Australia’s new frigates will be fit for the future. Our submarines should be too

One of the pearls in my memory of working in a big bureaucracy showed how things that make sense inside it simply don’t in the outside world. It’s a corrosive dynamic that applies to how the Defence Department’s decades-long megaprojects—whether frigates, submarines or even armoured fighting vehicles—are designed and implemented. And it must be addressed—probably by external pressure and ministerial direction.

I was returning to Defence after a couple of years in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and at the time had a pretty racy BlackBerry mobile, the latest version. Arriving back at Defence I was told to hand it over and take an older, chunkier model instead. When I asked why I couldn’t keep the new phone from the same manufacturer, I was told, ‘We don’t use them here. Defence bought a job lot of this [chunky old] model a few years ago at a discount and we’re giving them out until we’ve got none left.’

After muttering about how if I went home to proudly tell my wife I’d bought a decade’s supply of mobiles for the family because I got 10% off, she’d say something predictable and unsupportive, I took the phone. It did less, less well, than the one I gave up.

Unfortunately, this mindset of setting requirements today that don’t make sense in the future seems to apply to how the Defence architects of the $79 billion future submarine project are working. In better news, the BAE designers of the Hunter-class future frigate seem to understand that, if the design is going to last beyond its early days in the 2030s, it needs to have large, inherent flexibility. This is to give the design some solid future-proofing to accommodate changes and capability additions that we don’t even know about now.

The nine frigates Australia will get for its $35 billion are to be equipped with the latest US Aegis combat system, missile launch cells and advanced passive and active sonars, and an acoustic array for underwater search, as well as an embarked anti-submarine helicopter and CEA’s fabulous phased array radar. But that’s all so 2019. Because the designers—and the Royal Navy lead customer—know that military technology—along with civil technology with strong military applications—is evolving so fast, they know these state-of-the-art systems by themselves, even upgraded, wouldn’t guarantee the frigate’s combat edge in the 2030s.

So, unlike the two other frigate designs in the competition, BAE took a distinctive and smart approach to building flexibility into the core design of the frigate. This was smart because the painful history of large-scale redesigns of platforms to retrofit significant new capabilities fills the archives of various countries’ auditors of big defence projects. It is much harder and much more costly to do a major redesign than to incorporate flexibility early on.

That’s why the Hunter-class frigate has a large multi-mission bay. The integrated mission bay and hangar will be ‘capable of supporting multiple helicopters, UUVs [unmanned underwater vehicles], boats, mission loads and disaster relief stores. A launcher can be provided for fixed-wing UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] operation’. The designers have allowed for the ship’s systems to generate extra power for whatever is operated from the mission bay, and the ship’s centre of gravity has been set to allow new systems to be carried in the bay without affecting overall ship performance.

This means that the frigate is very likely to be able to launch, recover and operate with a wide range of types, sizes and configurations of armed and unarmed UAVs (drones), unmanned surface vessels and even unmanned underwater vessels. Some may well be launched from the missile cells near the bow.

Turning to the Attack class, we’re told it will be a ‘regionally superior’ submarine. It will evolve over the course of the build; the first of the 12 delivered sometime after 2035 will be quite different from the last one in 2054. And it will adapt to new technologies over this time. That all sounds great until you unpack what it doesn’t say.

We already know that a key element in the new submarine’s design philosophy is to only have capabilities that are already ‘proven at sea’ in the design for the first boat. That has led to the program office staying with lead–acid batteries, which have powered submarines since World War I, for now, even as other navies and even Naval Group, the submarine’s designer, say that new battery types are ready for safe operation in its submarines already, let alone by the 2030s.

Beyond this overall aversion to opportunity, though, in a briefing a couple of weeks ago to journalists, the program office confirmed that the future submarine would only be able to launch and recover UUVs that fit through its torpedo tubes or between the inner and outer hull skins.

That’s an incredible limitation on the sizes, shapes and numbers of unmanned underwater systems other than torpedoes that this weapon system costing $79 billion (ASPI’s ‘out-turned’ dollars estimate) will be able to launch and recover.

Interestingly, the Swedes have taken the design that became our navy’s current Collins-class submarine and ‘evolved’ it by doing things like fitting a new section into the hull so it can launch missiles from large vertical tubes. And they’re bidding to build an evolved ‘Son of Collins’ for the Dutch, with the first submarine to be launched in the late 2020s. Modularity is key to the Swedes’ approach. They are using their existing Gotland-class submarines to trial modules they’ll put into their new submarines.

The big vertical launch tubes will allow the Swedish design to launch and recover lots of different configurations of missiles, UAVs and UUVs. And, if it turns out that missiles are less valuable than other unmanned systems, it’ll be much easier to use this vertical launch space as a flexible launch bay than to try to contort weapons into torpedo-shaped items.

On top of this, the Swedes are fitting air-independent propulsion to allow the submarine to operate without surfacing for long periods of time. They’re also designing in a ‘multi-mission portal’ next to the torpedo tubes in the nose of the boat which will be large enough for the launch and retrieval of diverse mission payloads, from special-forces divers to manned and unmanned vehicles. Sounds like the future-proofing approach being taken with Australia’s frigates.

It won’t matter if the Attack class is ‘regionally superior’ in a submarine-against-submarine battle in the 2030s if the boats get found and sunk by novel UUVs operated by an adversary that’s more imaginative with its submarine design than Australia is being.

There’s still time for the future submarine to really live up to its label. But it means thinking more imaginatively than any submarine program office that the big Defence bureaucracy seems able to put together.

It’s time to get some other ideas into the submarine program and into the design of the first boat. That’s so that we don’t end up with a high-risk project that does something worse than run over budget and schedule—that produces a submarine and broader undersea capability program that is not ‘regionally superior’, and does so by design.