If Australia Wants Modern Submarines, It's Going To Need Modern Batteries

Derek Woolner, David Glynne Jones

When we expressed concern about the Royal Australian Navy’s plan to fit the first of its new Attack-class submarines with an outmoded lead–acid main battery system in over a decade’s time, former RAN submarine engineer Paul Greenfield rejected our key arguments.

There are a number of issues raised by Greenfield that we’d dispute. More importantly, it’s at the policy level that his critique should be rejected, and workable solutions should be developed to overcome the valid problems that he highlights.

Greenfield rejects the idea of fitting a light-metal main battery in the Attack class at this stage primarily because of his concerns about the danger to the crew of fire triggered by lithium-ion batteries. We believe those safety issues can be resolved.

He also raises the difficulty and risk involved in modifying a design already optimised for the older technology. Unfortunately, the speed of technological change precludes adherence to such a linear approach.

Four factors lead us to conclude that current planning is very likely to deliver a submarine that is obsolescent.

First, we aren’t discussing current levels of technology, practice and performance but those that are likely to exist or to be obtainable for conventional submarines 10 to 15 years from now.

Second, significant advances are now being planned by submarine builders around the world. While there are different levels of commitment and progress, this process is well established and is being funded to produce results.

Third, the technological advances for this transformation of submarine design aren’t dependent on military requirements or defence industry economics. They are being propelled by a transformation in the management of energy more broadly—and that research provides a range of options and alternatives to sustain progress in submarine development.

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