Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Facts about the advances in nuclear engineering

Comment: Submarine Institute of Australia

An opinion article on the Quadrant website written earlier this month (which can be found by clicking here) fails to consider many of the critical issues associated with the Future Submarine Program.

The only areas where nuclear submarines have unarguable advantages are sustained speed and endurance.

The Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) recognises the speed/endurance advantages of nuclear-powered submarines over conventionally-powered submarines, however, the perception that a move to procure this type of technology in a time-frame commensurate with sustaining a viable submarine capability – via a long-lead procurement program – shows an unrealistic appreciation of the complex factors which exist.

The Australian Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act recognises the protection of the environment from nuclear actions as a matter of national environmental significance.

Nuclear actions include establishing a nuclear installation. Hence, a change in federal legislation is required before any commitment by an Australian Government is made to pursue any nuclear power program.

While the SIA considers that discussion around the long-term planning for a nuclear-powered submarine force is necessary to ensure that all the issues are understood, the consequent delay in planning and procurement for the sustainment of the submarine capability, involving nuclear studies in the short-term, would result in a critical gap in submarine capability.

It is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that Australia could approach any of its allies possessing a nuclear submarine capability with a proposal for a rapidly executed leasing arrangement or “off-the-shelf” purchase. The infrastructure to support these vessels is highly complex, as are the sensitivities of the associated technology. None of the nations with a nuclear submarine capability would simply “hand over” that technology.

The most important issue is continuity of our submarine capability. In the short-term, this can only be achieved by continuing with conventional submarine technology.

At the rate that all relevant forms of submarine technology is advancing – hull design, conventional propulsion and combat system (sensors, processing and weapons) – the progression towards nuclear power will, hopefully be ongoing, but it will take time.

The people of Australia must be given the facts regarding the advances in nuclear engineering and the benefits that Australia can gain from embracing the technology. Nuclear-powered submarine technology is but one aspect of these benefits.

Friday, 16 February 2018

The importance of underwater robotics for undersea warfare in Australia

By Andrew McConnell

Undersea robots are growing in importance for modern navies and the advances in autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are moving forward at a rapid rate. Whether any nation has a dominant advantage in this area is less clear for many reasons. What is the state of integration of UUVs into undersea warfare and how can Australian industry be developed to support it?

Initial online searches reveal many high-level articles discussing broad UUV concepts, but published technical papers are less common. This is unsurprising, as most companies and governments working in this field are playing their cards very close to their chests. Undersea warfare is, by its nature, stealth warfare and it is difficult and protracted in execution. Maintaining appropriate levels of discretion and secrecy is standard operational procedure. Likewise, speculation on external competitors’ progress is also standard practice.

The US Navy has been following a roadmap for UUVs which extends through to 2020 and UUVs are a significant component of naval defence plans for the next 20-30 years. Recently, the US Navy has undergone a re-organisation to mainstream the complementary warfighting effects of unmanned warfare systems. The silo Unmanned Warfare Systems directorate has been merged with the office of the Director of Warfare Integration to oversee unmanned integration and accelerated prototype acquisition where possible.

As observed in “Achieving Secrecy and Surprise in a Ubiquitous ISR Environment – Analysis” (Eurasia Review 2018-02-04), development of undersea warfare capability is undertaken in stealth mode. This restricts information leaks to opponents, but with rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, the advantage margin is shrinking and broader cooperation is becoming encouraged with allies.

The advantage of autonomous systems in undersea warfare is that they allow a very asymmetrical conflict. Conventional submarines are all of a similar size due to the requirements of having human crew members, who require air, food, heating and sanitation. All that air-filled human workspace means buoyancy, which leads to the major problem for submarines – getting them to sink. Further, all sensor data must be presented to human eyes and ears through screens, lights, speakers and buzzers, which consume further power and space onboard.

Now consider the unmanned vehicle which has none of the support infrastructure. It can be smaller, denser and it consumes less power. It can loiter in freezing cold deep water or drift into position on a slow current. It can remain silent and listen, without breathing or heartbeats.

Smaller vehicles mean more of them can be deployed, allowing swarm multipoint illumination. Recent research investigates swarming behaviours of robot UUVs and improvements in tracking and chasing mobile targets. This research is being undertaken and authored not only by large defence industry companies and established research centres, but by smaller third-world or non-state researchers using very low-cost equipment.

Other advantages of smaller UUVs over manned vessels are:
  • Potential for aerial deployment;
  • Specialisation with type-specific sensors, rather than requiring a generalist platform to justify investment;
  • Low-cost deterrent with stable ongoing costs (no pay rises!);
  • They are less obvious and hard to detect (this makes them a long-term threat that could never be confidently eliminated);
  • Unmanned vehicles can assume a greater variety of shapes - round, flat, atoll-shaped (easier to camouflage with natural organisms);
  • Solid neutral weight advantage reduces buoyancy problems; and
  • Smaller UUVs are able to navigate smaller waterways.
This last point opens up some interesting opportunities for Australian industry because manufacture and launch of small vessels does not require ocean frontage and expensive shipyards. In fact, launches can be conducted from facilities adjacent to rivers, channels, dams or inland creeks. Vessels can be deployed from smaller inland bases on small rivers. This means a lower start-up cost to industry and the potential for widely distributed low-cost support facilities for defence.

Australia has considerable experience in the fundamental art of submarine vehicles of all sizes. This field will now subsume deep learning, autonomous operations, crewless hull design, new materials, new sensors and new power sources. Small companies should be able to find a “fit” with UUV projects of smaller size.

Unmanned vehicles have broader design parameters in size, speed, longevity, stealth and specialisation, which could lead to a varied eco-system of solutions. Each solution must be addressed by a countermeasure.

Is it also prudent to anticipate unknown UUV capabilities? No, but it is prudent to have rapid research and development infrastructure to develop countermeasures.

Besides the large manned submarines and smaller UUVs, there exists potential for young Australian industries to cut their teeth on cheap autonomous decoys and disguised commercial-off-the-shelf products. This would encourage the industry ability to exercise rapid assessment and trial of new technologies.

In November 2018 in the Jervis Bay area of New South Wales, the Department of Defence is planning the Autonomous Warrior exercise to showcase a range of new products. Perhaps the exercise could also incorporate an industry technical countermeasure exercise, with the aim of rapidly prototyping countermeasures for each new product.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Realistic planning for future nuclear propulsion of Australia’s submarines

By Nautilus

Recent public debate about nuclear propulsion for submarines has been notable for the polarised viewpoints on the issue.

On the one hand, the strategic advantages of nuclear propulsion for submarines have been acknowledged, while on the other, the lack of experience within Australia of nuclear power for civil or naval use demands a deliberate program to move up the learning curve. It will take at least a decade to meet community expectations for internationally-recognised regulatory standards for safety, security, efficiency and sustainability.

The first challenge is to contemplate nuclear energy as a beneficial adjunct to renewable energy generation and advanced storage that is the ultimate goal of an emissions-free electrical power generation network.

What are more likely to be accepted are small, road-portable modular reactors based on proven pressurised water cooling, which is, coincidentally, the norm for naval propulsion. The attractive feature of small, modular reactors is their size and mass is small enough to be easily transportable so they can be constructed and fuelled remotely from their operating sites and after many years of effective operation, they can then be removed in the same way for safe decommissioning in a similar remote site.

The connection between nuclear power stations and trained naval operating personnel has been recognised in other countries such that the education and training of operators and maintainers of naval nuclear reactors are readily transitioned to civil reactor operations after their naval service. This is even more the case when the civil reactors use the same pressurised-water-reactor technology, as is the case with most small modular reactor programs.

For Australia, there is a critical national need for energy security and this is sufficient to justify contingency planning, such as the installation of a single small modular reactor at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney for familiarisation, research and development, and for the education and training of civil and naval professional staff for operation and maintenance of such reactors. This would help to build the foundation workforce for this industry.

Only then could Australia realistically consider the next generation of submarines beyond the current acquisition program for the future submarines, which will itself have many challenges in energy generation, conversion and storage. The design of the Shortfin Barracuda, now underway, will address air-independent propulsion in one form or another and, also, the related issue of energy density in battery technologies. This research and development is already time-constrained. Random thoughts of nuclear propulsion should never be permitted to raise the risk of a capability gap arising from resulting delays occurring in the Future Submarine Program (FSP).

Beyond the urgency of the FSP, there is sound argument to plan for the transition to the greater performance and availability of nuclear propulsion, but this needs a research and development program in its own right and a concerted program to build up the scientific, engineering and operational workforce.

We can reasonably expect support from our allies and business partners in the US, UK or France, but ultimately, Australia needs to set and meet our own demanding standards for safety, security, efficiency and sustainability. This will take significant time – even if we start immediately – as the Submarine Institute of Australia believes we should.

Given the time it would take for serious consideration of nuclear propulsion of the next generation of Australian submarines – after we have an effective future submarine force at sea – and to garner the experience and conduct the workforce development which is essential, the process should start now.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Growing up to deliver submarines

By Christopher Skinner
Executive Committee Member, Submarine Institute of Australia

The following advertisement appeared recently soliciting applications for positions in the Australian Government’s Department of Defence Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group SEA1000 Future Submarine Program. To my surprise, it has evoked several indignant or agitated questions from colleagues and others with long engagement in submarine matters (see

“Individuals can apply for positions under direct hire contracts by the Commonwealth of Australia or through companies with authority to provide staff to Australia in support of defence programs. Contracts can vary from 3 to 7 years.

Up to 60 personnel will be recruited within the next 12 months as design of the Future Submarine progresses. Individuals with proven skills and appropriate experience in submarine design, submarine systems design and submarine program management including business management are required for key roles located in Canberra and Adelaide (Australia) and Cherbourg (France).

These people will be working as members of the Future Submarine Program Office, supporting the Commonwealth in upholding its role as an intelligent partner with DCNS and Lockheed Martin Australia.

Positions available range from senior technical positions to mid-level roles. All positions will include a requirement to mentor and train our Australian workforce. Priority has been placed on the selection of personnel for senior positions including:
  • Technical Director (Platform) – Adelaide (click here for position description)
  • Assistant Technical Director (Platform) – Cherbourg (click here for position description)
  • Technical Director (Combat System) – Adelaide (click here for position description)
  • Assistant Technical Director (Combat System) – Cherbourg (click here for position description)
  • Test and Evaluation Director – Adelaide (click here for position description)
  • Material and Supplier Base Director – Adelaide (click here for position description)
  • Shipyard Infrastructure/Workforce Director – Adelaide (click here for position description)

Potential applicants will need to demonstrate substantial management experience at a senior level gained in a technologically and commercially demanding environment – preferable the submarine industry.

Mandatory: Applicants must meet requisite attributes for the position for which they apply.

Interviews will begin the week of 9 January 2017 at the Australian Embassy in the US and within Australia thereafter. Applications or queries should be forwarded to

To me, this all seems logical and timely to ensure the Australian Government is well staffed to perform its proper role effectively and to engage with the main contractors DCNS (platform integration) and Lockheed Martin Australia (LMA, combat system integration). The only further positions that might be added to the above list would be someone placed in the US to support the AN/BYG-1 combat management system, Mk 48 wire-guided torpedo, both jointly developed by the US and Australia, and other US-sourced programs relevant to the Future Submarine Program, as well as a deputy director technical with responsibility for propulsion systems integration, a non-trivial task, within the overall platform integration role.

The role of these people will be as leaders of the Commonwealth teams that form the customer group with whom industry works on a daily basis. These people will be delegated authority to approve documents and specifications on behalf of the customer (the Australian Government’s Department of Defence Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group). This is part of the design development process which has a great deal to be accomplished before procurement of services and materials begins – even long lead items – or construction and integration can begin.

Some of the objections raised relate to the first interviews taking place in Washington DC before those in Australia. Frankly, I do understand this would surprise many people who have not experienced the intensity and richness of scientific, technological, engineering and commercial talent that is concentrated in the Washington area, especially the United States Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Crystal City and nearby.

I have surmised that the interviews in Washington DC are to try to attract US-experienced personnel to join the program. They will provide best-practice experience based on the USS Virginia-class submarines and other programs. However, comments from colleagues have included:

“There is an underlying question about Australian industry involvement. I thought we were to build some Australian sovereign capability with Australian industry. Are we to create an Australian NAVSEA as custodian of some submarine knowledge, disconnected from Australian industry? We now learn that RAND Corp has been tasked by the Government to develop yet another paper on lessons learned in building up and sustaining a workforce for the Australian shipbuilding industry. A US corporation to advise on the Collins, ANZAC and Huon experiences, and the availability and training of Australian managers, engineers, draftspersons, electricians, welders, fitters-and-turners, shipwrights, etc for the Royal Australian Navy’s future submarine and shipbuilding programs? When does Australia shed its colonial past and stop asking Washington, London, and now also Paris, for direction and instead start believing in its own considerable track record and capacities – not least its human resources? The last time a US designer had to build a manned platform that had to pay the electricity bills was circa 1956 and the last operator that swiped the credit card was BLUEBACK circa 1990. While I note the UUV kiddies now have taken up that ‘pay-the-bill’ challenge, they are a very different crowd to those working the ‘SSN meat-grinder’. So it is almost three generations since somebody designed a fighting boat for non-nuke ops in the US and just a generation since somebody put on a snort.”

My instant response to these concerns is that what NAVSEA would bring to this highly challenging program is the process for managing it, not the design itself, which will be the responsibility of DCNS primarily, a highly-experienced designer of submarines – nuclear and conventional – and on air-independent propulsion for the latter.

I, therefore, reject the doubts on the suitability of NAVSEA people to contribute effective leadership and management to the program. I also reject the suggestions that this overlooks highly qualified and experienced Australian professionals; they will be in great demand, but very short supply for a program of this magnitude.

To illustrate how far we have to travel up the industrial-capability curve, Australia’s only school of naval architecture was closed recently (according to media reports in December).

We must learn from our past experience of major naval programs – good and bad – and apply all those lessons in collaboration with experienced designers, builders, integrators and sustainment people from where we can attract them. This is an extraordinary program to meet requirements that cannot be met off the shelf so that alone should attract innovative people from around the world.

I truly hope we concentrate on growing our scientific, engineering and industrial experience to deliver highly effective submarines in a program which becomes an exemplar for Australian and international endeavours of similar complexity.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

2016 SIA Conference Report, Day 2 – Election of Donald Trump will benefit Australian defence industry

Political leaders took centre stage on the final day of the Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) 8th Biennial Conference 2016, which was held at the Shine Dome in Canberra.

This was particularly timely given the election of Mr Donald Trump as US President the previous week, which raised debate in political circles about how this would impact on the Australia-US alliance.

In a doorstop at the conference, the Minister for Defence Industry, Hon Christopher Pyne MP, said Australia is very much “linked in to the ‘Trump Team’” and Australians are “not strategic bludgers”.

In his keynote address to the conference, Minister Pyne said the Government is placing investment in defence at the forefront of promoting economic development.

“We want to use defence to underpin our economic prosperity and to put the skills and innovation that characterise our defence industries at work, to form the basis of the smart, high-tech manufacturing of the 21st century,” the Minister said.

The Government will be investing just under $200 billion in the decade from now until 2025-26 in building defence capacity and growing Australia’s defence budget to at least 2 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Despite the long lead times, time remains critical, according to the Minister.

“Time wasted at the beginning of any project is time that must be made up at the end,” Mr Pyne said. “That means you must get matters right from the start. We must be able to realise our ambitious goals.”

The Minister has a positive view about the election of Mr Trump, saying: “I think it’s fair to say that given the consistent rhetoric around boosting military spending in the US by tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars, there will be increased opportunities for Australian defence industry.”

The Shadow Minister for Defence, Hon Richard Marles, delivered the closing address for this year’s conference.

Like many, he is enthusiastic about the increased investment in defence spending, including on the design and construction of the future submarines, and noted that a future Labor Government will be a custodian of the future submarines, given the length of the project.

“On national security, our (Labor’s) first instinct is bipartisanship,” Mr Marles said. “Defence is, generally, not an area of party political divide. Minister Pyne is right to point out the Trump administration will provide numerous opportunities.”

Mr Marles added that despite Labor’s bipartisan approach, it intends to hold the Government to account.

In addition, he said Labor has a “traditional view” about the defence portfolio in that there should be one Minister for Defence.

Mr Marles pledged all existing contracts and undertakings would be honoured – to avoid sovereign risk – under a future Labor Government.

His address completed the most successful SIA conference to date. The event wouldn’t have been possible with the support of the conference sponsors.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

2016 SIA Conference Report, Day 1 – Positive vibe about significant submarine investment

The opening plenary session, which was held on Day 1 (or the second day) of the Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) 8th Biennial Conference in Canberra, was dominated by positive themes.

This was largely attributed to the fact that in the past 12 months since the previous SIA conference (in Adelaide), the Federal Government has announced the international design partner (DCNS) and the combat system integrator (Lockheed Martin) for the future submarines, among other related matters.

The first presenter on Day 1 was the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett AO, CSC, RAN.

Noting the past 12 months has been a period of significant change, Vice Admiral Barrett said the future submarines would draw on the experience gained from both the Oberon and Collins-class submarines.

“We have learned; indeed, we have evolved,” Vice Admiral Barrett said. “More importantly, we continue to learn and we continue to evolve and to mature.

“The Government’s decision to construct an Australian submarine capability around a force of 12 boats gestures to an increased awareness of the submarine as a core element of Australian defence strategy in an increasingly challenging environment.”

He said sustainment and training will be critical to the success of the future submarines.

“My new focus is on the capability,” Vice Admiral Barrett said. “Capability, capability, capability.”

The next speaker was Rear Admiral Michael E. Jabaley USN, Program Executive Officer for Submarines, US Naval Sea Systems Command.

In his presentation, which examined cooperation between US and Australian submarine forces, he said the Royal Australian Navy and the US Navy have a “firm foundation for cooperation” and that building the future submarines will enhance the alliance.

Rear Admiral Jabaley said the US has two armaments cooperative projects with the Royal Australian Navy, the MK 48 Heavyweight Torpedo and the AN/BYG-1 Submarine Tactical and Weapon Control System.

“To execute these projects, the navies have established Joint Project Offices in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The Royal Australian Navy is our partner, not a customer.”

With an eye to the future, Rear Admiral Jabaley said: “We look forward to continuing to work with Australia to make the future submarine the most advanced and capable conventional submarine in the world.”

Rear Admiral Steve Johnson USN (rtd), General Manager Submarines, Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) within the Department of Defence presented on submarine program management.

He said the path to the future submarines starts with the Collins-class submarines. Other points from his speech included:
  • The 12 future submarines provide sufficient platforms to be a significant deterrent;
  • Defence is aiming to maximise the role of Australian industry;
  • Consistent, daily attention to detail is important for effective program management;
  • What is done now with concept design is going to be quite different from detailed design and construction; and
  • The nature of our work with DCNS is that DCNS proposes and the Commonwealth decides.

The next speaker was Commodore Peter Scott CSC, RAN, Director General Submarines, Navy Headquarters.
He confirmed a series of life-of-type extension studies have now commenced.

“These studies will be crucial inputs as we strive for force continuity,” Commodore Scott said.

He expects the submarine arm to expand every year for the next two decades.

Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, AM, CSC, RAN – Head, Future Submarine Program, CASG summarised the many significant developments which have taken place since the November 2015 SIA conference.

Looking forward, he provided an indicative timeline for the Future Submarine Program which showed construction of the first future submarine would commence in late 2022 and it would go into service about a decade later.

Construction of future submarines two and three would commence in 2026 and 2028 respectively.

Other presenters on the program at the Shine Dome (at the Australian Academy of Science) included Mr Sean Costello, CEO, DCNS Australia and Dr Andrew Davies, Director, Defence and Strategy Program, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The 2016 Conference Dinner was held at Old Parliament House in the evening.

Monday, 14 November 2016

2016 SIA Conference Report, Day "0" – Technical papers session: Focus on sonars, training

The increased demand for presentations resulted in a bonus technical papers session being staged as the opening day (or “Day 0”) of the Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) 8th Biennial Conference 2016 in Canberra.

The Australian War Memorial played host to the session and the first presenter was Associate Professor in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at the University of Sydney, Dr Craig Jin.

Dr Jin presented on “Next Generation Sonars” and he emphasised the importance of having Australian solutions to Australian challenges.

Honorary Fellow of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) within the Department of Defence, Dr Adrian Jones was up next and stressed “you’ve got to know the environment you are operating in (on a submarine) – the ocean”.

He presented the findings of a study into sonar transmission in the ocean, including there is extremely poor transmission in the shadow zone and “trapped” sonar signals can leak from the surface layer.

Sonars were also the focus of the presentation from Sonartech Atlas Senior Systems Engineer, Dr Robert Kovacic. On acoustic intelligence operations, he said once a track is defined, detailed acoustic analysis can be performed and that the spectrum display is used to determine absolute in-water levels.

Babcock International Group masters-qualified systems engineer, Mr Craig Schwartz presented on crew transition. He made a number of noteworthy points, including:
  • Transition is not a serial process – there is a high degree of overlap; and
  • Factors which impact on crew transition include new/emergent technology & sensor/weapons integration.
He said crew training will be vital success of the future submarines.

Mr Schwartz said: “Moving from Collins to the future submarine is like moving from a golf cart to a Ferrari, but without the right crew training, the future submarines will be like driving a golf cart. No-one wants new capability sitting idle because the workforce hasn’t been properly trained.”

The opening day concluded with the conference opening reception at The Boat House restaurant, on Lake Burley Griffin. With the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, unable to attend due to illness, ACT Senator (and Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs) Zed Seselja delivered the conference opening address.

“The Government remains committed to the capability and availability of the Collins-class submarines,” Senator Seselja said.