‘Eyes and ears’: Thales’ bid for SEA 1000 sensors

NAVAL Groups' winning submarine design Shortfin Barracuda (Image courtesy of NAVAL Group)

Adam Waldie, capture leader at Thales Australia, details the company’s bid to provide sensor support for Australias future submarines.

It is clear from the onset that Thales views the $80 billion SEA 1000 Future Submarine program as a long-burn, multi-generational project and will leverage their current involvement in modernising and sustaining the nation's Collins Class submarines as the basis for their bid to provide our new submarines with the eyes and ears needed to stay ahead of potential adversaries.

"The real areas that we specialise in [at] Thales, in submarines, is in providing sensors. So the sensors are what actually allows the combat system to process the environment, maintain situational awareness," said Waldie, himself a former submariner, intimately acquainted with the life and death nature of submarines' dependence on sensor technology. 

Thales' bid builds on it's long experience with complex optronics and sonar integration for the complex, strategic deterrents that are modern submarine forces. Waldie's first-hand experience as a submariner affords Thales with a unique understanding of the operating parameters and requirements placed on submarines, particularly the importance of ensuring that it's 'eyes and ears', as it were, can properly integrate with the combat system to maximise the lethality of the submarine while minimising it's vulnerability. 

Waldie said, "When you break that down, the big one on a submarine is the sonar system. So once you're below periscope depth, that is the only sensor the submarine has, so that's a huge part of the submarine, a big part of the actual space and weight that goes into the design as well.

"So, the other key sensor on our submarines, because we do spend so much time at periscope depth, is what used to be called the periscope system now called optronics, which is the nature of where their systems are going. Instead of the conventional penetrating periscopes that we sort of all grew up [with] in WWII movies, the future is digitising that."

Waldie's lived experience provides for a seamless translation of operational requirements to Thales' engineering team, which will provide the 'nuts and bolts' response from Thales as it's pursues the SEA 1000 contract. Building on this, Thales' long standing participation in Australia's submarine programs, dating back 30 years to the sonar and periscope contract for Collins places provides them with an outstanding pedigree to meet the needs of Australia's future submarines. 

"We spend, I spend, my team spends a lot of time at sea, so whenever we do something new with the navy, whether it be a new product or a new algorithm or something, we'll go to sea with the team on that. And in many ways, part of what's led to the delivery and development of it has been very much an IP, an integrated project team approach to presenting it," he said.

"So, typically the way it works is due to some new scenario, the navy will say, 'Well, we now need to do x, y and z, and we need a new way to do that.' So we'll work with them quite closely to understand exactly what those needs are, deliver it, prototype it, and then ideally once it's at sea doing what they want it to do, it will be part of the baseline."

"I guess the real benefit we have got is someone was standing in my position 30 years ago with Thales when they then won what was the sonar and periscope contract for the Collins Class," said Waldie.

However, where SEA 1000 and the Collins projects differ is in both industry and government's treatment of the program.

"We talk about Collins and SEA 1000, but the way certainly the Navy and indeed Thales views the submarine program is more about sovereign capability now, it's all a continuum," Waldie said. 

This integration with the government's sovereign shipbuilding plan, combined with Thales' experience as a long-term supplier of sensor solutions for submarines, provides an opportunity for Australia to learn from all industry partners and indeed the providers of legacy systems such as Britain with the Orion Class boats, which preceded Collins; Sweden, which provided the original Collins design; and now France with the Shortfin Barracuda.

"I guess the capability products we've got, like a lot of our heritage in our submarine solutions, comes from the United Kingdom or France. Both first tier submarine nations with very extensive programs, that's the benefit to Australia, where they can really, through [Thales], tap into that; those products," said Waldie.

This global presence has also seen a transformation of Thales' domestic capacity with increased supply chain integration helping to develop local industries to be capable of supporting Australia's sovereign shipbuilding capability. However, while Thales recognises the limitations of Australia's domestic capabilities, it is committed to providing the nation with a sovereign, wholly owned capability.

"Australia wants, as they have in the Collins Class, that ability to actually own that product in country, and evolve that as we wish to sort out unique requirements. So there's a balance that you need to match there. For example, there's some things that it just may not be viable to produce in Australia if that makes sense," Waldie said. 

With over 30 years of submarine experience in Australia, Thales is seeking to leverage it's experience, continuous presence and engagement with Australia's submarines to help it stand out from the pack in providing not only a sovereign, innovative component to a broader national submarine building capability, but also ensuring the future submarines are equipped with a lethal combination of next generation sonar and optronics equipment to ensure that the nation has world-beating capability throughout the operational life of the submarines.  

SEA 1000 will see 12 conventional submarines built in Adelaide for the Royal Australian Navy, with the first submarine expected to be operational from 2031. Naval Group won a multinational competition with it's Shortfin Barracuda design, derived from it's larger Barracuda Class nuclear attack submarine currently being built for the French Navy.

The full Defence Connect podcast with Adam Waldie is available here

‘Eyes and ears’: Thales’ bid for SEA 1000 sensors
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