Why Australia’s $ 100 billion new submarine could be a waste of money

They’re expensive, take 20 years to make, and Australia has alienated France by buying them – but there could be something even worse about our new submarines.

The $ 100 billion bill faces inevitable and massive eruptions. The 20-year delivery date is optimistic and probably too late. Today, a top scholar dropped a bomb on dreams of Australian nuclear submarines, calling them deep-sea dinosaurs.

“Submarines… only have one big thing. They are stealthy. But if, in a conflict, a submarine can be detected, it is dead, ”says Roger Bradbury, professor emeritus of complex systems science at Australian National University.

In a short essay published by Defense Connect, he explains what this means for these extremely complex and expensive machines.

Bradbury says he and a team of analysts have identified a series of technological trends that may affect submarine warfare. The AI-assisted conclusion, he says, predicts that the oceans will become “transparent” by the 2050s.

“A transparent ocean will be the result of an imminent integration of detection systems not yet developed, and it is likely that it will come together, when it does, quickly,” he warns. “The era of submarines will likely end with a bang, not a whimper.”

Simply put: their one big trick won’t work anymore.

A $ 100 billion boat bill

Unfortunately for Australia, Professor Bradbury believes this extinction event will happen by 2050. It is right in the midst of the scheduled delivery of our largest and most expensive defense project of all time.

Earlier this month, Australia reached a $ 90 billion deal to buy diesel-electric submarines from France for conventional weapon nuclear submarines under the new AUKUS deal. with the United States and the United Kingdom.

The eight new Australian boats won’t be cheap. The SMHreported that each U.S. Virginia-class nuclear submarine costs around A $ 5 billion to build, but adds other development and planning costs, including the added financial burden of building the fleet in Australia rather than ‘in the US or UK, and that bill could end up being north of $ 100 billion.

The tide is turning

At the same time, new technologies are piling up at a rapid rate against submarines. And like the long-delayed F35 stealth fighter before him, Australia’s nuclear ships risk surfacing in a world where they are no longer entirely relevant.

“There is always an arms race between opposing weapon systems forcing each of them to evolve or die. Sometimes the evolution is gradual… at other times there is just a sudden extinction, ”Professor Bradbury wrote.

The difference between evolution and extinction, he says, is often related to specialization.

“If the system is highly specialized, then there may not be evolutionary pathways to survive in a changing world.”

Submarines, with their immense complexity and long construction times, are highly specialized beasts.

Currently, they are “top predators”.

Invisible. Unheard of. Deadly. Combined with the size and diversity of the world’s oceans, this gives them a natural advantage.

A submarine can take out an unsuspecting surface fleet of warships much larger and more powerful than itself. They are also useful for sneaking around intelligence gathering, mine-laying and special forces missions.

But only the best are useful for tracking down other submarines. When it comes to stealth, submarines have reigned supreme for half a century. But the heyday of the submarine may be over.

Declining returns?

Submarines are a unique threat. They are ideally suited to sit silently in strategic locations, waiting for the opportunity to strike. They have the potential to close shipping routes and strangle economies.

But what if they can’t? Then a cornerstone of modern naval thought will have been overthrown.

As early as 2017, the strategy of US Naval War College professor James Holmes sounded such a warning.

“A visible boat is a vulnerable boat,” he said.

“Finding such traces of a submarine’s presence – and turning that information into actionable tracking and targeting data – would negate all or part of its main advantage – namely its ability to disappear under waves,” said explained Holmes.

Many anti-submarine projects are underway. Here are a few.

A new radar is already being deployed. It’s a Giant extendable pod bolted under the American P8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft. It can scan the sea surface with high resolution radar. Artificial intelligence can then scan these images for tiny traces of a submarine’s wake.

The US defense research agency DARPA is also taking a big data approach. It tries to use the behavior of marine life – like shrimp and phytoplankton – infer the presence of a submarine.

The biggest threat is the proliferation of drones.

Underwater gliders. Automated surface canoes. They are inexpensive and increasingly reliable. All of them can run for weeks, only signaling when their sensor suite finds something of interest.

Then there are the big drones. These can perform many of the tasks of a full-fledged submarine on their own. Without risking the life of a crew.

Adapt or die

Australian National University’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Underwater Deterrence Project recently published a report by American researcher Sebastian Brixey-Williams.

He argues that similar attacks of “transparent ocean anxiety” have been common in recent decades.

But he cautions that submariners need to keep a weather eye on the rapid pace of change.

Drones, AI and new sensors “could be a game-changer and tip the scales in favor of ASW (anti-submarine warfare)”, he writes. “Nonetheless, because the history of science and technology is littered with unforeseen obstacles and elusive breakthroughs, and because many of these technologies are currently classified, it is difficult to offer a precise timeline for money changers. game in ASW. “

But submarines may still have life. They will have to evolve over time.

We can expect to see some bizarre new shapes replacing the relatively simplistic cylindrical designs currently in use. These will be needed to further reduce the noise they make as they move through the water and the wake that may trail behind them.

And, like stealth planes, weird angles and curves – as well as exotic and expensive new composite materials may be needed to absorb and deflect probe sensors.

They will also have to carry their own drones. And a lot of them.

Missing link?

Torpedo and cruise missile submarines have had their day, Professor Holmes argued.

“It may be up to the Silent Service to reimagine its ships as underwater aircraft carriers – except that they will operate fleets of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) rather than airplanes.”

Submarines must become supply vessels, he said.

They can sit safely and at a certain distance from their target. Their drones take all the risks.

“It can be instructive to think beyond the aircraft carrier as an analogy to this new brand of submarine warfare,” he said. “But the devil, as always, is in the details.”

Submarines are expected to carry a significant number of a wide variety of drones for such a role.

No current conception – nuclear or conventional, British, American or French – foresees it.

And this could be the cause of their extinction.

Adaptability must be built in.

Much like an aircraft carrier, a drone-carrying submarine mothership can adapt and update its small craft to deal with a new threat much faster than changing the submarine itself.

And this is all due to the usefulness of autonomous drones.

They can add to a submarine’s “ranged” offensive capability. But they can also be defensive. This can include decoys. But it could also include drones designed to destroy hostile drones before they in turn find the host submarine.

Drones could also carry active sonar – the device that emits a loud “ping” that echoes nearby objects. The problem is that the generator of this “ping” also reveals its own location. If it was a drone, the crewed boat could be safely hidden nearby.

Either way, submarines are likely to remain much safer than fully exposed surface ships for some time to come. But things are changing, changing.

“In short, submariners won’t be as exceptional as they used to be,” says Holmes. “They will have to take on new habits. They will be more like surface officers, forced to train in active defense and counterattack to survive rather than relying on invisibility. They will have to look more like aviators, harnessing squadrons of outboard vehicles to extend their combat range. And submarines will no longer be loners, sent to do great things in independent operations.

“In short, not just a technological revolution but a cultural revolution is underway.”

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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