This article was originally published in the ASPI Strategist.
The company building the Navy’s 12 new submarines says they’ll be the world’s first conventional boats big enough to effectively use the company’s pump jet propulsion system. French Naval Group Australia says that its propulsor will prove much quieter than a propeller on the 4,700‑tonne submarine it has dubbed the ‘Shortfin Barracuda’.
Naval Group Australia’s interim CEO, Brent Clark, told The Strategist that the decision about the best propulsion system for the submarine will be made by the Defence Department, but that he hadn’t had any indication that it would chose anything but a propulsor. "We’ve had every indication that they like what was offered."
The propulsor that Naval Group is recommending for its Shortfin Barracuda consists of a propeller within a duct to reduce noise and the water disturbance known as cavitation, which can give away a boat’s position to hunters. Clark said he’s read many negative comments about propulsors, but some critics used very old studies to try and justify their argument.
"A lot of people don’t fully comprehend that a propulsor on a 1,500‑tonne coastal submarine would make no sense. But we’re not building a 1,500-tonne coastal submarine. We’re building quite a large submarine. And this is the first time that a conventional submarine’s been large enough to take a propulsor," Clark said.
On the intense debate over whether the submarines can be built from Australian steel, Clark said the only issue is whether Australian companies can produce steel suitable for the boats’ pressure hulls—about 1,800 tonnes of steel for each one. "All the other steel within the submarine can easily be done in Australia, so there’s no logical reason why we won’t use Australian steel for that. The question mark is Australian industry’s ability to produce the pressure hull steel."
The government had agreed that two local companies, BlueScope and Bisalloy, will take part in a qualification process to demonstrate that they can produce the quality and quantity of steel required.
"BlueScope will produce steel and then Bisalloy will take that steel and apply the hardening process to it," Clark said. "We’ll go through a qualification process with Bisalloy. If they’re able to produce the pressure hull steel, then we’ll be able to present to the government, through the Department of Defence, a business case for the production of steel in Australia."
Bisalloy produced very high quality steel for the Collins-class submarines, and for the Army’s Bushmaster troop carriers. "They’re a little company, a very good company," Clark said. "Personally, I think that they’re going to be able to produce this steel."
Producing that much steel every two years as the 12 boats are built is a tiny part of BlueScope’s production, and isn’t going to save the steel industry, Clark said.
"It’s got nothing to do with that. What it’s got to do with is the ability to produce the steel in Australia from a sovereignty perspective, so we don’t have to go to France or America or wherever to get our steel. We can do it ourselves. So if we want to build submarines 13, 14, 15—28, we can do that with a sovereign, certified, quality steel company that can produce it efficiently and at the right quality so that we can guarantee its performance. That’s what it’s about."
Clark believes that Australia should be able to build its own submarines. "We don’t make cars anymore but we’re going to be producing state-of-the-art warships, state-of-the-art submarines."
He strongly rejected claims that the project has already slipped behind schedule.
"We’ve achieved our working milestones without any issues. I understand that some individuals have claimed that the project is behind because one or two documents have yet to be accepted by the Commonwealth. That’s not an issue at all."
Clark also said that Naval Group continues to work with the Commonwealth on those documents, and the fact that they hadn’t been accepted yet doesn’t stop it progressing its planning.
"The project is on schedule. We have fundamentally no issues. Our relationship with the Future Submarine Project office is really solid. Our relationship with Lockheed Martin, which provides the combat system, is excellent," he said.
"A lot has happened. We’ve done our functional performance specification analysis with the Commonwealth. So that’s the sizing of the submarine. We’ve been progressing through the early design work. We’re about to start the preliminary design work. That’s going to take us about 15 months before we then go into the detailed design work. It’s quite deliberate. The Commonwealth, the department, was insistent upon a realistic program.
"I know during the Competitive Evaluation Process the world told us we’d never be able to work with Lockheed Martin because they’re American and we’re French. Somebody clearly forgot to tell us and Lockheed Martin because we’ve got no issues."
And he dismissed fears that the decades it will take to build the new fleet will leave the nation with a submarine capability gap. The six Collins-class submarines can, if required, have life-of-type extensions, Clark said. "You could do it to the entire fleet if you chose to. So there’s no capability gap here at all."
The first of the new submarines is to be handed over to the Chief of Navy in about 2032 for operational testing and evaluation. The Collins submarines will gradually be decommissioned as the new boats come online.
"I think people need to give a bit of credit to the planning that the CASG and Navy, and the government indeed, have done on this. You’ll have Collins submarines that are getting towards the end of their life, okay? That’s not unusual. Happens all the time," Clark added.
The Collins will be upgraded and Clark, a veteran submariner, says they’re likely to have significant technology advances.
"Sonars and other onboard systems will be upgraded. ASC, which is often much maligned, has done a terrific job with Collins. They get systematic upgrades to keep them regionally competitive or ahead of the region. We do this all the time in Australia.
"There’ll be no capability gap.
"They’ll look at the entire submarine, systematically going through system by system, looking at things that need to be upgraded. Obviously, sonar performance is critical, so I’m sure that the department is looking at what upgrades can be made to the sonar on Collins now. I would imagine it would be along the lines of processing. There will be upgrades of the management system and they look at periscopes and electronic warfare masts and communication masts. Are the diesels getting old? Inefficient?"
The same will happen with the Future Submarines, Clark argued.
"It’s highly unlikely that boat 12 is going to be the same as boat 1. Externally, of course, it will be. But there will be technology upgrades, there will be systems upgrades, there will be new weapons. The Americans will evolve weapons and new sensors will be developed."
Battery technology will improve, he added. "There’s no doubt that lithium-ion batteries will come along. I can’t presuppose what the Department of Defence will look at, but one would imagine that as soon as that technology’s proven and safe that they’d be keen to pursue that."
And what about claims that by time the full fleet is operating, advances in technology will have made the oceans so transparent that submarines will not be able to survive?
"Submarines have been around about a 100 years and they haven’t made the ocean transparent yet," Clark said.
"You can’t beat physics. You can’t change the speed of sound through water. You can’t change how sound propagates through water. Yes, sure, you can luck in and have a maritime patrol aircraft fly over a submarine, and from a great height on a very clear sunny day in tropical water where you can see the bottom at 300 feet. And you might go, ‘Well, that looks suspiciously like a submarine to me.’ It’s still a little submarine in a big ocean. Finding them is difficult."
The nature of water will make submarines hard to find for a long time to come, he concluded. "It’s hard to force data through that water column. You can only get to a certain level because physics wins."