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Ocean wave

AUKUS requires rapid expansion of autonomous undersea warfare systems

By Malcolm Davis

Transformative moments in Australian defence policy are rare, and the establishment of the AUKUS partnership certainly has reshaped the Australian defence debate.

In addition to the momentous step of pursuing the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), the AUKUS agreement also commits the three states – Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – to pursue technology sharing in “additional undersea capabilities”.

Winning the undersea warfare battle in coming decades isn’t just about submarines, be they nuclear or conventionally powered, but instead will depend on how crewed platforms such as submarines work with networked sensors and autonomous platforms in a “system of systems”.

Investing in an ambitious use of autonomous platforms must be done at a relatively fast pace to avoid a serious capability gap emerging if, as seems likely, the acquisition of SSNs is likely to be delayed into the middle of the 2030s.

Australia will be left with six Collins-class diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) undergoing a “life of type extension” to ensure they can continue to sail into the 2030s.

But increasingly even these boats will struggle to remain effective against the likely types of advanced Chinese SSNs, including the Type 095 Tang-class SSNs, with the latter now under construction, and likely to be comparable in quieting to Virginia-class SSNs.

Australia’s Collins-class boats need to “snort” to recharge their batteries, increasing their risk of being detected, particularly in contested waters such as the South China Sea, so it makes sense not to place these older boats in harm’s way.

Enter unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to mitigate risk to crewed submarines. Navy is already very focused on such capabilities in its 2020 Robotics, Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence (RAS-AI) 2040 Strategy, which outlines a series of possible missions for the current day, in the near term, and in the far-term around 2040.

Furthermore, the US Navy has ordered five Boeing Orca extra-large UUVs to be completed by the end of 2022, with the Orca having a range of 12,000km and able to undertake a range of UUV missions including mine-laying, intelligence gathering, and ultimately lead to an offensive ASW capability in the future. The UK is pursuing something similar with its Manta UUV.

With the navy’s support for the RAS-AI strategy, and the reality of our AUKUS partners pursuing advanced UUV technologies sooner, it makes sense for the navy to take another look at RAS-AI, which is to be reviewed in 2024, to see to what extent its timeline can be compressed.

AUKUS would suggest the possibility that Australia should buy into the Orca project for the purposes of experimentation.

The three states could work together to introduce large, advanced UUVs that can operate independently of crewed submarines, in a “crewed-autonomous teaming” approach – an underwater equivalent to the Boeing Loyal Wingman platform in the air – much sooner than currently envisaged in Australian defence planning in the RAS-AI 2040 strategy.

Investment into large numbers of advanced UUVs needs to be complemented by acquisition of advanced autonomous surface vessels (USVs), such as that being tested under the US Navy’s medium and large unmanned surface vessel program. To enhance surface based anti-submarine warfare (ASW) would seem to suggest an emerging architecture for future undersea warfare.

Completing the future undersea warfare technology architecture would see fixed sensors on the seabed, as employed by the US Navy’s Integrated Undersea Surveillance System, to which Australia has access, and also mobile platforms on the surface.

The Ocius Bluebottle USV is a great example of a low-cost local solution that could provide a network of hundreds or even thousands of autonomous surface platforms to undertake ASW and ensure network connectivity with undersea platforms.

This philosophy of embracing autonomous capabilities in a rapid and holistic manner to complement traditional crewed platforms allows a larger and more pervasive naval capability to emerge sooner, through investment in rapidly expanding the navy’s autonomous warfare platforms.

Rather than a slow, steady evolution towards eventual advanced capabilities in the 2040s, what is needed is the rapid expansion of advanced autonomous systems on and under the waves, networked in with fixed and mobile sensor platforms that operate in a crewed-autonomous teaming approach with submarines, naval surface combatants and air platforms.

Given the worsening strategic outlook, a slow and cautious pace of development needs to be accelerated, and navy’s approach to autonomous systems must become far more ambitious.

Originally published by: The Australian on 30 Oct 2021