Lessons from Deep Blue 2021
The second annual Deep Blue form was held virtually on October 28 and 29, 2021 on the theme of future submarines for Canada.
Vanguard’s second annual underwater forum, Deep Blue 2021, was held virtually over two-days with the focus on conventional submarine capabilities. Earlier this year the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) had announced that a small team was being stood up in preparation for a replacement submarine project – this generated significant interest into what are Canada’s future submarine options. Moreover, the recent decision by Australia to cease their conventional-submarine replacement project in favour of nuclear-powered submarines has added further grist to the speculation of what submarine Canada should be looking for the future. Therefore, Vanguard decided to focus Deep Blue 2021 on a future Canadian patrol submarine.
Understanding that a Canadian Patrol Submarine Project will be a tough sell to a government recovering from the post pandemic fiscal reality, the RCN will need to put forth a well-articulated and affordable plan to meet Canada’s future submarine requirements. To do this they need industry support to assist in the development of specific RCN requirements, as projects of this magnitude typically take 18-20 years to deliver the first unit and Canada is late to the game. This was the reasoning behind the decision to split the Deep Blue 2021 agenda into two specific areas – what is achievable today and what will likely be achievable in 2040 when the current Victoria-class submarines reach the end of their service lives.
By hosting the conference virtually, it was possible to engage expertise from Sweden, Germany, France and the United States, as well as across Canada. Almost 300 people registered, the audience spanned both government and industry with a number of junior officers and NCMs attending from the RCN. The result was an excellent interaction which was only limited by the time available.
Day One – What is achievable today?
The first day started with an excellent opening keynote address by the US Naval Institute’s Dr Norman Friedman on future submarines for Canada, where he observed that a nation needs to think about what it needs to counter the threat, as navies are expensive and national politics will decide where you go. This was followed by a timely update on the RCN by Commodore Jason Armstrong, the Director General Naval Force Development, who highlighted the priority for Canada is continental defence in partnership with the United States, which includes the Arctic.
The first panel discussion of the conference, on conventional submarine design considerations, was moderated by Jake Jacobson with Saab Australia, BMT Canada and Babcock Canada – specifically focusing on what is achievable today. The key factors to consider were highlighted as:
- What do you want the submarine to do?
- Political will for submarines – how important is sovereignty?
- Time constraints
- Willingness to accept Military-Off-The-Shelf solutions
Following presentations by Rheinmetall, on the benefits of simulation on predictive maintenance and digital twinning, and opportunities under the IDEaS programme by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), there was a powerful presentation by retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo on the next generation submarine. His presentation highlighted a number of important points, notably there exists a very real threat today, however, budget will always drive the decision-making process. He recounted the benefits the US Navy reaped by forming a Defence Science Board to look into the future and cautioned the American experience in choosing your partners wisely.
The final presentation of the day by Babcock Canada on flexible designs underscored the future of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) by building in flexibility, including vertical launch systems and balancing pressure hull length and hull diameter whilst always remaining cognizant of other factors that impact total project costs – bigger submarines may impact shore support infrastructure.
Day Two – What will likely be achievable in 2040?
On the second day, Deep Blue 2021 shifted to a future outlook with an outstanding opening keynote speaker – the innovator Dr Sankat Das Gupta – recounting his experience in the challenges of developing innovative solutions with his company Electrovaya. Notably, lithium-ion battery technology is much further ahead than many appreciate, and it is rapidly evolving, driven by the market, particularly the automotive industry.
The second panel discussion of the conference, on covert transits by conventional submarines, was moderated by Commander Martin Byrne with Naval Group, tkMS and Saab/Kockums participation. The consensus was that current technical challenges will be overcome resulting in conventional submarines having much better speed for longer periods with increased endurance and smaller crews. While technology will change significantly over next 20 years, batteries will remain the main source of energy storage, of which all considered lithium-ion batteries to be the future. Higher efficiency systems will be able to reduce the power draw on non-nuclear Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems, however, all AIP systems are limited by the amount of liquid oxygen that can be carried in the submarine. Finally, Saab/Kockums noted that stealth equates to survivability, and that signature reduction is more than just acoustic.
The third panel discussion of the conference, on ice edge operations for non-nuclear powered submarines, was moderated by Lieutenant-Commander Eric Isabelle, with
Cellula Robotics, Kraken Robotics and DRS Leonardo participation. While everyone acknowledged the limitations of non-nuclear powered submarines working under the ice, they all saw the potential of AUVs, particularly large AUVs, with the prospect of a “constellation” of AUVs being controlled by a mother submarine. Moreover, while AUVs can offer a number of solutions to under-ice missions, most notably hydrography, there are challenges with processing the huge amount of data these systems will generate. This was followed by a presentation by Dominis Engineering describing high performance propellers and CNC milling to final form and process.
The fourth and final panel discussion of the conference, on fuel energy and storage (including non-nuclear AIP), was moderated by Captain(N) Eric McCallum with Collins Aerospace and Electrovaya participation. The consensus was that AIP represents the future for non-nuclear submarines. Non-nuclear AIP technology is here now and continues to be driven by the commercial market, however, liquid oxygen storage remains a limiting factor for submarine AIP endurance. With regards to battery technology, commercial electric vehicles are driving the process, as lithium-ion batteries represent the highest energy density in a reusable battery. Their eventual successful application to submarine operations is seen positively, as they offer fast charging, no battery gassing and two to three times the life of a conventional lead acid battery. While lithium-ion battery manufacturing is rapidly improving for commercial applications, submarine safety issues, particularly the potential for thermal runaway, must be addressed.
The takeaway from two days of discussion was clear – a future Canadian submarine must meet Canadian requirements, both technically and politically, while remaining affordable. Canada must now look ahead to leverage innovation, of which the presentations at Deep Blue 2021 highlighted the potential of innovative technology that is currently being developed by industry, particularly in energy generation and storage. To be successful, there must be continual dialogue between government and industry to manage expectations and risk. Simply put, the Navy needs to understand what is within the art of the possible today and into the immediate future, government needs to see that it is affordable, and industry needs to understand Canada’s unique requirements that are governed by geography and national will.