COLUMN | Australia’s Ghost Shark AUV: the end of conventional manned submarines? [The Boroscope]

The Royal Australian Navy Ghost Shark large AUV prototype (Photo: Royal Australian Navy/Vice Admiral Mark Hammond)

Ten years ago, drones were a novelty, out of reach for the technically or financially inept. They were in an embryo stage and only the tech-savvy could build one. These days, you can buy one at the post office.

They’re compact, complex and failsafe. Crashes and low batteries are a thing of the past. And one can own one of these things for a few hundred dollars. Technology is advancing at an exponential rate.

Six years ago, I wrote a fanciful article on one of my favourite subjects: submarines. In it, I alluded to the advancement in technology, in particular, underwater drones that could eventually replace manned submarines.

Enter stage left, the Ghost Shark, an extra-large autonomous underwater vehicle (XL-AUV). The prototype of this underwater drone was unveiled recently by an Australian company at a secret location in Sydney harbour. This prototype, about the size of a single-decker bus, is capable of 10 days underwater operation at depths of up to 6,000 metres, far beyond the capabilities of conventional submarines.

This concept is coming from an Australian company in partnership with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Defence Science and Technology Group. It’s a AU$140 million (US$98.5 million) venture that has progressed to the prototype stage with little or no fanfare. No details of the design are available but this figure is a far cry from the AU$90 billion (US$63.3 billion) investment on antiquated manned submarines to which Australia’s last government committed itself.

This prototype doesn’t need an air purification system or a 60-crew life support system that a manned submarine needs. That means it can be built on a much smaller scale, which makes it harder to detect. The pressure hull is not a critical design feature as no humans are on board.

“It seems hard to imagine that the UK, the US, and Russia aren’t working on similar projects.”

No details have been released on the two most important things that govern the design of this prototype:

  1. The propulsive power for the vehicle (but it is assumed to be batteries, hence the 10-day endurance)
  2. Details of the surface to sub communication system

To commit AU$90 billion of taxpayers’ money to 12 antiquated air-breathing submarines (delivered from 2030 onwards, if the project runs on time) seem a little over the top.

However, this conceptual prototype is designed and built in Australia. It’s hard to imagine that other great naval powers aren’t conducting their own R&D into this concept, but if it gets the attention it deserves, it could spell the end to conventional submarine warfare.

The devastating effect that German submarines had on shipping during the First World War will be negated. By the same developmental yardstick, autonomous surveillance and warfare for submarines would be a thing of the past. It seems hard to imagine that the UK, the US, and Russia aren’t working on similar projects. In every likelihood they are. The sea, our last frontier, will become a place of hide and seek.

Australia is at the forefront of this innovation and it could ultimately lead to a standoff by all parties involved not unlike the nuclear war deterrent.

This prototype has been developed some seven years out from the dubious delivery of Australia’s very expensive, antiquated-designed manned subs. In the next seven years, who knows what we’ll see as regards developments in secure underwater communications?

“It will be the nation whose politicians have the ‘ticker’ to embrace this technology first that will win out in the end.”

Could the Ghost Shark be nuclear-powered? I have conducted a very small survey amongst mostly male associates and without exception, they all agree that the future of electrical power generation is nuclear. Solar and wind on a scale to supply a small population like Australia involves massive infrastructure and manpower. Both methods require storage batteries on a huge scale to account for peak demand (and these batteries have a finite life).

Nuclear power is the way to go and a small plant to power an AUV is not inconceivable. Nuclear energy has developed to the point that issues that plagued Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island will likely never happen again. Russia (and the former Soviet Union) has had more than 240 nuclear submarines. Those figures are prior to 1997, i.e., over 25 years ago. Who knows what that figure is today?

France and Japan have had nuclear energy since the 1960s. It’s a clean and unlimited source of energy. It can and should be employed to power these unmanned vehicles. Their stealth, weapon deployment, and range could put paid to naval warfare as we know it. Nuclear energy has the potential to put warfare out if consideration.

Nuclear autonomous vehicles could pave the way to:

  • A global supply of energy
  • A unification of nations
  • A reduction in warfare
  • A cleaner planet

The Ghost Shark could be a deterrent to other nations. It can be as stealthy and lethal as the country desires.

Human decision-making on manned submarines would be avoided with the appropriate safeguards and control of these vehicles could be safely conducted from ashore.

Who knows where the advances to technology will lead? One thing is for sure: it will be the nation whose politicians have the “ticker” to embrace this technology first that will win out in the end.

Kent Stewart

Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.