Defence R&D in Australia - Industry's view

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Sydney-based Thales Underwater Systems is the leading provider of sonar systems to the RAN; the company's Technical Director discusses the company policies and strategies behind its R&D investment in Australia.
Australian Defence policy has placed strong emphasis on the establishment and sustainment of an in country industry base, able to deliver the long term system evolution and through life support services required to fulfil the broader Defence objective of self sufficiency in times of uncertainty.

TUS, which has a strong track record of R&D investment in Australia, has focused on this objective and has built a strong indigenous engineering capability, with the skills to design and implement sonar and underwater acoustic systems for the ADF. These engineering capabilities extend across the full range of disciplines necessary for the design and implementation of sonar systems and include signal processing algorithm design, acoustic sensors, mechanical, electronics, software, integration, test, systems engineering, and open systems architecture techniques.

TUS's skilled engineering resources have been well employed in the past to deliver results on major programs such as: the Collins Submarine sonar suite, the Spherion-B sonar on the Anzac frigates, the 2093 mine hunting sonar for the Mine Hunter Coastal (MHC), and most recently the Underwater Warfare System (UWS) for the upgraded FFG-7 class frigates. The first upgraded FFG-7, HMAS Sydney, was handed back to the RAN on 28th April 2006 following sea trials and acceptance testing.

Being part of an international organization provides TUS with a global reach back capability that allows it to offer world leading technologies and products to the Australian Defence Force (ADF). While this is well suited to the current trend in Defence procurement for the acquisition of low-risk, sea-proven systems at globally competitive prices, it needs to be balanced against investment in local R&D activities crucial to the development and growth of the indigenous engineering skills base.

Each year TUS runs an annual self-funded R&D program of upstream studies and development activities. Investment strategies and priorities are focused on the local Australian business requirements, but are coordinated within a global program of R&D activities. This ensures that the investments in Australia are truly world class and can lead to global commercialization opportunities.

TUS makes strong use of its tripartite Alliance relationship with the DSTO and RAN to establish priorities and provide top level strategic guidance that focuses R&D endeavours on subjects of importance and relevance to Defence that can lead to improved operational capabilities for the ADF.

Over the past 5 years TUS has invested an average of 4 per cent of annual turnover into self-funded R&D activities. Adding customer funded R&D in support of major programs, brings this to 15 per cent of turnover. This investment attracts a government tax concession, for which TUS is grateful; however the main factors governing the level of investment, are the opportunities for return, within the context of the Defence acquisition strategy adopted by the Commonwealth.

TUS places high importance on securing external funding for R&D activities. Not only does this compliment internal investment, providing potentially better returns, but also solicits a strong element of customer ownership and commitment to help transition the technology into commercially viable operational product.

The Defence Capability Technology Demonstrator (CTD) program, is the main source for external R&D funding from Defence. However this program is focused on the demonstration of capability based on existing proven technologies, and is not well suited to the funding of upstream studies and concept development activities. For this, TUS relies more on its internal self-funded R&D program.

In order to provide an overview of some past achievements and future directions, some of the key TUS technology and product development activities are summarised in the following paragraphs.

The Barra sonobuoy concept was initially conceived by DSTO more than 25 years ago, and was successfully transferred to industry for commercialization. Over many years this product has undergone a number of evolutions. The last production contract (6PC) involved 13,000 buoys and was completed in 2004. As a follow-on, TUS has invested in the development of new buoy types such as the RASSPUTIN active transmitter buoy, and other specialist buoy types such as the ATB (Acoustic Telemetry Buoy). TUS has also been pursuing further refinements of the original Barra buoy to reduce the dependence on imported components, which today limit the price competitiveness of this buoy on the international market.

TUS in Australia is the world leader in thin line fully reelable towed arrays (TA) for submarine (SM) applications. This status was facilitated by the pioneering work done by DSTO in the 1970s and '80s, and the subsequent transfer to industry of the Kariwara solid TA technology. Since then TUS has expanded its investment to include development of the Narama fluid filled technology, and today boasts an in-depth TA engineering capability and comprehensive acoustic understanding of the relative performance and operational benefits associated with both technologies.

The latest thin line TA for SM applications is called "Short TASS" and is a truly hybrid structure combining the low noise performance of the Narama fluid filled technology with the strength and handling robustness of the Kariwara solid technology. Today the "Short TASS" product is used on the Collins class submarine, and TUS continues to invest R&D funding to continually monitor and refine the operational performance of this product.

A spin off from the military TA business has been the development by TUS of the Sentry and Guardian solid streamers for the civilian seismic industry used for petroleum prospecting. These products have been truly revolutionary, and have generated $350m in export revenues for Australia.

The Petrel MOAS (Mine and Obstacle Avoidance Sonar) is a three dimensional forwarding looking sonar. The complete sonar system was designed and developed in Australia by TUS, as a speculative venture supported by the TUS self-funded R&D program and a significant level of assistance from the Defence Industry Development (DID) organization. Petrel MOAS has since been sold into a number of Australian programs: FFG upgrade, ANZAC upgrade and SML (Survey Motor Launch). TUS continues to invest self-funded R&D in further enhancements and developments of this product. In conjunction with the global TUS organisation, a submarine variant has been produced for the export market. Additional new features relevant to SM applications are currently under development. The surface ship variant is also being offered into the SEA 4000 Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) program.

TUS Australia leads the global organization for the supply of transducers into TUS programs. This is part of a "global supply chain" principle aimed at keeping TUS globally competitive in a tough international market place. The internal self-funded R&D program is a source of on going investment to maintain and evolve the core skills in acoustic transducer design, and to evolve and optimize the application of piezoelectric ceramic formulations. New technologies such as soft ceramics, single crystal ceramics and 1-3 composite constructions are also being pursued.

The self-funded R&D program is also used within TUS to initiate upstream technology developments such as the new and potentially disruptive Fibre Optic Sensor technology. This work was pioneered by DSTO's Maritime Operations Division (MOD) and has been subsequently transitioned to TUS through a collaborative program of work under the tripartite DSTO-RAN-TUS Alliance.

Following the successful Alliance activity, Defence funding was secured in Round 9 of the Commonwealth CTD program. TUS is grateful for Defence funding of this ground breaking new work, based on the application of Fibre Laser Sensors (FLS) to underwater acoustic sensing. To date this work has generated a range of formal IP products including several patents. TUS believes that the high level of investment in this technology requires a global market upon which to generate returns, and is therefore building a commercialization strategy to position TUS Australia as the "global supply chain" vendor to the future international market for this technology.

The Fibre Optic work is speculative. It is therefore prudent to balance this with R&D investments strongly linked to the opportunities for return on investment through major acquisition programs. Defence acquisitions such as the new Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) call for low-risk, sea-proven, Military Off-the-Shelf (MOTS) products and systems, and at first may seem at odds with a strong R&D investment strategy.

Nevertheless in the case of the AWD, TUS has focused its R&D investments to address the customer's perceived risk areas, such as systems integration, and has developed a strong understanding and definition of the detailed interface requirements between the TUS sonar components and the Commonwealth selected Aegis combat system. Through this investment TUS is now well placed to offer into the Sea 4000 program a complete Underwater Warfare System (UWS), with a very low level of integration risk.

In response to the global trend of Defence Transformation, and the evolution towards capability based procurement, TUS has invested in the tools and skills required to better understand the operational context in which its sonar products and equipment are utilized. An element of this strategy has been the implementation of the TUS "Ocean Lab", a purpose built facility at TUS Rydalmere providing laboratory resources and infrastructure to support scenario modeling and experimentation in an underwater Synthetic Environment (SE).

The Ocean Lab has been developed with internal R&D funding and provides the capability to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of different sonar equipment and system configurations. The forward plan is to define and conduct experimental scenarios relevant to future Australian Force Anti-Submarine Warfare (FASW) needs, including multi-static sonar techniques, multi-platform data fusion and situational awareness. The TUS Ocean Lab is a federated asset of the ATIC (Australian Transformation & Innovation Centre) based at ADI's Garden Island facility in Sydney.

RADM Matt Tripovich, Head Capability Systems, was scheduled to formally open the TUS Ocean Lab on the 25th May 2006.

Crucial to the development of new sonar capabilities is a strong level of expertise in the underlying signal processing algorithms, and sonar functional architecture. These skills are fostered within TUS in the General Sonar Studies (GSS) group. Each year there is significant investment in upstream studies into new processing algorithms and techniques, which may provide the basis for future system upgrades, and enhancements to extant sonar systems, and for the implementation of new systems. This year one of the key study activities is focused on the development of classified processing enhancements for the Collins-class submarine sonar aimed at countering the ever-increasing threat of adversary submarines in the region.

In summary, TUS has a strong history of R&D investment in Australian, but feels that it is necessary to be part of a global supply chain in order to achieve the necessary levels of return on investment.

World leading R&D demands a specialist expertise base requiring careful planning, growth and skills retention. Crucial to achieving this is a continuity of contract work, and both internal and external sources of R&D funding, allowing investment in speculative upstream developments such as the Fibre Laser Sensor work. We must also link our investments to key business opportunities, and ensure that they deliver the enhanced operational capability that the ADF requires, by steering our actions through the DSTO-RAN-TUS Strategic Alliance, and by validating our concepts through experimentation in the TUS "Ocean Lab".

The bottom line is this: R&D investment in Australian will be strongly influenced by the acquisition strategies adopted by the Australian Department of Defence.

Michael Clark is Technical Director of TUS Pty Australia. He has worked for Thales Underwater Systems in the sonar domain since 1988 in both Australia and France where he was TUS' Corporate Technology Coordinator, responsible for coordinating the companies global investment in self funded research and development.

By Michael Clark, Sydney
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