The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines “Astute” as:
Showing keen intelligence and a shrewd ability to protect one’s interests or avoid being deceived.
In that case, the naming by the Royal Navy of its newest attack submarine as the Astute class is, to overuse the word, an astute move. The implication is clear; not only will the submarine protect the UK and its interests, it will do so in the face of enemy countermeasures and deception. More importantly, it will do so “shrewdly”, which in an environment of constant budget cuts and reduced defence spending, is of the utmost importance.
Unfortunately, the Astute has had quite the troubled birthing process, and major cost overruns and technical problems both with electronics and its nuclear propulsion system have made the Astute Class something of a “white elephant” with the media. Despite this, the technical promise of the sub is, theoretically at least, quite good, and once the ‘bugs’ are ironed out, the Astute SHOULD provide the RN with a capable weapon for quite some time.
The irony in the naming of the Astute class is that the sub seems to be more of an exercise in the astuteness of its political and manufacturing backers, than on the part of the Royal Navy and UK government. Corners have been cut and questionable decisions have been made that are still being investigated. However, those in power and who stand to profit from the sub’s production (ills aside) are doing all they can to protect themselves. Very astute, eh?
Even more ironic that that, though, is that the first kit of the Astute class submarine comes not from Airfix (that most British of kit makers) or from the modelling companies of close British allies, but from Hobby Boss, in China. How it is that a model company in China is able to produce what appears to be a pretty accurate replica of the RN’s newest attack sub is a topic for discussion in other places. Here, we’re just all about bashing the sprue! I personally don’t care who got the plans from where, as long as the kit is fun or interesting, or we can hope, both!
To get a feel for what’s in the 1/350 Astute box, I will direct you to the Out of Box review page, and this article. There, you’ll get a feel for my initial impression of the kit. In general, the kit looks good, although like all submarine kits, it is a fairly simple affair without too many pieces. The moulding generally looks nice, though and I was encouraged by what I saw.
The real question, though, is if this kit was an astute buy or not!
Building the Astute:
When it comes to building subs, most go together the same way, and the Astute is no different. The upper and lower halves of the hull glue together to give you the whole boat. After that, the bulk of the assembly work is adding details and subassemblies like the top of the fin, dive planes and ducted propulsion unit. The hull fits together fairly well, and the lip that goes around the hull for gluing support and location is much better than a few pins. Gluing the halves together doesn’t take much, but there is a lot of sanding to be done when the glue dries. The seam runs right through the sonar packs on the side of the boat, too, so there is a lot of careful sanding needed to ensure that things look like “one piece” when finished.
As mentioned in the OOB review, there are some prominent mould seams along the base of the fin and up the sides of the body on the contour that flares near the front dive planes. These are relatively easy to remove with a modelling knife, so it’s not a biggie. However, if you leave them on, it’s going to look terrible, so make sure you give the Astute a good once-over after you’ve got it together.
One part of the kit that didn’t impress me upon assembly was the engraving on the hull sides. This was very shallow, and needed to be rescribed. It was worse on one side than the other, too, which was a bit odd. For someone who is as used to cruddy old kits (FROG, Airfix, Matchbox) as I am, you’d think this wouldn’t be too big a deal. However, because the kit is new and relatively expensive, it is more of a point of contention than it ought to be. If this was a $15 Matchbox made in 1983, I’d expect it to need work like this. It’s not, though; it’s $30+ Hobby Boss kit made in the 2010+ timeframe.
Another problem with the kit is the duct for the propeller. It doesn’t have the right contours at all. From the back, it looks fine. However, from the front, it’s flat! Now, I may not be a hydrodynamic engineer, but I’m pretty sure that a flat surface moving perpendicular to the flow of water is very draggy, and also likely very noisy. Thus, the cowling/ducting needs to be recontoured to be a bit more realistic. To do this, I just used sand paper and my knife to carve back some of the front cowling and put a “lead angle” on it. The prop fits perfectly within the duct, so I didn’t want to touch the inside dimensions. I just sanded a nice round, flowing curve onto the front of the cowl. Once this was done, the bulk of the modifications were complete.
If it’s one thing I hate, it’s photoetch. The Astute has some, but not a tonne, thank goodness. There are a couple of small loops for the hull, and these went on okay. There are some flat pieces for hatches or something on the hull, and these go on fine as well, since no bending is involved. However, there are two support struts for the prop duct, and these are supposed to have photoetch attachments to them. Good luck with that. Experienced users of thin brass might be able to make these work, but not I. I tried, but found it was going to be more of a pain than it was worth, and gave up on them quickly. There’s also a choice of a solid plastic prop, which is a bit too thick, of course, or a beautiful photoetch prop. Of course, the photoetch one has to have all the blades bent at the right angle, so again, I chose to go with the plastic one.
Painting and Decalling:
The paint guide in Hobby Boss kits should always be taken with a grain (or better yet a 2lb bag) of salt. The plan with the Astute shows the sub being greyish black and the sonar packs being a reddish-brown off-black. Pics on the net do not show this. They show the sub being almost black with the sonar packs being almost purely black. To get this effect, I painted the area around the packs with Model Master Acrylic (MMA) Aircraft Interior Black. I then masked off the sonar blisters with Tamiya tape, and used Virsago Black for the rest of the hull. Virsago Black is my own creation of Black and Gunship Grey to give a very dark grey-black that still contrasts slightly with black paint or technical pen. It’s a handy colour to have around!
At this point, I unmasked the sub and picked out the small, light-coloured rectangles along the hull using MMA Light Grey. There is the option to build the sub with the masts and periscope deployed, but I like my subs to be as clean as possible, so I built everything closed. There are actually separate fin-tops for this, one open and one closed down. That’s a nice touch, since you don’t have to worry about cutting your own doors or having the doors provided not fit worth a toot. (Yes, I’m talking to you, old airplane kits with your lame gear doors!) Once the sub was painted, it was given a light sanding and a coat of Future to seal it all up for decalling.
The decal sheet on the Astute is quite large, and has decals for the white rectangles. However, since I had to re-etch these, I decided paint was better. There are several long red and blue lines that run around the hull to just below the “deck” of the sub. One problem with these is that they’re not all quite in the right spot. If you look at the painting plan, and compare it to a real photo of the Astute, you can see right away that something’s amiss. I cut the front red decal to match what I’d seen, and after it was on, everything looked okay!
The decals went on very well, and seem quite willing to conform to the sub’s contours. They were able to be coaxed into the various panel lines using a bit of Future, and once they were down, they were Futured over to blend them into the paint. At this point, I used a bit too much Future, since the area around some of the decals started to turn whitish! No worries, though; it went away as the Future dried!
To highlight the panel lines, I decided to use a whitish-grey pastel, rather than a black one. I figured the lighter contrast would look neat. However, applying Future over light grey pastels on a dark background doesn’t work. It washes the colour out completely; Future darkens pastels, it doesn’t lighten them. So, to avoid this, I flat coated the Astute using Ceramcoat Matte Varnish, and then applied a light grey/white pastel to the lines. I then flat coated over the pastel to seal it. Yes, the intensity of the colour was greatly reduced (thank goodness) but it was still lighter than the background.
With the pastels all nailed down, it was time for a final satin coating. I used a fairly dull final coat, which was the Matte Varnish with some Future added. I wanted a bit of reflection, but not too much. The multiple layers of flat coat also helped to blend in the decals even more, which was an added bonus!
The Astute is a weird looking sub, with a strange flare near the front dive planes and a very distinctive “hunchback” aft of the fin. The Hobby Boss kit captures these odd contours very well, and is a pleasing and relatively accurate depiction of the RN’s new hunter/killer. Like most modern subs, it’s not all that visually exciting. However, the bright decals and interesting sonar packs add some visual contrast along the hull, and this, combined with the odd shape of the sub, does make the Astute more appealing than some more conventional boats out there.
This isn’t a difficult kit, but it’s also not as easy as its age and price would suggest. If you have average modelling skills, you can get along with the Astute fairly well. However, if you’re a relative novice expecting something that’s going to be a “shake and bake” model, you’re toast. The Hobby Boss Astute needs some work, and you’re going to have to put some finesse into it to get a really good result.
I would recommend it to most modellers, but not beginners. I enjoyed building it, but it isn’t as nice a kit as the Hobby Boss Surcouf, and the high price tag may take some of the lustre off of the final project for a modeller who is a bit thrifty.
Overall, the kit is decent but not perfect, and interesting but not exciting. I guess it’s kind of a “Meh +”, at that rate. I had fun and you probably will too, but it won’t be as great as it seems at first. Huh… will look at that! It IS an extremely accurate replica of the Astute after all!