SubSTEC5 and the Future of Australia’s Submarine Force

November 22, 2019
CAPT Doug Theobald CSC, COMSUB, Royal Australian Navy addresses the SubSTEC5 audience on the State of the Union. Credit WA DEFENCE REVIEW.

November saw the annual conference of the Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA), SubSTEC5, held this year in Fremantle at the Esplanade Hotel, Fremantle, with a cast of senior speakers from across the Royal Australian Navy, industry, government, and politics. The Conference theme was: ‘Innovation and Investment in the Subsea Environment’. WA DEFENCE REVIEW collaborated with the SIA as the Media Partner to maximise coverage of the event. SIA conferences rotate each year between Canberra (on the even years) and Australia’s two subsea-related capitals, Adelaide and Perth for the odd years.

Emerging Challenges

Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon. Linda Reynolds CSC, says that by 2035 the seas of Indo-Pacific region will be crowded with over 300 submarines from various nations, making Australia’s continued and upgraded participation in the sub-sea sphere all the more important. Presently, 90% of Australia’s trade travels via sea-lanes, and their surveillance and protection is fundamental to our security.

Deputy Chief of Navy RADM Mark Hammond, likened the submarine force to a national “neighbourhood watch” program whose task is to know who is on our neighbourhood, what they’re doing there, why they are doing it, and if necessary, use our submarines to neutralise clear and present threats. He pointed out that historically submarines have been first responders after the attack on Pearl Harbour.  Australia’s peculiar location demands that its submarines be long endurance platforms, capable of taking up station off distant shores in the region for extended periods. It’s a strategic priority that they be regionally superior to boats operated by our neighbours.

The challenge of crewing the existing fleet of Collins submarines has been much publicised, but RADM Greg Sammut, General Manager, Submarines, CASG, said the problem of crew retention had been resolved and we currently have at least two, sometimes three or four submarines available at any one time, thanks to a revision of maintenance scheduling.  The Navy is now meeting 96% of its recruitment targets and has a strategy to increase targets in the lead-up to the 12 future submarines or Attack class build. 

The Attack Class program will not meet the Collins retirement date and there will be a Life of Type Extension (LOTE) to give the class a further ten years service. This will entail a thorough refit and refurbishment, covering everything that really counts, including communications, sonar, weapons systems, main motor and pressure hull. The Shadow Minister for Defence, the Hon. Richard Marles MP, was critical of the Government for allowing schedule to slip to this extent, which he contends will place Australia on “the edge of a capability gap”. Going over the edge into that gap, he said, is the likely outcome, in view of past schedule and funding slippages for major programs.

Advances in Science & Technology

A question that has exercised many minds is whether submarines as we know them will still be relevant in mid-21st century.  This subject was addressed by Dr. David Kershaw, Chief Maritime Division, DSTG, who has 107 scientists pursuing innovations in undersea warfare.  He said that there were “systems in existence looking for a purpose”, and these DSTG will examine to determine their military utility.  But DSTG is proceeding on the basis that conventional (inhabited) submarines will be used in parallel with autonomous (uninhabited) systems, and the new platforms will be designed with margins for this purpose. One example would be to launch smaller autonomous vehicles via the torpedo tubes.

There would seem to be room to differ from this projection, taking into account the rapid advance of Artificial Intelligence technology, which is very much a paradigm changer. Already an autonomous ship has successfully completed a voyage. Delegates heard that where once we had four humans for one autonomous system, we may well see one human for nine autonomous units.

Australian Industry Content

Defence is repeating its usual stated objective to maximise Australian industry involvement, but experience indicates that achieved levels may well fail to meet industry’s expectations. At present the Future Submarine program is achieving 39% local content, but this is expected to increase in later stages of the project. Australian steel is being tested and to date is meeting quality standards, which bodes well for its inclusion in the project. In times of economic challenge, the potential to inject government spending through Defence programs cannot be lightly overlooked. Analysis of recent major Australian naval programs indicates that every $10m spent by Defence generates $19.5m in national output and creates 102 jobs. Seen in this light, the Naval Shipbuilding Plan’s $90bn price tag is a once in history chance to give the local economy a boost it much needs.

About Terry Booth

Terry BoothTerry Booth is a Special Correspondent with WA DEFENCE REVIEW. He served in the WA public service advising on industry development, contracting with Defence and defence suppliers to supply training, and managing the former Defence Industry Skills Unit. He completed the Defence and Industry Study Course (DISC), and until recently was a member of AIDN-WA's executive board for over 20 years. He is currently a life member of AIDN-WA, and a member of the Defence Reserves Support Council.