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Impact of emerging technologies on Australia's future submarine

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Impact of emerging technologies on Australia's future submarine

Posted 12/05/2015 by Stephen Fallon

The debate about Australia’s future submarine has focused on who will build it and where it will be

constructed. In contrast, the environment in which it will operate has barely been addressed. It is

anticipated that the submarine will enter service at some point in the early-to-mid 2030s as the Collins

class is phased out, and will be expected to operate for around three decades. However, given that recent

analyses of technological trends suggest that undersea warfare (USW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW)

may change dramatically during this timeframe, is Australia’s future submarine destined to become quickly


The utility of submarines lies in their stealth. Modern conventional submarines of the kind Australia

intends to acquire are quiet and operate across vast expanses of ocean, rarely surfacing. This makes them

difficult to detect, allowing them to strike unexpectedly during wartime, while even the suspicion of their

presence will cause an adversary to operate with greater caution. In peacetime, submarines can patrol an

area of interest in order to gather intelligence. For a country with extensive maritime approaches, such as

Australia, these attributes make submarines an important asset.

However, future advancements in computer processing power may erode the ability of submarines to avoid

detection, reducing their utility and potentially their survivability in high-intensity conflicts against

sophisticated adversaries. According to a recent paper by the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary

Assessments (CSBA), increasing computer processing power may open up the possibility of running

sophisticated oceanographic modelling in real time that will reveal small environmental changes caused by

a submarine. In addition to detecting submarines through acoustic means, it may become possible to

construct models that will detect them by observing miniscule surface changes caused by their underwater

wake. Moreover, given the trend towards the miniaturisation of computer technology, it may soon be

possible to custom fit such systems in ships, aircraft and systems deployed on the seafloor.

Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also noted the strategic implications of the

spectacular growth of processing power. In 2033—around the time that Australia’s future submarines will

potentially begin to enter service—electronic devices will be one thousand times more powerful than those

we use today, and one million times more powerful than those used in 1993. While the exact implications

of this are difficult to predict, Davies contends that it is likely to make it easier to detect military platforms

that rely on stealth:

‘In principle, given enough processing power and enough sources of data, even low power signals can be

extracted from background noise. And that’s where Moore’s Law and robots come in. Future processors

will be faster and more powerful, and will be able to process large quantities of data fast enough to have a

much better detection capability against quiet submarines or low radar signature aircraft. By having

multiple sources of radar (or sonar) energy in different locations combined with multiple detectors also in

different locations, the trick of reflecting radar [or sonar] away from the original source suddenly becomes

much less effective.’

While this trend may dismay submariners, it isn’t all bad news. The CSBA’s study suggests that submarines

may evolve to become less like front-line aircraft and more like aircraft carriers. Instead of risking

detection close to hostile shores, submarines may host, deploy and co-ordinate more survivable platforms

such as unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs). Such platforms would likely be cheaper and more difficult to

detect than crewed submarines and could potentially be used to perform traditional submarine missions

such as detecting and attacking enemy targets or conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance

(ISR) missions.

Such UUVs, currently in their infancy, are expected to become more common. Ten countries currently

operate the SeaFox UUV, a craft used to detect and dispose of mines at sea, while future UUVs may be

used in an offensive role. The US has recently announced that it intends to launch a UUV from a Virginia

class submarine later this year and is developing a small torpedo that could, speculates the CSBA’s report,

be carried close to a target by a large UUV. Such craft are unlikely to replace crewed submarines in the near

future due to their limited speed and size. However, by conducting routine tasks or dangerous

assignments that pose an unnecessary risk to a submarine, UUVs could free up crewed submarines to

pursue other missions.

Such platforms could offer a wealth of advantages for Australia. Cheaper than modern submarines, they

could be built in greater numbers, affording Australia greater coverage of its maritime approaches and

reducing the risk of attrition in wartime.

The growth of computer processing power and the development of advanced UUVs have two main

implications for Australia’s future submarines. Firstly, they are likely to be operating in a greater threat

environment than the Collins class as it seems probable that submarines will become easier to detect.

Secondly, the potential for Australia’s future submarines to accommodate UUVs in the future may need to

be factored into design specifications. If Australia’s future submarines are to avoid premature

obsolescence, likely changes in USW and ASW should be considered when developing the successor to the

Collins class.