Pacific 2008: RAN submarines: present and future capabilities | ADM Dec 07/Jan 08

By Tom Muir

With the Collins-class submarines fleet now being fitted with Raytheon's AN/BYG-1 Replacement Combat System and improved torpedoes, naval planners have already begun to think about its successor - watch out for the new DCP in 2008.

Since the first of class, HMAS Collins, was launched, the RAN's six Collins-class submarines have been faced with major upgrades to their systems, not only to rectify deficiencies-such as an unworkable combat system-but also to enhance their operational capabilities.

These activities, which have seen the introduction of a replacement combat system, a new heavyweight torpedo, modifications to suit the deployment of Special Forces and other classified work, presumably including the carriage of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs ), are additional to the ongoing support of the vessels and the large number of discrete modifications which are part and parcel of maintaining and sustaining one of the most advanced submarine types in the world.

And what is clearly the case, these and future upgrades, and the lore that surrounds them, will be major drivers in the design and development of the Collins' successors, the future submarine.

Maintenance of the Collins submarine fleet is a major undertaking and involves some $850 million spread over two distinct project phases.

Just four years ago, ASC signed a separate $3.5 billion contract for the through-life support of the Collins Class submarines over 25 years.

The contract assigned ASC with the responsibility for the design, maintenance and enhancement of the Collins Class until the end of their operational life-cycle.

The Collins Continuous Improvement Program (CIP - Phase 3 of Project Sea 1439), brings together a number of sustainability and reliability enhancements which include many discrete modifications to the submarines and the shore infrastructure.

These improvements are being introduced progressively over a number of years and are fitted to submarines during appropriate maintenance availabilities and when the modification packages become available.

As the modifications require extensive design and integration within the platform they can only be completed during full cycle dockings (FCD), which currently occur at seven-year cycles.

Hence completion of the entire Phase 3 program, which is dependent on the submarines' FCD program, won't occur until 2015.

An ongoing problem here is that the CIP is dependent on ASC's finite design resources, which from time to time may have to be reassigned to higher priority, emerging capability upgrades.

Sensor package
With an advanced environmental sensor package, the submarines can monitor and report oceanographic conditions in their operating area, contributing to rapid environmental assessment (REA) of the chosen area of interest.

They can also sanitise the area to locate and identify all contacts, monitor enemy activity and patterns of maritime traffic, and contribute to advanced mine countermeasures and covert beach reconnaissance operations.

The Phase 3 program includes modifications for Special Forces. Submarines add most value when deployed early in any expeditionary campaign, where they may play a key role in advance of amphibious forces, shaping the above water and undersea battlespace.

Part of this role may also see submarines deploy Special Forces to conduct shaping operations ashore.

In this event, the submarine will maintain communications with the Special Forces, continuing to support them through provision of tactical intelligence from own or third-party sensors, and if necessary, re-supply or extraction.

Submarines provide the most clandestine means of inserting and extracting Special Forces, either fully dived in the highest threat environment or using 'float on/float off' techniques for dinghies by briefly surfacing in lower-threat environments.

The prototype Special Forces capability modifications, which include exterior shelters for inflatable boats, were implemented on HMAS Collins as part of a 'staged delivery' system development life cycle to minimise risk and to match ASC design and production capacity.

Replacement Combat System (RCS)
The major upgrade to the Collins Class involves replacement of the tactical component of the combat system by the AN/BYG-1 tactical command and control system, sonar control and display upgrades, plus system and navigation improvements.

A major part of the RCS is being procured from the US Navy, initially via a Foreign Military Sales case signed in June 2003, which saw the procurement of five AN/BYG-1 systems.

Under the RCS acquisition strategy Raytheon Australia Pty Ltd (RAPL) was nominated as the integration support contractor and ASC as the submarine installation contractor.

Under a $54 million contract signed in August 2003 RAPL is tasked to design, develop and produce hardware and software to support the installation and integration of the combat system into the submarines.

Under its Through Life Support (TLS) Agreement orders, ASC has been working on platform modification design and preparatory work for the installation of the RCS.

The first order for the installation of the RCS (on HMAS Waller) was placed with ASC, a task completed in late 2006.

HMAS Waller's full-cycle docking began in March 2004 and concluded in March 2007, and incorporated some 1.25 million man-hours and 7500 tasks.

Equipped with the new combat system and the MK48 ADCAP (CBASS) heavy weight torpedo, now in full rate production, HMAS Waller commenced post-FCD sea trials, including an extensive period of operational testing, prior to acceptance.

Now the pride of the submarine force, HMAS Waller was officially welcomed back into the Royal Australian Navy at a re-dedication ceremony at HMAS Stirling's quarterdeck on Friday, August 24.

The next submarines to receive the new combat system and weapon will be HMAS Farncomb during its mid-cycle docking over 2007-08 and HMAS Dechaineux during its FCD next year.

Platforms will be progressively upgraded on a scheduled availability basis with all submarines upgraded by the end of the decade.

By 2015 the Collins submarine fleet will not only have reached full operational capability but will have been subject to ongoing improvements to systems, sensors and combat capabilities.

But so much for the here and now - let's look further ahead.

Australia's future submarine
There have been growing demands from certain quarters for earlier consideration by government of the future submarine, than currently proposed.

Interestingly this was a feature of Labor's Defence Policy, released just prior to the November Federal Election, which showed that reports on the future submarine capability, by both the Submarine Institute of Australia and the Kokoda Foundation, had been carefully noted.

Under Labor's Defence policy, a Labor Government was committed to ensuring that preliminary work on Australia's next generation of submarines was carried out ahead of the current timetable which schedules first pass approval for 2011.

It added that it was most unlikely that any 'off the shelf' options would fill Australia's future submarine requirements and that a developmental project involving the migration of evolved Collins-class combat and ship control systems might be necessary.

Ongoing access to leading edge US submarine technology would be crucial to the operational effectiveness of the next generation of submarines and the negotiation of a new Australia-US cooperative agreement on submarine technology would be a high priority for a Rudd Labor Government.

Submarine Institute of Australia
For the past four years the Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) has been considering the requirements for a future submarine warfare capability for Australia.

Members of the Institute recently completed a study for the Chief of Capability Development, Department of Defence, into the strategic setting.

In a report prepared earlier this year on requirements for a future submarine capability for Australia, the SIA concluded that:

* To retain an effective undersea warfare capability planning needs to begin now on a future submarine (incorporating lessons learnt from the Collins experience).

* To mitigate development risk, the Collins combat and ship control systems need to be evolved and migrated into the new SM.

* The design, development and construction of the future submarine capability will be a uniquely Australian enterprise, with strong support from the US Navy.

The report said the following actions needed to be undertaken now:

* The future submarine capability project should be listed in the DCP in 2008

* There is an urgent need to shape the political environment to facilitate the initiation of the project

* Supporting studies, some R&D projects, not necessarily confined to DSTO, should be initiated in advance of DCP entry, and

* The industrial climate also needs to be prepared to support what will be a long-running, complex developmental project.

The Kokoda Foundation
In its April 2007 report, Australia's Future Underwater Requirements, the Kokoda Foundation concludes that Australia needs a new class of submarine to follow the Collins in service from about 2025 onwards.

Because of the changed maritime environment, an altered balance of roles and tasks, and the need for increased flexibility and adaptability, the new submarines should possess some innovative characteristics.

In broad terms, the new class of submarine should probably draw on the design and operational lessons of the highly successful Collins-class using that boat as a starting point, thereby saving the expense and risk of starting from a clean sheet of paper.

Propulsion should be by a state-of-the-art diesel-electric system.

One aspect requiring early focused study is the cost-effectiveness of providing the new submarines with a complementary air-independent operating capacity, given the cost, weight and range trade-offs that such a decision normally entails.

A clear decision on this key element of design will be needed by 2011, when this project will need 'first pass' approval by the National Security Committee of Cabinet.

The Foundation says that a fairly clear conclusion of their research project was to rule out a nuclear propulsion system for the next generation of Australian submarines, despite its many operational advantages.

"'Nuclear propulsion would add a completely new dimension to the submarines' technical complexity, cost and support requirements.

"In the absence of a strong domestic nuclear industry to support such a capability, nuclear propulsion would be extremely expensive, technically demanding and very high risk.

"Nevertheless, were there to be a very rapid strengthening of Australia's nuclear industry and technology base during coming decades driven by the needs of an expanding electricity generating sector, it may be appropriate to re-visit this judgment for any submarines planned for acquisition after 2050."

The report says a key feature of the new submarines would be their carriage of an extremely advanced sensor suite, combat data system and weapons fit with the latter spanning a broader range than those routinely found aboard the Collins submarines.

While the primary weapon would remain the MK48 heavyweight torpedo, also carried would be an encapsulated anti-shipping cruise missile (most likely Harpoon) and a land-attack missile system (eg Tomahawk), a suite of sea mines and a short/medium-range anti-aircraft missile system.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute
ASPI's Dr Andrew Davies will be preparing a report on 'the submarine after the Collins' in due course, but in the meantime, Davies has essayed some comments on the future submarine in an ASPI report entitled: The Enemy Below: Anti-submarine Warfare in the ADF.

Davies says that looking ahead, the replacement for the Collins class submarines will arrive sometime around 2025-30 but the project to replace them is likely to first appear in the next DCP 2008-18.

He says there are a number of 'big picture' options for the future submarines:

* Nuclear submarines

* Another small fleet of large conventional submarines in the 3000-4000 tonne range

* A larger fleet of smaller conventional submarines, built in Australia, or

* A larger fleet of smaller conventional submarines purchased 'off the shelf'

He echoes the Kokoda Foundation's report in saying that nuclear submarines are extremely expensive to build and operate and require a sophisticated nuclear industry capability to support them.

Thus, he argues, it is unlikely that Australia would opt for a nuclear fleet.

Copyright - Australian Defence Magazine, December 2007/January 2008

latest comments


events »