The ability to protect Australia's borders, waterways and regional partners is the government's foremost concern when it comes to maritime activities, with the SEA 1000 and SEA 5000 projects aiming to establish our nation as a powerful deterrent from hostile naval forces.
Thales Underwater Systems is helping the Royal Australian Navy in its anti-submarine warfare and mine hunting needs, as well as looking to the future and what role autonomous warfare plays in maritime activities.
In this edition of On Point, Defence Connect spoke with Gavin Henry, business development, and Daniel Dent, R&D project manager, from Thales to unpack growing synergies between industry and Defence to respond to emerging and existing threats in the underwater domain.
What are the key focuses of Thales Underwater Systems moving forward?
Gavin Henry: It's been pretty broad, I won't pretend. It has been a bit of a roller coaster in terms of defining where to put your focus, because there is so much going on within Thales Underwater Systems. Specifically.
I've had a lot of work with the Indo-Pacific nations, our allies towards the north with regard to minesweeping, that's developing quite a resurgence at the moment. Europe is facing similar challenges, in that there's a lot of focus on minesweeping and mine hunting operations.
Recognising these challenges, Thales Underwater Systems provides a domestic, sovereign capability for the RAN at the moment with regard to the joint, combined influence suite that was procured and developed with DSTG and the Commonwealth in general, the RAN. That's an area that has had a resurgence and a focus of mind during the start of the year.
How do you define sovereign capabilities when it comes to minesweeping?
Gavin Henry: We've got the advanced acoustic generator; that's a sound source that can emulate up to frigate size. We've got the infrasonic acoustic generator; that's much lower frequencies, so that's your capital ships and your large commercial traffic.
We've also got a cable-powered AAG, advanced acoustic generator. That's for if you can't get the speed through the turbine to kick in a self-propelled AAG, then you can use electric to do that. Then, we've got the magnetic source with the Dyads, the minis and the maxis.
All together, they can form the emulation of a surface ship to try and trigger a modern mine.
Daniel, as you're leading the team to create these capabilities, what are military looking for with these technologies?
Daniel Dent: For the Australian Navy, it's about what the equipment can do, and the capability it brings, and then bringing the autonomous component into that capability.
Of course, an AAG could be towed by a standard ship that's manned. It can also be towed by an unmanned ship. When we look at autonomous and unmanned systems, what it's about is increasing the capability and removing people from harm's way.
What we want to do is we want to take people away from the minefield and let those dangerous jobs, and those technologically difficult jobs, be done by the equipment, and that allows the actual Navy people to stand off at range essentially letting the equipment do its work.
Tell us more about the autonomous side of underwater warfare?
Gavin Henry: That's an area that has clearly got huge potential globally for the export market. That's not only developing what we've already got with the minesweeping systems that can be pulled by an unmanned surface vessel, but it's also, as I say, with the 1,778 developments, it's about multiple systems, the world-class systems that we're getting from around the world, integrating those, so that it's a user-friendly mechanism for decision makers to use.
That's a big undertaking with so many disparate systems. It's so much disparate software to try to enable. That is what Thales do best.
Daniel Dent: Where we are at the moment is, I guess we're at a tipping point. You can see what's happened in the last 10 years in the air. If you just look to the domestic airspace, and what's happened with drones, 10 years ago, if you looked up, you wouldn't see a drone. It would be very unlikely to see one over your house.
But, if any of us over the weekend take a look up, or we hear a whir, there's quite likely to be a drone around somewhere taking some photos ... for a real estate agent.
If we can look at the parallels of how that technology's come into common use, we're expecting to see that sort of change happen in the maritime space within the next 10 years. Technologies that are in use now will be in use autonomously in 10 years' time.
Do you think that shift is being driven by military, or by industry?
Gavin Henry: I don't think we should underestimate what the threats might be, or, certainly, what intelligence is driving. I'm not at liberty to say what that is at the moment, but I will suggest that the customer engagement, being the Commonwealth or Defence in general, is extremely open to working together with industry now with a known threat or perceived threat, and we're just being led to shape the solution.
That's definitely happening more than I've ever seen, it's relatively unprecedented in the time that I've been in the military, in multiple militaries. Yeah, I do think that we're working much more collaboratively now towards a common aim, whatever that may be in certain circles. We're not one of the stakeholders that need to know that necessarily.
The full podcast with Gavin Henry and Daniel Dent from Thales can be found here.