ATTACK CLASS COMBAT SYSTEM STARTING TO TAKE SHAPE

As is often the case with shipbuilding projects, much of the early attention of the media for the future submarine has focussed on the platform, rather than the complex electronics that it will contain. This is human nature: a large cylinder made from steel designed to withstand huge pressures with a pump jet at one end of it is easy to visualise; a complex network of computers, sensors and a huge amount of software far less so.

While the early problems of the Collins class platform are well understood – and often wildly exaggerated – what is much less well known is that the initial deficiencies of the combat system were far more serious. Without going through the entire history, the RAN chose by far the most riskiest of the two choices on offer – and then piled risk upon risk by developing a specification well beyond what any navy had achieved. This was a consequence of hubris largely from an earlier very successful upgrade of the Oberon submarine combat system, leading to a mistaken belief that by combining the most modern technologies – some of which did not exist when the contract was signed – with sheer Australian willpower, magical things could be achieved.

The result was that while the Collins platform steadily improved, the original combat system had to be scrapped and replaced. At the heart of this system was the USN’s AN/BYG-1 tactical data handling system for the Virginia class, sometimes also called the submarine tactical control system – sometimes incorrectly referred to as the combat system. The combat system describes the overall package, which includes all of the sensors and weapons – though to be fair AN/BYG-1 is indeed at the software heart of it all.

Like many US programs, AN/BYG-1 has a complex history, with involvement from Raytheon, General Dynamics and – most importantly from our standpoint – Lockheed Martin. When the RAN looked at ways of reducing risk for developing the combat system for the future submarine it made sense to once again specify that AN/BYG-1 would again be central to it. The fact that Lockheed Martin – which has a large footprint in Australia – also produces the principal weapon for the future submarine in the form of the Mk 48 heavyweight torpedo is a bonus.

Virginia class submarines will continue to be constructed until 2043 – and perhaps beyond. This means that the final boats will be in service until at least 2070, so it makes good sense for the RAN to be in lock step with the USN for submarine combat system design and development.

This compressed history explains why Lockheed Martin is the combat system integrator for the Attack class – and has been making good progress with not only defining the overall architecture but also starting to fill in some of the blanks when it comes to specific sensors. Currently, the company is a little more than 200 Adelaide-based staff dedicated to the future submarine – and this will increase by a further 30 during the next year.

According to Mike Oliver, Lockheed Martin’s Project Director for the future submarine combat system, in early October the company and Defence completed one of the important milestones in the process – the System Definition Review (SDR). This established the functional basis for the entire combat system – the preliminary design of which will be completed by August 2021.

As an important part of this, on October 8 Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced that Safran Electronics and Defense Australasia had been selected by Lockheed Martin to supply several vital subsystems: the optronic search and attack periscopes, navigation radar and navigation data distribution system. Part of the French Safran group – one of the world’s highest technology companies – it is dedicated to maximising Australian content and to achieve that aim has contracted with local entities Acacia Systems and Thomas Global Systems for design services.

Four other parts of the future combat system have progressed to preferred tenderer stage and are expected to be announced at any moment. They are:

– High data rate antenna

– Integrated submarine communications system

– Towed array handling system – Bow array

A little unexpectedly, the various sonar arrays are being evaluated separately and will not necessarily be contracted as a suite from a single supplier – unlike for the Collins class, where Thales scooped the lot. As an aside, while the aforementioned Collins combat system – originally contracted to US company Rockwell – was a disaster, the sonar suite always performed well and continues to do so.

While Lockheed Martin Australia is in charge of the entire process, the relationship with the RAN customer is very close with a lot of interaction and mutual visibility.

SUCCESS FOR SAFRAN

During the Pacific Maritime Exhibition in Sydney, APDR had the chance for a quick discussion with the CEO of Safran Defense and Electronics Australasia (SEDA), Alexis de Pelleport:

Q: Congratulations. Why do you believe Safran was chosen? Have you had any official feedback?

I do not have official feedback from LMA that I can give you. However my personal thoughts are that we won the competition for 3 main reasons:

Safran systems recognised performance: SEDA leveraged SED expertise and a proven track record in submarine technology. Safran optronics and navigation systems are today recognised as the international benchmark. For instance our Attack Optronic Mast is today considered as the thinnest on the market. And for the FSP we took the commitment to develop an even thinner mast (without sacrificing the performance).

Our commitment to local content: Our proposal to LMA, leveraged our footprint in Australia with SEDA, as the prime contractor, undertaking extensive program management and engineering efforts in Australia. Safran will also subcontract two Australian companies, Acacia Systems and Thomas Global Systems, for the design and development of software and hardware, respectively.

Our relationship with the customer: During the whole tendering process our team listened to LMA and CASG requirements, always trying to adapt our response to satisfy their needs. I believe this flexibility was appreciated by our customer.

Q: As I understand it, you will be contracted by Lockheed Martin for further design studies. What is the purpose of these and how long will they take? 

The contract signed with LMA is for a 3 year design period (including the Preliminary Design Review and the Critical Design Review). After the design phase, we will have to negotiate and sign another contract for the development and production phase of the selected systems. The purpose of the contract is not to sell today off the shelf systems. The purpose is to develop systems that will be regionally superiors for the next 50 years and to be able to upkeep, update and upgrade them from Australia.

Q: Are there any additional products or systems that you are hoping to supply for the future submarine?

No. Our objective is to give satisfaction to our customer on the 3 selected systems and delivering what we promised. Opportunities for us are more with Collins Life Of Type Extension, especially with the Optronic Masts. We are proposing to the Navy to replace the Collins periscopes by our modern Optronic Masts. It is a non-risky operation for Australia as Safran just successfully performed this activity in Sweden, with the A19 submarines (Gotland class) retrofit. This would allow Collins class to remain state of the art submarines until their decommissioning. Also such an upgrade would bring commonality of equipment between Collins and Attack classes and would allow to train RAN submariners to new operational concepts associated to disruptive technologies.

 

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