Why Australia’s new $100 billion subs could be useless

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

The $100 billion bill faces inevitable, massive blowouts. The 20-year delivery date is optimistic, and likely too late. Now a top academic has dropped a bomb on Australia’s nuclear submarine dreams – labelling them dinosaurs of the deep.

“Subs … have only one big trick. They are stealthy. But if, in a conflict, a sub can be detected, it is dead,” states emeritus professor of complex systems science at the Australian National University Roger Bradbury.

In a short essay published by Defence Connect, he lays out what this means for these immensely complex and costly machines.

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

“A transparent ocean will be the result of a coming integration of sensing systems not yet developed, and it is likely to come together, when it does, quickly,” he warns. “The submarine era will likely end with a bang, not a whimper.”

Put simply: Their one big trick will no longer work.

$100 billion boat bill

Unfortunately for Australia, Prof Bradbury believes this extinction-level event will happen by 2050. That’s slap-bang in the middle of the scheduled delivery of our biggest, most expensive defence project ever.

Earlier this month Australia tore up a $90 billion deal to purchase diesel electric submarines from France in favour of nuclear powered conventionally armed subs as part of the new AUKUS pact with the United States and the United Kingdom.

Australia’s eight new boats won’t come cheap. The SMHhas reported that each US Virginia-class nuclear submarine costs around $A5bn to build but add in other development and planning costs, including the extra financial burden of building the fleet in Australia rather than the US or UK, and that bill could end up being north of $100bn.

The tide turns

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

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

The difference between evolution and extinction, he says, is often linked to specialisation.

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

Submarines, with their immense complexity and long build times, are highly specialised beasts.

Currently, they’re “apex predators”.

Unseen. Unheard. Lethal. Combined with the size and diversity of the world’s oceans, that gives them a natural advantage.

One submarine can take out an unsuspecting surface fleet of warships much larger and more powerful than itself. They’re also useful for sneaking about on intelligence gathering, minelaying and special forces missions.

But only the best are of any use hunting down other submarines. When it comes to stealth, subs have reigned supreme for half a century. But the submarine’s halcyon days may be over.

Diminished returns?

Submarines are a unique threat. They’re ideally suited to sitting silently off strategic locations, waiting for the opportunity to strike. They have the potential to close arterial shipping lanes and strangle economies.

But what if they can’t? Then a cornerstone of modern naval thinking will have been up-ended.

As far back as 2017, US Naval War College professor strategy James Holmes sounded just such a warning.

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

“Finding such traces of a … sub’s presence — and parleying that information into actionable tracking and targeting data — would nullify its core advantage in whole or in part — namely its ability to vanish beneath the waves,” argued Holmes.

There are many anti-submarine projects in the works. Here’s just a few.

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

The US defence research agency DARPA is also taking a big data approach. It’s attempting to use the behaviour of sea life – such as shrimps and phytoplankton – to infer the presence of a submarine.

The biggest threat is the proliferation of drones.

Underwater gliders. Surface-based automated canoes. They’re cheap and increasingly reliable. All can operate for weeks on end, reporting only when their sensor suite finds something of interest.

Then there are big drones. These can carry out many of the duties of a full-blown submarine themselves. Without risking the lives of a crew.

Adapt, or die

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

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

But he warns submariners must keep a weather eye on the rapid pace of change.

Drones, AI and new sensors “could prove to be game-changers that tip the balance in favour of ASW (anti-submarine warfare),” he writes. “Nevertheless, 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’s difficult to offer any kind of firm timeline for game-changers in ASW.”

But submarines may have life in them yet. They will have to change with the times.

We can expect to see weird new shapes replace the relatively simplistic cylindrical designs currently in service. These will be needed to reduce further the noise they make moving through the water and the wake that may trail behind them.

And, like stealth aircraft, weird angles and curves – along with new exotic, and expensive, composite materials may be needed to absorb and deflect probing sensors.

They will also need to carry their own drones. And plenty of them.

Missing link?

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

“It may behove the silent service to reimagine its boats as underwater aircraft carriers — except that they’ll operate fleets of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) rather than aeroplanes.”

Submarines must become motherships, he says.

They can sit safe and secure some distance from their target. Their drones take all the risks.

“It may be instructive to think beyond the aircraft carrier as an analogy for this coming brand of subsurface warfare,” he said. “But the devil, as always, lurks in the details.”

Subs would need to carry significant numbers of a wide variety of drones for such a role.

No current design – nuclear or conventional, British, American or French – provides for this.

And that could be the cause of their extinction.

Adaptability needs to be built-in.

Just like an aircraft carrier, a drone-carrying submarine mothership can tailor and update its small craft to meet a new threat far faster than changing the submarine itself.

And that’s all down to the utility of autonomous drones.

They can add to a submarine’s “standoff” offensive capability. But they can also be defensive. This may include decoys. But it also could 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 echo-locates nearby objects. Problem is, the generator of that “ping” also reveals its own location. If it was a drone, the crewed boat could be hidden safely nearby.

Whatever the case, submarines will likely remain much safer than fully exposed surface ships for some time to come. But things are changing change.

“In short, submariners will no longer be as exceptional as before,” Holmes states. “They’ll have to learn new habits. They’ll be more like surface officers, forced to train for active defence and counter-attack for survival rather than trusting to invisibility. They’ll have to be more like aviators, operating squadrons of offboard craft to extend their combat reach. And subs will no longer be loners, sent forth to do great things in independent operations.

“In short, not just a technological but a Cultural Revolution is afoot.”

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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