Making the choice of which submarine design to replace the Collins class will be a defining moment for Australia’s Government. Regardless of the hull, all three alternatives, the Japanese, French and German proposals, will be required to install an American combat system separately chosen by the Royal Australian Navy.

Choosing an American combat system is purported to favour the Japanese contender because of its existing close relationship to the US Navy. But the Americans have not made any pronouncements that they favour any of the options, and the French and Germans have been at pains to explain they already have access to some US Navy technologies, so it does not represent a discriminating factor in which design wins.

Combat systems are at the heart of the operational capability of a submarine. They allow its crew to make sense of what their sensors detect, track targets and either attack or hide from them. But it is more complicated than that.

Conventional submarines rarely operate closely with others; they depend upon stealth and apply operational secrecy to a degree of paranoia not typically found in other naval operations. ‘Silent service’ is an apt title. Submarines are supported by intelligence before they deploy and continuously throughout their mission. Intelligence can come from a wide range of sources with different levels of importance, but often from highly sensitive sources that need to be protected and need special communications handling. Some elements of the combat system have to be certified to handle such sensitive information so that it can be integrated with its own onboard data, and some members of the crew need to have the appropriate access rights for its use.

Australia’s relationship and intelligence connections with the US mean Australia’s submarines have to be capable of meeting all the rules each country mutually applies to intelligence matters in general. This is by no means a trivial requirement, and it places non-negotiable security constraints on how the RAN’s combat system hardware and software are supported throughout their lifecycle.

Weapons, torpedoes, guided missiles or mines are often the means of neutralising a target and sometimes destroying it. They are supplied with data before their launch from the submarine and usually during their attack. The weapons are 'smart' in that they can integrate data from the submarine with what they also acquire themselves, so that they are not seduced by countermeasures and can discriminate between targets. Electronic interfaces between weapons and other elements of the combat system have to meet specific technical standards and, with the right information, should be capable of being integrated into combat systems from a variety of manufacturers. Where the weapons and combat system have been developed together, however, there is a higher likelihood that the sophistication of both would be more highly exploited. The RAN and its scientific support have shown a knack for being very clever in this field by improving on what was already present.

Unmanned underwater vehicles will almost certainly be in the armoury of the future submarine. In effect they are mini-submarines that can be deployed and recovered, or deployed to await activation at a future time — or when triggered. They can extend significantly the ability of a submarine to know what is in its own vicinity, collect intelligence, or deliver a fatal blow as and when required. Unmanned air vehicles can also be launched and recovered, giving submarines new capabilities for new missions. Sophisticated communications systems will permit near undetectable reports to other units. Those concepts were around when the Collins class was being built, but the technology was not up to the job. Now it is.

One of the problems any new submarine design faces is the maturity of the technology to be used over the time it is in service. Concepts have progressively emerged that recognise the evolution of its combat system technology needs to be managed as part of the lifecycle of the submarine itself. What the submarine starts with is not what it will finish with 30 years later — or even five. This was not fully recognised when the original Collins combat system was being defined and built and eventually led to considerable support being provided by the US Navy in its remediation. In parallel, the RAN and the US Navy entered into a strategic agreement for submarine cooperation which has resulted in an unprecedented degree of collaboration in research and development, tactical development and mutual training of an advanced nature. The agreement is one of strategic significance to both Australia and the US, and provides considerable benefit to both countries.

Combat systems embody the knowledge and doctrine of the navy to help their crews operate and fight the submarine in the way they want to do it. This changes over time, and so the capability of the combat system has to evolve to ensure there is a winning edge. But combat systems are expensive to design, to build, and to own. Australia presently has no depth of industrial expertise in this field comparable with that of the US, and there is little expectation of it emerging. Hence, if there is an opportunity for the RAN to work with a very close friend (read the US Navy), then there are many mutual benefits in sharing operational and technical expertise in the development and support of a combat system that meets the needs of both navies. That relationship had been building for several decades, but since around 2001 it has reached a much greater depth, and is set to continue with the new submarine.

While there are other navies with which Australia’s submarines will operate, it will take them a long time, if ever, to achieve the intimacy shared between the RAN and US Navy. Such a relationship cannot be bought, and it depends upon a continuing mutual respect for each other’s professionalism to get the best from it. Supporting Australia’s new submarine inside that relationship will require special management arrangements that will be highly demanding, and possibly not achievable, if Australia does not insist on getting full control of all the intellectual property it needs. Past experience with the Collins class would indicate that this issue is well understood by the RAN and Australia’s Government.

When all of these factors are put together, acquisition of a US Navy combat system for Australia’s future submarines does matter, and it makes a lot of sense.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.