The Royal Australian Navy is undertaking a sweeping review of how it operates its submarines and what the next-generation hull may look like.
The effort is being driven by RAN chief Vice Adm. Russ Crane, who is trying to balance operational strains on the service and budgetary needs. When it comes to modernizing the force, Crane clearly is aware that even though the service likes its still relatively new Collins-class submarines, the tortured acquisition is something that can’t be repeated.
Crane isn’t shy about speaking his mind. He recently told the Submarine Institute of Australia that one of his modernization priorities is not a submarine at all, quite the contrary. “I believe that we need to introduce the submarine's nemesis, a dipping sonar, as soon as possible. Achieving this is a high priority for me.”
Balancing modernization demands is the overarching problem long-term. Building more submarines can’t come at the expense of having an adequate fleet of surface combatants, he stresses. “Our surface ship numbers have declined and I think the historical low of 12 frigates and destroyers today, and 11 in the future, is the absolute minimum we should fall to.” On the other hand, he reassured the submariner and industry audience “I also would argue strongly against reducing submarine numbers to return the surface ship fleet to the level of capability I believe would be ideal” given operational demands.
(Collins-class. credit: RAN)
To limit expenditure, the future submarine, to be developed under the SEA1000 project, should take advantage of close work with the U.S. Navy, he says. “I would go so far as to suggest that the future version of the US SSN combat system, weapons -- and I add possibly sensors to this equation – might form the pre-integrated [military off-the shelf] option” to reduce risk. Once the combat system has been defined, a hull can be designed around that.
It should be a big hull, Crane leaves little doubt, to provide the desired passive sonar sensing capability. Australia also wants long range and endurance, driving the size of the vessel. The RAN also should embrace fully remote sensors more completely, he indicates.
The near-term challenge is how to deal with the high operations tempo, which is straining crews. Under the recently launched “New Generation Navy” program, Crane is having officers look at the possibility of organizing around crews, not hulls. That would lead to crews using whatever submarine may be available, rather than be dedicated to one hull.
The RAN may also cut back on training to reduce the burden on the force. “The short-term value gained is not worth the damage it will cause to the sustainability of our workforce,” Crane believes.
The review will also examine the roles of the headquarters and force element groups, so changes could emerge there, too.