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Impact of emerging technologies on Australia's future submarine

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 obsolete?

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.