Lockheed Martin is steadily maturing the Attack class submarine combat system
By Max Blenkin
This article appeared in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of ADBR.
Submarines – like any warship – only exist to keep their electronics, weapons and crew dry, and to get them where they need to be. That’s not at all well-appreciated in the ongoing public discussion around Australia’s 12 new Project SEA 1000 Attack class submarines and their design by prime, France’s Naval Group.
Proceeding steadily but with less public commentary is the combat system design, development and integration by Lockheed Martin Australia. The combat system accounts for a significant portion of the overall project – the basic rule of thumb is that the combat system in a modern warship accounts for around 20 per cent of total project cost.
Considering the future submarines project has been costed around $50 billion, that places the combat system component at about $10 billion. This work is proceeding at a steady pace.
In October the combat system development review was completed, with the next major combat system milestone the preliminary design review (PDR) in the second half of 2021, followed by the critical design review (CDR) in the first half of 2023.
Mike Oliver, Lockheed Martin’s program director for the submarines’ combat system, said this system would be state-of the-art, and will be a step on from the combat system aboard the Navy’s six Collins class subs which employ a version of the US Navy AN/BYG-1.
“This boat will be operational out to the 2070s,” Oliver told ADBR. “It’s important that we understand that boat one will not be the same as boat 12.
“What we have to achieve is flexibility in our design so we can accommodate those new technologies as they come along, so we can keep the functionality of the combat system,” he added. “We call it pacing the threat, keeping in front of the adversary.”
Oliver said the proposed system would feature some basic functionality which would be pretty identical to what was aboard just about any submarine in the world today.
“What really makes the combat system unique are the sensors we are putting on the boat and the amount of data and information coming from those sensors,” he said. “That’s where you start seeing this big improvement on contemporary boats of the day. It is just taking advantage of the technology.
“The processing power is getting more and more every year and how we take advantage of that to actually process more of the data and present that to the operator.”
In simple terms, the combat system links the submarine sensors – bow, flank and towed array sonars – with the weapon system, the Mark 48 torpedoes, and maybe eventually submarine-launched missiles. Information is presented to operators in the submarine control room, where the commander can then make the appropriate decisions.
The Navy had big ambitions for the Collins combat system, but the then available technology was barely up to the task and integration proved difficult, protracted and costly.
Of all the many problems afflicting the Collins boats in the early years, the combat system was the most intractable. It was only fully remediated with the decision to go to AN/BYG-1, installed first aboard HMAS Waller in 2008. That was 15 years after the launch of HMAS Collins.
The Attack class’s combat system will be mostly fully developed and proven long before it’s actually installed on a submarine.
“I anticipate starting what I will call pre-production and prototype development in the 2022-23 timeframe and our strategy and aim is to evolve the combat system and get that early so I can work to find the problems and issues through the lab-based integration before I deliver it to the shipyard to be integrated,” Oliver said.
“The timeline to deliver to the shipyard is in 2028. That’s delivery and integration into the platform. Platform integration will be a little bit beyond that before the boat actually hits the water.”
The Attack class combat system will be based on the AN/BYG-1, but will feature enhancements through improved technology plus additional capabilities. It is being designed with full open architecture to accommodate emerging technologies such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).
“We are designing the combat system to accommodate whenever those become available,” Oliver said. “There is a lot of research and development being done by a lot of the navies of the world on how they want to use unmanned submersibles and unmanned aircraft. We have designed the combat system architecture to accommodate when that capability comes along.”
The design team is also looking to integrate automation of some systems, where appropriate. Oliver said there were some ship functions which could be automated. “There are some things, because they involve ship safety or ability to protect that ship, where you always want a human in the loop,” he said.
One consideration not yet finalised is how many crew members will an Attack-class boat need? A Collins boat’s complement is 45.
“It’s not just the ability to man the consoles and the attack centre, but you have to look at the total ship – damage control and all these sorts of things, what’s the number you need,” Oliver said.
John Towers, Lockheed Martin’s lead for submarine combat system human integration added, “There is a lot of work being done now in terms of the complement. To understand what are the tasks and how we effectively design roles for the future submarine, that is an ongoing effort.”
Unlike Collins, Attack class boats will be fitted with an optronic mast with day/night vision capability in place of the traditional optical periscope. This has a significant advantage for submarine design in that it doesn’t penetrate the pressure hull, and frees up interior space.
It also provides additional inputs to the combat system from the mast’s high definition cameras. An optronic mast also supports antennae for communications and electronic surveillance.
Oliver said in the combat system design, they were aiming for complete separation from the hull design. “We know the combat system will continue to evolve. I want to be able to evolve and upgrade that combat system relatively quickly without impacting ship design.
“We are smarter in those interfaces. When I do an evolution of the combat system, it doesn’t impact the ship as long as I stay within my margins,” he added. “We have a vision to be able to upgrade and update the combat system pier-side so it doesn’t have to go into mid-cycle or full cycle docking.”
However Lockheed Martin and Naval Group will still need to work together in the design process to make everything fit. “As Naval Group is progressing their design they need to know attachment points, cable runs and all those sorts of things so they can design the boat to accommodate that,” Oliver said.
“The challenge is making sure as I deliver the interface control drawings that they are correctly interpreted by Naval Group. That is one of the reasons I have a small team in Cherbourg.”
That starts at gross conceptual level and eventually moves to 100 per cent accuracy. Initially the combat system team specified basic space, weight and power requirements to allow Naval Group to do what they term their balances. “We have all those information exchange touch points with Naval Group, well defined on when we owe them data and they owe me data,” Oliver said.
The control room is the beating heart of any submarine, traditionally located beneath the conning tower so the commander can readily access the periscope. Operators stare intently at consoles displaying graphic coloured representation of signals from the sonar sensors.
But using an optronic mast means the control room need not be located directly beneath the conning tower. On USN Virginia class nuclear attack boats, the control room has been moved one floor down, providing substantially more space.
Designing the combat system and the control room to provide operators and the commander with the most useful and timely information is a key task of the development process.
John Towers said their objective was to ensure the combat system allowed operators to perform at optimum level. That applies to all aspects involving the operators – from physical design of combat system elements through to the cognitive effort they have to apply to any particular task.
“We are responsible for ensuring that is not excessive and they have the right information at the right time in the right format to perform the tasks we are expecting them to,” he said.
“It really involved in the first instance establishing a baseline of understanding for which existing doctrine and workflow on the submarines they (the Navy) definitely don’t want to change, what works well.”
There’s actually a well-established engineering methodology for human factors on the program. “We have done sea rides, we observe training, interviewed submariners,” Towers said. “What that helps us do is get a starting point and a baseline to establish early task models.
“We develop high level scenarios and then the underlying work flow of tasks and roles and role interactions, heavily leveraging in the first instance off Collins. It is going to evolve with new functions and optimisation of operations.
“Then we move into simulation of those models,” he added. “We use a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) simulation tool. We have invested heavily in human system integration on the program to the point where we have a really well-established best practice for these activities, and it has given us an opportunity to really leverage that and start developing some of our own tools that take it to the next level.”
Then it moves on to physical design. Right now that involves some cardboard mockups of workstations to assess lines of sight. “Then we are building a very representative combat system simulator,” Towers said.
“As part of that we will start getting submariners into the lab and having them dynamically work with the combat system and we will extract performance measures of how well they are doing, how well our mitigation strategies work for issues we perhaps find in the modelling.”
Towers said all through this process, they were working closely with the Navy. “They are gaining an insight into what we are thinking, how we are interpreting results, what’s accurate and what they believe is maybe a bit off track for one reason or another,” he said.
Oliver, a former USN submariner, said in the past each control room operator had a particular role. “My job was just to look at the data coming from a particular sensor. That’s all I did. I had somebody else working other sensors. Nobody had the ability to integrate that full situational awareness picture seamlessly.
“Today it’s not so much role-based – looking at the towed array or the flank array or the bow array,” he added. “You are just looking at the data. You don’t really care where the data is coming from. You can find it if you want but it is presenting that as a total picture.
“The systems now integrate that data to present you with a different picture. You still have the ability to drill in to see the data if you want to. But you find out if you do that you start getting tunnel vision. That’s not just sonar – it’s all of the sensors.”
Lockheed Martin is also looking to industry and academia for ideas, offering research grants for particular research projects in search of capabilities of the future.
“They will give us the results of their research paper and we will analyse and assess those and, if it merits further research, we will fund them up to an additional million dollars to mature that capability,” Oliver said.
“We go through that annually and the idea is that we keep this flow of new ideas in this pipeline. Some things will come out the end and go into the system as the technology is available.
“Some things may not be quite ready, and we may keep it in the pipeline a little bit longer. The idea is to build the capability and capacity in Australia.”