Recent submarine classes exhibit relatively modest improvements in noise management compared to previous generations. (Source: US Office for Naval Intelligence data, via Wikimedia Commons)
The other relevant trend is the development of unmanned platforms: small and relatively uncomplicated drones could be used to collect information and forward it to a powerful central processing hub. If the cost can be kept down, there could be hundreds or thousands of airborne, surface or subsurface drone-based sensor systems deployed in the choke points and littorals where diesel electric submarines are most effective. In my conference paper, I sketch some ways that might work.
That combination is likely to make sneaking large platforms into contested spaces prohibitively difficult. And it complicates life for conventional submarines even more than for nuclear boats because the littorals will be more dangerous than blue water.
The rapid expansion of computing power… ushers in new sensors and methods that will make stealth and its advantages increasingly difficult to maintain above and below the water.
But technological advances tend to cut both ways, and the battle is often to the side with the right combination of technical capability and imagination. Greenert went on to say:
US forces can take advantage of those developments by employing long-range sensor, weapon, and unmanned-vehicle payloads instead of using only stealth platforms and shorter-range systems to reach targets.
Submarines will have to stand off from high-stake situations and exert their influence from a distance by deploying their own long-range remote or autonomous sensors and weapon systems. Rosie Turner’s piece earlier today suggests some future evolutions in unmanned underwater systems.
Those criteria pretty much rule out an ‘evolved Collins’, which probably can’t stretch to those requirements. That leaves us with two broad options:
Go all out with the design of a large, fast, long-range boat that can operate at the highest level in a much more challenging future, or
Temper our ambitions and settle for a fleet that will deliver value for money capability in less than the most challenging situations.
In other words, we have a really big decision to make right up front, and the stakes are pretty high. It’s going to be an interesting ride.
Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. The full text of the conference talk is available here.