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Op-Ed: Let’s not forget, the Future Submarine is an ab initio design

The Joint Strike Fighter and the Hunter Class future frigate programs are large and complex, as was the Air Warfare Destroyer before that. But what makes the Future Submarine fundamentally different is that it is an ab initio design, both platform and to a lesser degree the combat system.

The Joint Strike Fighter and the Hunter Class future frigate programs are large and complex, as was the Air Warfare Destroyer before that. But what makes the Future Submarine fundamentally different is that it is an ab initio design, both platform and to a lesser degree the combat system.

There has been much public commentary on the Future submarine and other Defence mega-projects and their progress to completion over multi-decade timelines. 

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With such a design the start to the process is to define the purpose, top level requirements for a solution to achieve the required purpose and all the other applicable general policies and standards and the general characteristics of the proposed solution to meet the requirements as closely and affordably as practicable.

Generally, an ab initio design is not the first choice of a solution. If there is an off-the-shelf design that closely meets the requirements or is judged to be readily adaptable to meet our needs then that will be chosen as lower risk, faster realisation and hence less costly.

But when there is no such solution, as is the case for the Future Submarine, then the formal process for design and development must be followed. This logical decision-making is universal and Australia is aware of the challenges in undertaking such a path.

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The Collins submarine program was painful evidence of the lack of understanding of the full implications of an ab initio design whereby we applied off-the-shelf mindset to a fundamentally different design undertaking. The results were many lessons learned that fortunately are being applied to the Attack Class design and development.

Now rest assured mature internationally respected companies such as Naval Group, Lockheed Martin or for that matter BAR Systems, Raytheon, Boeing or Thales to name few, all understand this imperative to approach ab initio design is a measured and cautious way.

The very worst thing is to rush through the design, ticking boxes as having achieved such and such a date, while fundamental design issues remain unresolved. This is not a matter of intensive project management.

You cannot solve an inherent disparity in displacement, buoyancy or power demand simply by throwing additional time, money or other resources at the problem.

The deliberate design and development process is V-shaped

The classical approach is to expand the top-level requirements into more detailed requirements and criteria for acceptance in a cascading process ultimately down to where you have drawings and specifications for manufacture, software coding and thence systems integration and testing.

Sometimes this doesn’t complete satisfactorily, and it is necessary to go round the cycle repeatedly converging on a compromise solution, in a process called spiral development.

For the Future Submarine, thanks to Naval Group’s deep experience in submarine design the process is once-through and so far is pretty well on track. The five-week delay in starting System Requirements Review (SRR) is trivial and seems to have been due to the inexperience of Defence in participating in such reviews.

This is understandable because most of Australia’s programs are off-the-shelf in fundamental respects.

The reason the design development and delivery process is described as V-shaped is the process is expanded into progressively more detail until the components are produced and then they are progressively integrated to form lager and more complex sub-assemblies, culminating in a final product delivery.

The flow chart looks like a V with each layer dealing with different levels of detail.

How then is the Future Submarine going?

On 20 May, the General Manager, Submarines, reported that the SRR had started five weeks late, but that all actions arising had been completed and there only remained to tie up any loose ends contractually to close the entire event.

This is really good news, as without this step all later steps are in jeopardy.

The next big step is the Systems Functional Review (SFR, previously termed the Preliminary Design Review), which is slated for January 2021, only seven months hence, which will be challenging in view of the COVID-19 disruption.

To return to the overall status of the Future Submarine Program there have been numerous media stories recently about a cost escalation and the veracity of that is yet to be demonstrated. There have also been reports of time delays when in reality there have been none shown to have occurred.

I go further to emphasise that there could have been, and still could be in the future, major delays due to the inability of the requirements to be rendered into a coherent whole as a basis for ongoing work.

So far so good and full marks to the teams of Defence, assisted by international and domestic expertise, Naval Group and Lockheed Martin, in their collective efforts.

Maybe their public relations could be improved but the engineering and project management processes are functioning well, judging by externally available reports.

So where is the main challenge then?

What worries me far more than any other aspect of the Future Submarine Program is the workforce development is incomplete and being questioned for the unique aspects of ab initio design.

Much effort has gone into building up the workforce for ship and submarine construction, but the same attention has not been given to the demands of skilled designers that apply to a design program but not to an off-the-shelf program.

Fortunately, Naval Group know this very well and are already planning to move more of their people to South Australia and maybe even duplicate the design teams but that won’t meet all the Defence needs for similar people.

So, I conclude that the Future Submarine Program should be celebrated, not as the largest government program in dollar value, but rather as the largest ab initio program undertaken in Australia, with all the unique challenges that entails.

So far, so good, but let’s focus on encouraging young people into design careers for undersea vehicles – a field with unique challenges for which Australia can provide innovative solutions.

Christopher Skinner is a former Navy engineer with extensive sea service and development experience ashore in defence and transportation domains. He is the editor of the Nuclear Propulsion Roadmap for Australia.

Op-Ed: Let’s not forget, the Future Submarine is an ab initio design
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