The New Build Australian Attack Submarine: Convergent Forces and Expectations


By Robbin Laird

This week I have had the opportunity to visit Western Australia.

I visited both the Henderson shipyard and HMAS Stirling, the Collins submarine base.

I will write in detail about those visits and discussions at the two facilities in the near future.

These visits when combined with earlier visits with the Royal Australian Navy in Sydney and in Adelaide have provided an opportunity to look at the real-world aspect of reshaping the Australian Navy as part of the ADF’s transformation.

In  various visits to Canberra over the past six years, I have had the chance to talk with many civilians and uniformed military about the launch of the new “continuous shipbuilding” approach.

This approach is how the Commonwealth is shaping its way ahead in building the three new classes of ships, the Offshore Patrol Vessels, the ASW frigates, and the new attack submarine.

In all three cases, the Australians are working with European primes to build the new class of ships, but with American combat systems as the integrative force throughout the entire fleet.

The Aegis system is a key thread throughout the surface fleet.

And the OPV will use a Saab 9LV derivative which will be the Australian tactical interface that will allow it to talk to the Aegis based combat management system in the major surface combatants.

There clearly is significant debate about the way ahead with the new build attack submarine.

But this article is not about the political debate.

My focus here is upon what I see as the convergent expectations, pressures, and forces that shape Commonwealth and Royal Australian Navy expectations about what the new attack submarine will deliver in the future.

The first is obvious at Henderson shipyard.

The OPV is establishing a template for what the Aussies mean by continuous shipbuilding.

The digital build process coupled with industry 4.0 management and integration processes are clearly being put in place by the LUERSSEN Australian team.

And the template being shaped in this program lays down the foundation of what is expected or the launch point from which shipbuilding in Australia needs to look like going forward.

I will deal with this template in more detail based on my visits to Henderson in a future piece, but the template being shaped by OPV will evolve with the ASW Frigate and further evolve with the new build attack submarine.

This means that the Naval Group team needs to pay close attention to what the OPV build process will deliver.

The second key aspect is the evolution of Collins operations and capabilities over the next decade and a half.

Although this is a legacy platform, the combat capabilities and experience are not. The Collins submarine force with its combat systems which allow for integration with the US Navy and other key allies is part of the evolving distributed maritime force being shaped for full spectrum crisis management in the Pacific.

Lessons to be learned will be taken forward to the new class of attack submarines, with an expectation that the capabilities onboard the evolving Collins will be enhanced by new shipboard infrastructure onboard the new short fin Barracuda.

To give one example, U.S. nuclear submarines have different capabilities and con-ops from the Collins, but the Collins delivers a number of capabilities which a nuclear attack submarine is not optimized to perform.

In an era where new C2 capabilities are being shaped to better integrate the undersea force into an integrated air-sea naval force, these capabilities which will be shaped in the decade ahead will require skill sets on Collins which will be transferred to the new build attack submarine.

A third key aspect is infrastructure. 

A challenge which Collins posed for the Royal Australian Navy clearly has been to build the appropriate infrastructure, including training, to unlock the potential of the fleet.

As Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett highlighted with regard to the strategic focus by the Navy on shaping a submarine enterprise and its importance going ahead:

“In the last ten years of Collins capability management Navy has embraced the outcomes of the Coles Review that prompted an enterprise approach and fundamentally changed how the submarine force looked at Collins maintenance and availability.

“The result has been resounding turnaround in capability which has allowed much greater engagement with allied submarine forces and a more meaningful contribution to theatre ASW.”

As Australia focuses on building up to 12 new submarines, new infrastructure clearly will have to be built, perhaps as well in the Eastern part of the country, and this build will be almost certainly largely Australian.

So when one is discussing % of Australian content in the new submarine, it would make sense to expand the discussion to embrace the overall submarine enterprise.

The visit to Henderson was notable in terms of seeing what the joint venture partner of Lurseen, CIVMEC, has done from an infrastructure point of view.

I will highlight this in a future article, but the infrastructure being built for the OPV is impressive, and clearly, something of this scale will happen as infrastructure is built for the new class of submarines as well.

A fourth key aspect is evolving approaches to fleet management.

It is clear from several discussions which I have had with the Royal Australian Navy and Department of Defence officials, that a significant effort is underway to establish much more effective fleet management situational awareness and tools for determining both platform availability as well combat effectiveness.

This requires the Australian Navy to shape data which flows from distinct platforms to be managed in ways that allow for much more effective common force would evaluations and determinations.

This means that by the time the new build submarine enters the force, there will be a clear expectation that its logistical and operational parameters will flow into a common management data base.

Or put another way, the short fin Barracuda is NOT a replacement for the Collins class.

It will enter the force as a key asset in the evolving integrated distribute force in which Collins may be a legacy platform, but not the skill sets and systems which will have evolved over the next decade or more in front of the operation of the submarine.

And the decade ahead will be a very demanding one, in terms both of how the threat evolves as well as the expectations of how to integrate distribute assets into an effective combat force tailored for crisis management.

For submarines, this means more multi-mission capabilities will built into the fleet, along with the evolution of the types of weapons which will be operated form the fleet or targeting determinations for other platforms to perform strike missions.

This experience will precede the first deployments of the new build submarine but will form a clear set of expectations from the Royal Australian Navy concerning what the new class of submarines will need to deliver in terms of capability for the ADF as an integrated distributed force.