KEITH JOINER. Negating the Impact of the Future Submarine at Next Election

Apr 13, 2017

Australia’s future submarine project has already been a factor in Australia’s political pulse, in both the fever of pre-elections and in the now omnipresent prime-ministerial instability between these all-too-frequent elections. South Australia’s Xenophon factor has become powerful, and appointments like the new Defence Industry Minister from South Australia are probably an attempt to mitigate that factor. 

For example, whatever else we know of the submarine, it has to be built in South Australia. So, it is surprising then that the Submarine project is not making any public progress on two aspects that resonate generally in public debate:

  • the in-Australia footprint of the Submarine early work – namely design test sites, and
  • cyber-resilience of our critical systems – namely the submarine design and development plans

At the level of public speeches and announcements, both the Chief of Navy and the Submarine Project Director have promised the first of these two aspects during last year’s Submarine Institute Conference, while Minister Pyne has given assurances about the latter when French submarine plans for another country may have been compromised. Defence promised at the conference to build the land-based test sites in 2018 and commission them in early 2019. This is ambitious timelines, given these facilities will be complex and that most routine new facility projects take the Defence Department between three and seven years. The Submarine project is now at a critical point in the public’ trust, where something real and in-Australia like these test sites is critical by 2019, when it will be a decade since PM Rudd announced the undertaking.

The public will also be looking for signs that Australia is managing the foreign companies and truly creating jobs in Australia; quite apart from important engineering purposes, complex test sites are a good way to do this. If you follow the ABC comedy series Utopia, then test sites could provide a backdrop to ribbon cuttings and even school excursions. So with such pressure and promise, it is both surprising, and yet typical, that the best and brightest of the Project’s engineers and scientists, along with most of the early spending, are in France ‘overseeing’ the redesign. This is based on the expectation that almost anything positive would have been released publicly by the Minister, such as the allocation of land, requests for tenders, or again following the lead of Utopia, even an artist’s impression or site branding.

A serious concern with delays in test capability is that the French designer and builder, DCNS, will soon hold sway over the project direction. It suits their commercial purposes for such test sites to be delayed, so French sites pick up the slack and all efforts at independent test capability become buried in the difficulties of foreign release and Australian deference, so as to avoid political sensitivity. Those with memories of the decades of the French-Italian lightweight torpedo project, like the Australian National Audit Office, will appreciate the obfuscating effect of such foreign dependency. Such dependency on foreign test would also be a replay of the almost two decades of Australia’s involvement in the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft, only in this case Australian taxpayers pay all the bills. Another concern is that the main hedge to the natural dominance of DCNS is Lockheed Martin (LM) who are prime integrators of the U.S. combat system for the submarine, yet LM are the designers and manufacturers of the JSF and their record on supporting independent testing of JSF speaks for itself.

The most likely initial defence to delays in the submarine test sites is that they depend on the design of the submarine itself. This would largely be shallow and somewhat hypocritical, given the previous arguments about the maturity of the Barracuda design and that the test sites only need broad margins to account for variability and evolution in the system designs under test. The problem here is more likely to be about priorities, short-term funding, project staff capacity and the sway of the lead contractor(s).

The second concerning lack of progress for the future submarine is in cybersecurity preparations. Cyber is becoming the cheap first-strike weapon of choice by potential adversaries in a kind of merging of insurgency, terrorism, international crime and state-based influences. The merging of electronic warfare and cyber-warfare means that no platform, however unconnected or firewalled it may be, is immune to probing within its systems. The future submarine must not only survive and be credible in this Information Age, but actually ought to be a potential purveyor of offensive cyber if it is to be our deterrence. Cybersecurity craft in the U.S. has found that the most critical of Defense systems, like submarines, nuclear weapons and space surveillance, require to be ‘trusted systems’, meaning that their computer and software components, applications and architectures need to be designed, assembled, tested and refreshed using personnel, companies and procedures that are, and remain, highly-trusted suppliers. Australia has a precious few chip, processor, board and software manufacturers for Defence Industry, all who should be key for our future submarine, including for the test sites, yet so far, the debate has been about using Australian steel. The future submarine’s high-level requirements would undoubtedly have cyber-resilience as a key feature, but there is no evidence of this flowing through to the key cybersecurity plans like those usual at this stage in a U.S. project (i.e. Project Protection Plan). Nor is there evidence of the necessary industry engagement to establish a cyber-trusted network in time for the test sites and to scrutinize DCNS and LM redesigns. Again, DCNS and LM are unlikely to be commercially motivated to adjust extant supply chains, or subject them to new scrutiny, in order to establish a robust and independent cybersecurity test framework for Australia.

There is a diminishing opportunity to convince the Australian public before the next election that the early submarine re-design will be critically tested in Australia and that this testing will be cyber modern and credible. Defence acquisition is not usually a touchstone for public debate, but the future submarine, cyber and the inevitable confluence of the two, is likely to be an exception at the next election unless serious and rapid progress is made in the coming months. The Government needs to get the Project focused and engaged on the Australian test sites and the cybersecurity requirements or face cynical election debate, especially in South Australia.

Additional Reading

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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