We have to future proof our new subs right from the start

February 25, 2016

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Underwater drones pose new challenges to submarine design.

by Martin Callinan and Alan Gray

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 January 2016

 

This year the first of many contracts will be awarded to a Japanese, German or French submarine maker but will our submarine defence be fit for service from 2030 to 2060? From a technological perspective, we have some concerns.

The first is about process. Notwithstanding the recent arrival of a highly-credentialled US submariner as head of the submarine program, Rear Admiral Stephen Johnson, there are indications we may have to re-learn some Collins-class acquisition lessons. Primarily, getting the early-stage development right so that central design errors don’t become failings.

The 2014 First Principles Review of Defence saw the Defence Materiel Organisation wound up and the Defence Science & Technology Organisation change to a group within Defence. Associated staff losses to date include scientists, engineers and project managers with deep knowledge and decades of experience of submarine problem solving, materials, systems and related technologies.

The rapid turnover in recent years of prime ministers, defence, industry and finance ministers, treasurers, as well as department secretaries has provided minimal policy continuity for such a major project. Now, as the defence white paper is being concluded, Minister Brough has stepped aside. It leaves the defence science portfolio awaiting its third minister of this government, and is the 11th such change since 2000.

The second concern stems from technological proliferation. Submarines are the most complicated machines, so risk is part of their construction and operation. This is well understood but less appreciated is that annual global R&D expenditure has more than doubled since 2000, with the centre of world science and innovation moving towards Asia. This trend presents a challenge for submarine design that wasn’t present when Collins was conceived, and technological enablement is a growing aspect of the emerging world order.

While each contender will make a persuasive case that their platform meets Australia’s unique needs, a question that must be asked and answered is – what is the risk of technological obsolescence across the life of the platform? This question has two interdependent aspects: what technological agility will the boats possess and what technological environments can they expect to encounter. Both answers need to inform the evaluation process.

UNMANNED VEHICLES

When thinking about the Collins replacement project began, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were in their infancy and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) were embryonic. The advancements in UAV technologies over the last decade has affected tactics in theatre and swayed defence budgets. The myriad roles now performed by UAVs, in lieu of crewed aircraft, and via new functions have been transformational.

US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in October that the US plans to deploy a squadron of underwater drones within the next four years, including large-displacement unmanned underwater vehicles. So a number of functions currently performed by the US submarine fleet can be or soon will be undertaken by AUVs.

International defence journals report the Europeans, China, India, Russia, Japan and Singapore are making significant investments in AUV R&D. Such efforts are underpinned by collaborative work with commercial innovators and academic researchers.

Australia can point to Ocius Technology which was successful in the most recent round of the Defence Capability Technology Demonstrator Program. Their anti-submarine warfare unmanned surface vessel seeks to provide our Navy with a long-range detection capability. A lot more is required though if Australia is serious about a technological edge. Fields such as long-range autonomous sensing, real-time processing, inertial navigation, marine acoustics, distributed submarine hunting, energy systems, littoral battle space awareness and fleet protection are all relevant to Australia’s maritime security.

Contenders for the Australian submarine contract will have factored-in technological adaptation; to the extent the competitive evaluation process required it. Open architectures, modularisation and capacity for our future submarine fleet to operate remote or autonomous systems are obvious. But as we’ve seen with UAVs, disruptive technology renders infrastructure redundant not by replacing it but by using new ways to go around it.

So proactive attention is required to account for technological trends that will shape future submarine platforms and operational environments. We trust that the government procurement initiative contained in the innovation statement will be mobilised to support this contract. A multi-decade $40 billion-plus procurement provides plenty of scope for submarine innovation. A return of defence science or national security as one of Australia’s research priorities would also help.

Last year, the US Navy established an unmanned warfare systems directorate, charged, in part, with improving US ability to develop new operational concepts that incorporate unmanned technologies into its war-fighting capabilities and align US unmanned investment strategy to deliver future naval war-fighting capabilities. Our defence white paper should adopt a similar initiative, thereby leveraging Australia’s potential to capitalise in this emerging field.

A cost-effective security hedge depends on maintaining Australia’s technological advantage. Innovation needs to be central to both our future submarine program and the 2016 white paper.

Martin Callinan and Alan Gray wrote Defence science and innovation: An affordable strategic advantage, a 2015 special report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.