By Richard Sterk, Forecast International.
The immediate future of Thales Underwater Systems’ Sonar 2076 appears solely linked the U.K. Royal Navy’s Astute-class submarine. The Sonar 2076, or Type 2076, is a fully integrated passive/active search-and-attack sonar suite installed on the Astute class and as part of the midlife update of Trafalgar class submarines. A total of four Sonar 2076 systems have reportedly been produced for Trafalgar class submarines, and seven have been ordered for the first batch of Astute class submarines.
The Royal Navy’s planned inventory for a nuclear submarine fleet is eight boats: seven Astute class and one Trafalgar class. However, by the time the seventh and final Astute boat is commissioned, the remaining Trafalgar class boat will be long overdue for replacement.
It is still unclear whether the last of the Trafalgar class submarines will be retired without replacement, replaced by an eighth Astute-class submarine, or replaced by the lead ship in a new class of nuclear submarine.
Right now, a totally new submarine class seems unlikely, since the proposed U.K. Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC) requirement has, under the pressure of reduced financial resources, evolved into an updated and improved Astute. Thus, if the nuclear submarine fleet is to be maintained at eight boats, another Astute will probably be ordered, and with it a Sonar 2076.
Even with an eighth new submarine, however, production of the Sonar 2076 will be limited to spares and replacements – if produced at all.
Also to bear in mind is that the U.K. is exploring “thin line” towed array solutions for the Sonar 2076 integrated suite. Use of lightweight thin-line technology offers improved handling and a more compact winch installation, and enables the deployment of a longer acoustic aperture.
One option being closely examined is the U.S. Navy’s latest thin line towed array (TLTA), the TB-29A. Serious interest has also been shown in a production version of the Crustacean TLTA developed and trialed by QinetiQ (comprising the bulk of the former Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) under funding supplied by the U.K. Ministry of Defence.
Since the requirement for the Astute class SSN was drawn up, the operational scenarios in which U.K. Royal Navy submarines are expected to operate have changed significantly. Operations in the littoral are becoming far more commonplace, and commensurately there is less emphasis on deepwater anti-submarine warfare. Reelable lightweight TLTAs are seen as ideally suited to operations in restricted shallow waters.