KEITH JOINER. Australia’s 13th Submarine: The Barracuda “F model”

Jul 13, 2017

In building our new submarines there is a choice between a fast process with comparatively fixed designs and a rolling design processwhich would be slower but would be more likely to match Australia’s evolving defence requirements and provide more continuity and retention of expertise.

Starting next week in Adelaide, Australia hosts the international conference of systems engineering. Put simply, systems engineers organize and focus other engineers to design and build, particularly on a grand and/or complex scale. Normally Australia’s annual conference in this field attracts only about two to three hundred such specialists. However, this rare international event in Australia is expecting nearly a thousand delegates. Australia’s systems engineering community is small, especially for an economy in the top 20 countries, largely because the country does not value-add, and what we do manufacture, tends to be small in scale. So this event will be exciting for the few Australian system engineers who mainly come from the defence, transport and mining sectors.

What also distinguishes the conference in Adelaide, is that Australians finally have some innovative national undertakings to excite system engineers. In the parlance of the comedy show Utopia, there is some nation building happening. Examples include: inland rail, Sydney’s new airport, rejuvenation of the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme, and even the World’s largest battery. However, dwarfing all of these undertakings, is Australia’s future submarine. This submarine is under design in France, has Australian industry bidding to assist, and next year is supposed to build the land-based test sites in Adelaide for the sovereign task of qualifying the submarine systems. The submarine project will spend, adjusting for inflation, three times what the Snowy Mountains Scheme cost Australia. The project has chosen to design and build the World’s largest conventionally-powered submarine, aiming while doing so, to also make it the quietest. With such an auspicious gathering of the World’s best systems engineers on the doorstep of such a monumental Australian systems challenge, it is worth a debate about just how high Australia ought to be aiming with the new submarine.

In the Collins submarine project of 30 years ago, the project quickly settled on a design, without sovereign test sites and they had four built before difficulties in the design were fully appreciated. Now just 15 years later, Collins has left little of the infrastructure, intellectual horsepower and indigenous industry from which to evolve the design – hence the undertaking to import yet another foreign design. This time Australia’s submarine design and build must focus on the wherewithal to evolve its submarine, and not take the misguided short-term focus that sees boom and bust cycles in submarine import. Systems engineers are key to this intellectual capability, the Australian industry, and the sovereign test sites. However, even more important is National leadership in setting and sustaining the goals much higher than what Collins achieved. World events are showing increasing instability at every level, well beyond what was feared in 2009 when the submarine number was set at 12. Australia’s economy critically depends on maritime trade; for example, Australia barely holds sufficient fuel storage for a few months. Submarines are critical to sovereign protection of that maritime trade — to get the supplies in and the exports out through the some of the World’s most contested waters and choke points.

Encouragingly there are signs that Australia will focus on a rolling design-and-build program for the submarine, but this has not been clearly articulated by the leadership, and until the upfront infrastructure and knowledge transfer is funded, must be treated with the skepticism of the first Collins effort. Australia’s leaders need to be talking about the 13th submarine as a natural and inevitable expression of a sovereign submarine capability. If the first submarine is model “A”, and the next two are model “B”, then working on building blocks of three thereafter, the 13th submarine will be model “F”. Such evolution does not come cheaply and requires the earliest investment in Australia’s industry, the test infrastructure across all systems, and the education of the engineers.

A presentation last November at the annual submarine conference in Australia highlighted that it was substantially cheaper and strategically more capable sooner, if Australia were to build 12 submarines in just 12 years, rather than space them over a longer period of time. Such analysis raises the question of the submarine’s life and whether Australia may need more than 12 of them. Submarine life has traditionally been based on the hull and how that survives pressure cycles of diving and surfacing.

However, future submarines must survive beyond the Information Age, in a time of advancing cyber warfare, rapidly evolving systems and the changing nature of modern warfare.  Submarines do not easily undertake wholesale change-out of systems — think a can of peaches. It is likely that in future, the systems (the peaches) will be the limiting life of the submarine (use-by date), perhaps as little as 12 to 18 years, not the hull (the can). The hull will not be the predominant cost either. This limiting of the life of systems will get worse with the increasing sophistication of cyber threats. It is unlikely the first submarines can have the supply chain of its software-intensive architectures sourced from sovereign industries (i.e. Australian or five-eyes), but that within 10-15 years the cyber threat sophistication will require that additional cyber resilience. On current projections the supply chain of the first submarines will be dominated by what the French have already developed and made cost effective. The Indian build of the French submarine (Scorpene), now at six submarines, still only has 30 percent of the submarine built in India and allegedly India is considering another three submarines where the indigenous build target may reach 50 percent. On that rate, a fully cyber-resilient Australian submarine may not be achieved until close to the 12th submarine, about 2045, and by then the first submarine may be obsolete against cyber threats. Further, if the submarine systems are not obsolete, then Australia’s strategic ircumstances may warrant more submarines than 12.

The higher direction of a capability, of the magnitude and complexity of Australia’s future submarine, is the province of governance. Such governance must obviously be set by Government and yet, if properly established, advises Government continuously with a degree of expertise, foresight and independence. At the conference next week in Adelaide, Professor Charles Keating from Old Dominion University will present on ‘Complex Systems Governance (CSG)’. As Director of the United States National Centers for System-of-System Engineering (NCOSE), Professor Keating has developed a new and better governance framework for such complex undertakings as the future submarine. The methodology breaks down conventional barriers of project management, project sponsorship and systems engineering with a clean-sheet approach. While CSG and many other ‘best of ideas’ at the conference may not be ideal for all Australia’s biggest system developments, it is certain Australia must be open to these ideas if we are ever to realise that 13th submarine, the cyber-resilient “F” model Barracuda. I’m hoping the Government and Defence give Professor Keating and other luminaries from the conference a fair hearing while they are here, so that the necessary knowledge transfer begins today.

Additional Readings

Bradley, M.; Joiner, K. F.; Efatmaneshnik, M.; & Keating, C. B., 2017, ‘Evaluating Australia’s most complex system-of-systems, the future submarine: A case for using new Complex Systems Governance‘, 27th Annual INCOSE International Symposium (IS 2017), Adelaide, Australia, July 15-20.

Joiner, K. F. & Atkinson, S.R., 2016. ‘Australia’s Future Submarine: Shaping Early Adaptive Designs through Test and Evaluation.’ Australian Journal of Multi-Disciplinary Engineering, Engineers Australia, pp. 1-23, DOI: 10.1080/14488388.2016.1238025.

Joiner, K. 2017, How Australia can catch up to U.S. cyber resilience by understanding that cyber survivability test and evaluation drives defense investment, Information Security Journal: A Global Perspective.


Dr Keith Joiner, CSC is a senior lecturer in test and evaluation at the University of New South Wales in Canberra and was the director general of Test and Evaluation in Defence for four years at the end of a thirty-year career with the Royal Australian Air Force.


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