Australia’s proposed nuclear-powered submarines could be obsolete by the time they hit the water in the 2040s due to new technologies making underwater vessels “visible”, some experts argue.
One of the controversies over the federal government’s decision to ditch the $90bn deal to build conventional submarines in favour of nuclear boats is the timeline for getting them battle-ready.
But even before the deal to buy 12 submarines from France’s Naval Group was made, military analysts warned that submarines of all types would be rendered obsolete by new technology including submersible drones and new weapons systems.
There are also warnings that different technologies will render the ocean “transparent”, so even the stealthiest submarines could be spotted by an enemy force.
The Australian National University’s National Security College report Transparent Oceans? found that transparency is “likely or “very likely” by the 2050s, a decade after Australia’s new fleet of nuclear-powered subs is due to enter service.
A multidisciplinary team looked at new sensor technology, underwater communications and the possibility of tripwires at choke points. They also examined new ways to detect chemical, biological, acoustic and infra-red signatures, finding that even with improvements in stealth submarines will become visible.
The report found “future technologies will make the oceans broadly transparent and counter-detection technologies will not have the same salience in the decades ahead as they have had previously”.
China has already developed submarine-spotting lasers.
CSIRO is working with a Chinese marine science institute that has separately developed satellite technology that can find submarines at depths of up to 500 metres.
That collaboration is due to end next year. The Australian has reported that Asio warned it could help the Chinese navy to hunt down Australian submarines but CSIRO said making that connection was “alarmist and irresponsible reporting”.
The defence analyst Albert Palazzo, writing for the Lowy Institute, said China’s technology will be advanced enough that “any Australian submarine that attempts to do something in these waters, such as launch a tomahawk missile, will reveal its position and shortly thereafter be destroyed”.
Others say submarines are just a base platform for a range of new and evolving technologies.
Mark Sander, the president of the Submarine Institute of Australia, said the boats will have critical capabilities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as deterrence and attack.
There was a “continuous improvement” in weapons systems, sensors and sensor processing, he said.
For example, the now defunct plan for French Attack-class submarines included optronic masts that can stealthily pop out of the water, gather data and pinpoint threats in just a few seconds. They can be used for electronic warfare, communications and spying.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s outgoing head, Peter Jennings, said nuclear-propelled boats had more space and energy for being “motherships” than conventional submarines.
“They’re significantly bigger and the reactors give you the energy not just for the propulsion but for everything else inside the boat,” he said.
“You then have a huge amount of space for weapons, for vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles and for autonomous systems that can be stored on board. Not only is it a fighting unit but you might have half a dozen remote systems fanned out at quite a distance. They’ll be operating a long distance away from potential targets, potentially hundreds of kilometres.
“From the submarine they can control unmanned systems that could themselves be spread out over hundreds of kilometres in different directions including closer to a threat.”
Submarines will also connect to and share information with surface ships and fighter jets.
According to the taskforce set up under Aukus, the new submarines will have “superior characteristics of stealth, speed, manoeuvrability, survivability, and almost limitless endurance”, with better weapons, the ability to deploy drones and “a lower risk of detection”.
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