Australia’s Looming Submarine Disaster

Australia’s Looming Submarine Disaster, by Alistair Pope, an ex-military man with more than 50 articles published in American and Australian military magazines.

Submarines are no longer the Das Boot-style hunters of slow cargo ships, but are themselves the hunted, as dangerous to those who sail in them as to those they target. The anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities of advanced nations are now so good that submarines are on virtual suicide missions, the best result likely to be one kill before their own crew’s next-of-kin are notified. …

Just for argument’s sake, let’s posit the nuclear-powered Barracuda as the best submarine in the world (please stop laughing; we’re talking hypotheticals). But we aren’t going the nuclear route. What we are doing is asylum-quality crazy: ripping out the reactor and replacing it with an old fashioned diesel. Our alleged ‘state of the art’ submarines will have 80-year-old technology driving them at 35 per cent the underwater speed of a nuclear Barracuda. …

Australia is staking $200 billion of its meagre defence budget on an unproven design that can only produce an outdated weapon, the first of which will not be available (if you believe in fairy tales) for 15 years. Let’s assume the fleet of twelve all arrive by 2050, and that our enemies are sufficiently considerate to delay hostilities until then. What are the chances our boats, led by HMAS Pyne Box, will deter our enemies? These new boats will be quieter, able to dive deeper and will have new capabilities, but they will still not be able to function in tomorrow’s undersea battle space.

By 2035, there will be a range of rapidly evolving autonomous submarine weapon systems, such as the recently unveiled Chinese HSU drones pictured below, that are designed to find and sink them. And find and sink them they most certainly will.

In the Fifties it was recognised that the concept of wolf packs hunting freighter convoys was no longer viable. To continue to have a role, the strategy of submarine warfare changed with the introduction of nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines designed to annihilate any country that made a nuclear first-strike on the US or its key allies. A second class of submarine also emerged with the creation of the hunter-killers designed specifically to find and destroy enemies’ submarines, including their ballistic-missile ‘big bangers’. …

Unmanned aerial drones have evolved considerably during the past 20 years, but unmanned underwater vessels (UUV’s) are still marginal players in sea warfare. …

Initially, the first UUVs will simply be auxiliaries to manned submarines or smart-weapons networks. Roles will include mine hunting and disposal, operating close to enemy coasts, or acting as decoys to mask the mother submarine’s movements. Over the next two decades we can reasonably expect to see them become fully autonomous units equal in capability to manned submarines. UUVs will also be much cheaper than manned submarines, meaning they can be deployed in greater numbers and without the same degree of regard for risk that figures when a crew is involved. …

Developments already underway mean that within 20 years manned submarines and UUVs will be far more capable than today’s boats, but despite improvements in stealth measures all submarines will be more vulnerable to detection. The submarine will become less of a front-line weapon and more of a strategic mother ship for UUVs, and swarms, some of which may have been pre-positioned at obvious choke points, ready for activation on command. These mother ships will have workshops with 3D printers capable of building and maintaining UUVs in the field. Their operations require new, advanced command and control systems for drones and battle networks. ….

The French submarines represnent the worst military equipment purchasing decision since Federation. That is a big call, but based on their extreme cost, the capability differences between nuclear and conventionally powered submarines, future UUV developments and the need for a credible defence force, this farce of a purchase must be stopped as soon as possible.

Let’s go back a century for clarity. Imagine if in 1920 the Australian military ordered some 1920-technology submarines or planes for delivery in (if all went well) 1950. Reckon that would have worked out well?