Singapore Air Show

In the latest manifestation of AUKUS mania warping thinking inside Defence and government, Australia will hand over $307 million (U.S. $207 million) to buy towed array sonar systems that could – and should – be made locally.  There are some areas where we have world leading technologies – and sonar is one of them.

As well as decades worth of research and development undertaken by the old Defence Science and Technology Organisation, an enormous amount of expertise has accumulated in local companies such as Thales Underwater; Sonartech Atlas; Acacia; and Ultra – just to name the major players.  In the 1970s and 1980s two slim line towed array sonar systems were developed in parallel, code named Kariwara and Narama, which were better than anything previously attempted.

In the 1990s under project SEA 1100 (Australian Surface Ship Towed Array System – ASSTASS) we built an indigenous low frequency active-passive towed array sonar system, originally sponsored by the legendary Commander Daffy Donald and subsequently managed by the almost equally legendary Jim Manson.

Australia exports sonar hardware and software for use on the nuclear-powered and armed submarines of the U.S., U.K. and France.  Thales sonars equip ANZAC frigates; those from Ultra are on the Air Warfare Destroyers – and both are working on the underwater warfare systems of the future Hunter class frigates.

The impending purchase of SURTASS-E has left local industry totally gobsmacked – and for the moment no one is commenting publicly until they find out what is going on.  Apparently, people only heard about this when the U.S. Defense and Security Cooperation Agency sent the following obligatory notification to Congress on May 4:

“The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Government of Australia of Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Expeditionary (SURTASS-E) mission systems for Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) and related equipment for an estimated cost of $207 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

“The Government of Australia has requested to buy Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Expeditionary (SURTASS-E) mission systems for Vessels of Opportunity (VOO); a shore processing mission system, a spare SURTASS passive acoustic array; containers; communications parts and support equipment (Classified and Unclassified); software (Classified and Unclassified); publications (Classified and Unclassified); training; U.S. Government and contractor engineering support; and other related elements of logistics and program support. The estimated total cost is $207 million.”

APDR understands that this system is to equip a second commercial offshore vessel that Defence acquired on the sly a few months ago – only confirming the multi-million dollar purchase after being busted by the media. This second hand ship will apparently be used for underwater warfare research activities – though why the feasibility of building something similar in Australia was not considered is a total mystery.

Why Defence Minister Richard Marles and especially Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy could think that this is a good idea is unknown.  When this recommendation came over from the Department it should have sent alarm bells ringing because it’s probably more about lavish postings to Washington than it is about capability.

What makes the situation even worse is that the RAN made an attempt to purchase SURTASS about two decades ago – but was blocked from doing so on environmental grounds. It transmits on a frequency known to disturb marine mammals – unlike the French-Australian CASSTASS Low Frequency Active Variable Depth Sonar then in use.  Does the RAN and the Federal government no longer care about environmental issues?

In 2002, Liberal Defence Minister Robert Hill provided the following information to Parliament:

“Low frequency active sonar (LFAS) is a generic term. It is generally used to identify a sonar system that emits sound at a frequency of 1 kilohertz (kHz) or less. The particular type of LFAS that has been linked in the media to environmental impacts on whales and dolphins is the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS LFA sonar) used by the United States Navy (USN). SURTASS LFA is not a system used by the RAN and it has not been deployed in Australian waters.

“It is understood that the source level of SURTASS LFA is such that the intensity received by a whale, diver etc. at a distance of 10 meters from the source is approximately 215 decibels, relative to one micro Pascal (215 dB re 1 Pa). At a distance of 100 meters, the received sound intensity would be one one-hundredth, or 20 dB less, of the received sound intensity at 10 meters, i.e. 195 dB re 1 Pa. The received sound intensity will continue to decrease as distance to the source increases. To help place these numbers in context, it should be noted that common occurrences such as lightning strikes on the ocean produce received sound intensities approximately three hundred times this level (approximately 240 dB re 1 Pa at 10 meters) and sperm whales, in communicating, regularly produce total received sound intensities of 215 dB re 1 Pa at a distance of 10 metres.

“The distance any sound can travel (be detected) in the marine environment is highly variable and depends on numerous, changeable ocean characteristics such as salinity and temperature profiles. With respect to the impacts that arise from underwater sound propagation it is considered that the most relevant distance is that at which the received sound intensity is safe for the sensitive hearing possessed by marine mammals etc.

“For marine mammals (whales, dolphins, dugongs and seals), it is generally accepted by scientists that a received level of 178 dB re 1 Pa for intermittent or pulsed sounds is considered to be the best estimate of a safe exposure level. In the deep water in which the USN SURTASS LFA system would operate, a conservative estimate of the distance corresponding to this received sound level would be approximately one kilometre.”

The expenditure of more than $300 million would go a long way towards keeping local industry at the forefront of sonar technology.  The SURTASS-E purchase is sheer madness. If the government wants to retain any credibility for its claims of supporting Australian industry, this decision needs to be reversed – now.

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.

26 COMMENTS

  1. This government seriously seems to be flailing around like a blind man since the much vaunted DSR was released.Arafura on a go slow, Hunter class in limbo ( rather than cancelled as it should be). Much talk about corvette size craft but no action. No apparent attempt to fill the gap between worn out Collin class and the nukes. Buy tanks but no troop carriers. Cut down on artillery even though it’s a game changer in the Ukrainian conflict. The list goes on

  2. So much for any expected future trade agreements with China then Australia . Bottom line : never trust ANY
    English speaking country. The Aussies burned France too with their sub deal and sucked America’s dk instead.

  3. When oh when are we going to put the cleaners through the DoD who are more interested in their RDO’s than our defence…and this is not a hyperbole….I have friends contracted as advisors and they were horrified and left early. This news is no surprise!!

  4. Just when you thought Marles and Co couldn’t possibly do anything more stupid. What’s next, buying Freedom Class cast offs .

  5. I see know incongruity in us buying towed array sonar systems from Uncle Sam.

    Isn’t Aukus, after all, all about paying homage, in hard cash, to the US and later the UK?

    Australia’s growing fear of China demands Australia prop up the highly profitable US nuclear sub industry to open up the fabled third Virginia production line.

    More generally AUKUS is all about paying a higher premium than usual for the US Alliance Insurance Policy, including vain hopes that the US will honour any Nuclear Umbrella protection racket against China.

    The US enjoys around 15 times the GDP of Australia, so Australia’s subsidy to the US submarine industry will be like Coals to the US’s proverbial Newcastle. And the US will be the MONOPOLY supplier of nuclear subs to Australia during the 2030s.

    Well may the word be from a new POTUS in the 2030s “Hey, Cobber from Downunder we can name any price for the old Virginas we are graciously selling you”.

    • I share your concerns. We don’t have any serious detail even on the $3 billion up front payment ($500 million of which goes to the U.K.). It’s a suspiciously round number and might just be money that Defence have offered up as some sort of goodwill gesture to have a seat at the table. Will there be any deliverables? No one knows. From the extremely vague way Richard Marles has phrased himself it sounds as if the U.S. will be able to name whatever price they want for old Virginia class submarines – if they actually have any spare in the 2030s, which personally I doubt.

      My understanding is that the U.K. was going to delay / defer their SSN(R) program for budget reasons until Australia turned up offering to shower them with cash.

  6. Kym, you are wrong again. The SURTASS E system is a passive system, so the dolphins will be OK. Relax. I suspect most of the rest of your article in probably incorrect as well.

    • Thanks – I’ll check that out. Do you have a reference for it being passive only, because I can’t find one. If it’s purely passive it isn’t going to be detecting any modern submarines then. The main point of the story is that the sonar work should be done in Australia and not yet as another FMS purchase with zero local content.

      If we are paying +$300 million to import a purely passive array it’s even more of a disgrace than I thought.

  7. In the 1970’s, l served aboard Diamantina.

    We spent years on a project called ‘Boollee’ – check photos of her with a large reel on a platform above the quarterdeck.

    Boollee was a passive SURTAS towed at very low speed in very deep water.

    NZ, US, Canada and others were in on it too.

    Boollee could deck submarines and surface ships hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

    Is this idea a ‘son’ of Boollee?

  8. Hi Brian

    I’ve Googled “HMAS Dimantina (M 86)” with many images coming up – but no sign of a big “Boollee” SURTAS reel.

    Can you provide a publicly available string or link to your claim?

    Cheers Pete

  9. Hi Kym

    I don’t disagree with the sentiments on buying Australian systems over FMS (I worked on one of the Australian arrays that you mentioned), but SURTASS-E appears to be a passive-only system, with the processing system packaged into a container for deployment on a Vessel of Opportunity (hence the Expeditionary suffix). The Active system is designated SURTASS-LFA, which as you correctly stated, has implications for marine life. It’s confused by the fact that they both use the same receive array, but the LFA adds a deployable vertical array for transmission.

    Reference : https://irp.fas.org/program/collect/surtass.htm
    Google does give me a link to a US Navy site on SURTASS-E but it’s no longer accessible.

    I suggest you update your headline.

    • Thanks Steve – I appreciate the additional information and there has been one other comment that SURTASS-E is passive only, but I’m still waiting for confirmation of that.

      If it’s passive only that really makes my blood boil because paying $307 million to the US for a bit of towed array cable and some onboard processing is beyond ridiculous. The entire Australian sonar industry – while in many respects world leading – is made up of only a few hundred engineers. It’s a rather specialised field. That $307 million would be a huge boost to the Australian sector. Has Defence asked anyone in Australia for a quote? Is Defence even aware of the level of capability that already exists here?

      The answer to those two questions appears to be a resounding No.

  10. Kym the ‘Australian’ made TAS systems you mentioned are specialised for warships where space is at a premium making the ‘tail’ lengths limited. As a result they are usually dual use (passive and active) but optimised for Low Frequency Active operations to give them extended range. They have a specific purpose at the operational and tactical levels and they are, depending on who you ask, very good at that. The UQQ-2 SURTASS system developed by the USN is what the SURTASS-E system is based on. It is basically a containerised version of the UQQ-2 and despite what others have said, it does have an LFAS component (whether that is included in the Australian sale is not clear to me from my research) but it is only used for very specific purposes. It needs to be made clear that there is no tactical role for this system and spending $100’s of millions of dollars developing our own to meet a very specific need is far more stupid than buying a single off the shelf solution to meet a very specific strategic need . You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Australian industry willing to take on the R&D required to produce one unit. A far deeper understanding of strategic through to tactical level surface ASW operations is required before anyone should attempt to make informed comment on this decision.

    • OK – you make some fair points but I can assure you that my contacts in the Australian sonar industry (which are actually quite good) are completely outraged about this. No discussion, no consultation. $307 million frigging dollars for some passive cable? What is it going to listen to? Whale noises?

      Also I’m a bit puzzled by your last sentence. That’s a bit like saying “you can’t comment on North Korea because you haven’t been there.” Yes I can – because I know how to read and I have a brain.

    • Sorry. Perhaps I should have said in my opinion at the start of that sentence. Of course you can comment on anything you want. You’ve got your own magazine as a platform to do it. I was merely pointing out that without understanding what the purpose of the system being purchased, you are making assessment on the decision behind the purchase from a position of ignorance.

      • I suppose there’s a certain logic to that but since the Department has become obsessively secret about everything that they do it would be hard to comment on anything if an official explanation is a prerequisite to doing so. I can only repeat my question about what is anyone going to do with a passive towed sonar array these days and pay $307 million for the privilege? Defence certainly won’t tell us because unfortunately they behave more like an occupying power rather than an organisation that is funded by Australian taxpayers.

  11. Several things stand out as disturbing in this article, Why is the DoD being so secretive about the process,why are we buying a towed array system under FMS that can be made here, if the system was deemed unsuitable twenty years ago why is it suitable now. This seems to me a very disturbing trend of the Government to look like they are doing something while actually doing nothing. It also seems that the Government is walking a thin line between appeasing U.S. interests and not upsetting Chinese interests.

    • Yes indeed. It is one of the strangest and most troubling decisions I have seen in quite some time, and that’s really saying something. I thought we had reached rock bottom for mindless secrecy and evasion under Peter Dutton when he was Defence Minister. Unfortunately there has been no improvement. It will eventually catch up with Labor as well because, generally speaking, Australians don’t like being lied to and misled.

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