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Drone subs may alter the rules

By Malcolm Davis

One of the most important Australian defence projects ever — the local construction of 12 Attack-class future submarines to replace the Royal Australian Navy’s six Collins-class boats — is under way with a long lead time, while developments in undersea warfare technology are growing. 

The first Attack-class boat is not expected to enter service before 2034 with the 12th not appearing until sometime in the 2050s. It’s a very slow procurement of a big and expensive platform to respond to a rapidly deteriorating strategic outlook. 

As we wait for the Attack-class subs to appear, the Collins-class submarines have to carry on. They are dependent on government funding a life-extension program for at least five boats to keep the RAN’s submarine fleet at sea. In recent analysis by ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer, he noted such a program will get the RAN a fleet of nine boats, a mix of life-extended Collins class, and three to four Attack class by 2040. 

That’s all contingent on successive future governments sustaining Australia’s naval submarine construction enterprise through sufficient funding and sustaining a skilled workforce over decades. 

In the meantime, developments in submarine and undersea warfare technology are not standing still. The 2019 China Military Power report, released this month by the US Department of Defence, suggests that “China continues to construct an array of offensive and defensive capabilities to enable the [People’s Liberation Army] to gain maritime superiority within the first island chain”, a region which encompasses much of the Australian Defence Force’s critical areas of interest within maritime Southeast Asia. 

China’s investment in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) includes mass production of a range of more ASW-capable naval surface combatants, along with extensive undersea acoustic arrays, and growing numbers of fixed and rotary wing ASW aircraft. 

The size of the PLA Navy is likely to reach 530 warships and submarines by 2030, and Beijing can concentrate most of that in Asia. In contrast, the US Navy’s long-range shipbuilding plan, released in March 2019, aspires towards a global fleet of about 355 ships by about the same time but, given spending constraints, it’s unlikely to reach such a goal. 

China is also pursuing leapfrog technologies through civil-military fusion that could see it exploit disruptive innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous systems including advanced unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), and quantum technologies that could be applied in the underwater battlespace. 

...China’s military bases in the South China Sea give it forward presence to militarily dominate...

Finally, China’s military bases in the South China Sea give it forward presence to militarily dominate that entire region. From these bases, China can project military power through Southeast Asian maritime chokepoints west into the Indian Ocean, south towards Australia’s air and maritime approaches, and southeast into the South Pacific. 

With these looming challenges in mind, it’s essential that the next government be willing to embrace new ideas to ensure the navy can continue to project power throughout maritime Southeast Asia. Both Britain’s Royal Navy and the US Navy are acquiring large UUVs, with the US Navy buying five Orca extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles (XLUUVs), based on the Boeing Echo Voyager UUV. They reportedly will be about 15 metres long, with a 6500 nautical-mile range.

These could launch and recover smaller UUVs in contested waters, gather intelligence and undertake surveillance, and support special-operations forces. 

Cost is important. Current estimates for the Attack-class Future Submarine in terms of unit cost is about $4 billion per submarine, with $50bn budgeted over the entire program for 12 submarines by the late 2050s. In contrast, the US Navy’s contract with Boeing for five Orca XLUUVs is about $300 million with entry into service by 2022. 

For a fleet of 24 Orcas in RAN service to supplement both the six Collins and 12 Attack-class submarines would be approximately $1.5bn — a little over the quarter of the cost of just one Attack-class submarine. Adding in operating costs including robust command and control systems and humans ‘‘on the loop’’ adds to this figure, but still compares favourably to manned submarines. 

The decision by the USN and RN to embrace large UUVs like the Orca is a highly significant move. The RAN should not ignore it. Getting on board with the USN’s and RN’s UUV programs would allow Australia to participate in a cutting-edge naval warfare capability development effort, acquire transformational undersea warfare capability quickly to mitigate risk in coming decades, and reduce demand on crewed submarines in a highly cost-effective way. 

It would offer Defence the chance to look beyond traditional platform-centric thinking and develop a networked ‘‘system of systems’’ approach to undersea warfare. Investing in large UUVs over the next decade should be the next big leap for the RAN.

Originally published by: The Australian on 28 May 2019