British Defense Ministry auditors have said a shortage of skilled personnel could limit the United Kingdom's ability to deploy its ballistic missile submarines and other undersea combat vessels, the London Telegraph reported on Monday.
“There is a risk that the [Royal Navy] will not have sufficient suitably qualified and experienced personnel to be able to support the manning requirement of the submarine fleet,” according to the Risk Register of the Defense Nuclear Executive Board.
“Inability to recruit, retain and develop sufficient nuclear and submarine design qualified personnel will result in an inability to support the Defense Nuclear Program," the assessment states. The armed forces are competing with nonmilitary atomic enterprises for experienced workers, and submarine crew members have to endure ocean patrols of longer durations and in greater quantities.
Roughly three of every 20 lieutenant-level armaments positions are slated before 2016 to go unfilled, and nearly as many engineering posts are expected to remain open before that time.
The issue is "very worrying," former British navy chief Adm. Alan West said. The United Kingdom's naval force would ideally have procedures for addressing the personnel shortage, he said.
“There’s no doubt that recruiting and keeping highly qualified nuclear engineers has been tough. Nuclear engineers have also become highly sought after by the civil industry as this country has not trained enough,” West added.
The navy, though, said the findings show it possesses "sufficient manpower for its submarines and we are confident that this will remain the case."
“To ensure that the Royal Navy continues its excellent nuclear safety record, we review the nuclear propulsion program to identify and manage any possible future risks; this report is part of that process,” said a spokesman for the service.
It is also unclear whether the United Kingdom can follow through on a Labor Party-era initiative to replace the four Vanguard-class ballistic missile vessels used to carry its Trident nuclear missiles, Defense Ministry investigators wrote. They cited an “erosion of manufacturing capability, cost growth, time delay and poor performance of contractors.”
Nuclear Information Service head Peter Burt said “these risks highlight major pitfalls ahead and that Trident replacement is far from a foregone conclusion."
"How effective we are at mastering these risks will determine whether Britain can remain in the nuclear weapons business,” added Burt, whose organization obtained a censored version of the Defense Nuclear Executive Board paper.