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Australian subs may use X-Box controller

AAP logoAAP 30/09/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

When Australia's new submarines head to sea late next decade, they could be equipped with a piece of kit familiar to any video gamer.

Instead of a $100,000 military-grade device for raising, lowering and directing the submarine's periscope, an X-Box controller can do the same job for $30.

"We are now deploying those on nuclear submarines," said Doug Laurendeau, Lockheed Martin's head of undersea systems business development.

That came from brainstorming sessions at the company's prototyping centre called "Area 51" at its anti-submarine warfare lab in Manassas, Virginia.

Australia has participated in that process through what's called TANG - Tactical Advancements For the Next Generation - in which junior Australian and US submariners come up with how to do stuff better on submarines.

Some of the innovations are esoteric, as in changes to the waterfall format on acoustic displays - the ever-changing multicolour representation of sounds detected by a submarine's sensors on computers in the control room.

Now Lockheed Martin Australia has been chosen as preferred Combat System Integrator for Australia's $50 billion Future Submarine Program.

That is a crucial step towards acquiring new subs, second in importance only to the selection of French shipbuilder DCNS as submarine designer.

DCNS had urged a speedy decision on combat system integrator so it could get on with the job of designing the new subs.

Lockheed Martin Australia, the local subsidiary of the US defence giant, was chosen over Raytheon Australia, local offshoot of US defence firm Raytheon.

In simplest terms, integrating the combat system involves connecting the many disparate systems aboard a modern submarine so they work together seamlessly. That includes sensors such as sonar, communications, navigation and weapons which will include torpedoes and missiles.

Australia's experience with the Collins submarines shows that's no trivial task. Of all the many Collins problems, which included excessive noise and unreliable engines and generators, the combat system was by far the most intractable, costly and time consuming to fix.

Eventually Defence just gave up trying to fix the original system and opted for a replacement based on the system aboard US nuclear subs.

That now works fine.

The government has stipulated the new subs be equipped essentially with what's on the Collins, the US AN/BYG-1 and with the Mark 48 torpedo as the primary weapon.

Raytheon and Lockheed Martin were well qualified for the job.

Raytheon is combat systems integrator for new air warfare destroyers and provides sustainment for the Collins combat system.

Lockheed Martin has integrated combat systems for all classes of US subs, most recently the Virginia-class nuclear attack boats subs, as well as foreign subs.

To underline its credentials, the company opened a submarine combat system lab in Mawson Lakes, South Australia, late last year. LA Australia chief Raydon Gates said at the time that was all about risk reduction.

"It gives us the flexibility to work with SEA 1000 hull designers and combat sub-system providers in every step of the process," he said.

The Australian and US Navies have worked closely on sub technology, some of that done at LM's Manassas lab. This year the company won a US$425 million contract for upgrading sonar processing on US subs.

That is highly advanced technology and Australia's new subs will benefit. Most of it remains top secret.

Laurendeau described the technology as the US Navy's crown jewels and said it was recognised by the US and Australia as a critical capability.

"The US is offering the combat system and the combat system integration to Australia and we are going to deliver and we are going to be open about it. It's yours," he said.

That will involve US technology integrated by a US firm aboard a French-designed sub, equipped with French systems including sonars by Thales and optronics by Sagem.

The US places a premium on ensuring its best technology doesn't go astray.

That's nothng new. Long before the leak of DCNS data on its Scorpene subs, Australia abided by stringent security rules for using sensitive US technology.

"The answer is there are going to have to be security protocols in Australia between France and Australia. There are going to be some places that some people can go and some people can't," Laurendeau said.

(Defence correspondent Max Blenkin travelled to the US as a guest of Lockheed Martin)

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