed in offices far away from reality to make fair weather decisions when deciding on budget cuts? Emergency vessels need to be there for emergencies, and these four tugs due to be cut are “critical” in emergencies.

An inquiry into the embarrassing incident is under way and a Royal Navy spokesman said last night: “One of the things being looked at is if the charts were up-to-date with recent seabed changes in the area. The seabed can change quickly.”

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