DEFENCE: by Ken AldredNews Weekly
Avoiding another Collins-class submarine fiasco
, August 20, 2011
The announcement by Defence Minister Stephen Smith of an inquiry into the Collins-class submarines operated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), adds further to the litany of inquiries into the navy’s disastrous record of ship projects, operations and maintenance.
Dogged by endless fiascos from the outset, the Collins-class submarines have turned Australia’s naval defences into a national joke. Former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, remarked recently at a business breakfast in Melbourne that Australia’s defence policy was uniquely distinguished by the fact that it alone had a navy whose submarines didn’t go underwater!
An overstatement maybe, but only marginally, given the fact that of Australia’s six Collins-class submarines only two or three have ever been usable at the one time.
Just as bad was the revelation, at the beginning of this year, that in the early months of 2010 about two-thirds of the navy’s fleet were unable to operate at full capacity.
This led to the minister commissioning an inquiry into the amphibious fleet, which has subsequently responded with a long catalogue of failures in maintenance practices. It also highlighted a poor relationship between the RAN and the equipment purchase arm of the Department of Defence, namely the Defence Materiel Organisation.
Back in 2008 Stephen Smith’s predecessor as Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, had to contend with the debacle of the “$1.4 billion” upgrade of the 4,000-tonne Adelaide-class guided-missile frigates (FFGs). Following the upgrade, the vessels involved, HMAS Sydney, HMAS Darwin, HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Newcastle, were found to be incapable of defending themselves and unfit for operational deployment.
Further costly work on the four ships eventually enabled them, starting with HMAS Sydney, to be returned to service with the fleet during 2008 and 2009.
Similarly, Australia’s six Collins-class submarines have been beset by continuing maintenance and repair problems, significantly restricting their use and also availability for deployment. Even the Department of Defence’s own upbeat statement of capabilities and outcomes, which glosses over many defence matters, has had to concede that “delays in certain capability enhancements to the Collins-class continued to require close management”.
It is difficult to catalogue all the technical difficulties that have overtaken the Collins-class submarines since their entry into service, but in broad terms well over $1 billion has been expended to fix leaks, engines and periscopes.
Shortfall in navy strength
These technical problems and their impact on the availability of the Collins-class submarines have been exacerbated by the navy’s chronic manpower problems.
The RAN’s full-time strength over recent years has been about 13,000 personnel. This level has been maintained with great difficulty due to a poor response to recruiting and an even worse separation rate. The separation rate for sailors has been the worst of all, running at about 11-12 per cent.
This adverse manpower situation has impacted most heavily on navy trades categories and submariners. The RAN has usually never had any more than two or three submarine crews on strength to man the Collins-class submarines. Unfortunately, the RAN has never attempted to seriously develop its reserve component. The Active Naval Reserve has never been more than 1,000 in strength and is used only to provide individual billets for surface ships and carry out land-based functions.
This is in marked contrast to Britain’s Royal Navy and the Canadian Navy, where the reservists are taken seriously and given a very distinct sense of identity.
In the United Kingdom, a substantial number of commercial ships are designated as being in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary for call up as necessary. The crews of these ships are all naval reservists and are automatically called out with the ships.
With the Canadian Navy an entire functional area is made over to the Naval Reserve. Canadian minesweepers are all totally within reserve jurisdiction and manned by reservists.
Specifically designating some functions within the RAN as reserve responsibilities, and taking the reserves more seriously, could help overcome some of the navy’s manpower shortfalls.
The Collins-class submarines
Turning now to the principal matter of the Collins-class submarines, the fundamental question remains of how our navy ended up being saddled with such a horrendously botched project. Even set in the wider spectrum of major defence bungles, the Collins-class submarines stand out as a monument to ineptitude on a grand scale.
Apart from the cost to the taxpayer of continually stitching up a defective defence asset, there has been the incalculable cost of a depreciating asset that has not been able to be fully used as originally planned.
All major capital works projects, whether in the public or private sector, carry risks in conception, planning and implementation. Nevertheless, major mining companies and heavy industry enterprises seem to be able to respectively develop huge mines and build large plants and equipment without making a mess of the project concerned.
Where did the Collins-class project go so wrong? The answer to that requires us to take a journey back in time.
In the early 1980s, the very successful Oberon-class submarine was clearly going to require replacement. For a long time this class of submarine had served well the navies of Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.
The Hawke Labor Government, its Defence Minister Kim Beazley, the Department of Defence and the then Department of Defence Support set about the task of acquiring a new class of submarine for Australia. Given the growing importance of submarines in maritime defence strategy, it was a great opportunity to plan the acquisition of a major defence asset to defend our immediate sea-lanes and go far and deep into the Pacific and Indian Oceans on reconnaissance work.
My many speeches and questions on the new submarine project in the House of Representatives chronicle both the escalating blunders of the project and my own growing concern.
However, the worst mistakes were made at the beginning of the project, as my grievance speech on April 2, 1987, best illustrates. In it I reminded my listeners of the wording of the request for the tender document relating to the new submarine project, issued by the Major Contracts Branch in the Department of Defence Support.
It clearly stated on page 2-15, in relation to the construction of the submarine: “The submarine to be selected should preferably have been built and introduced into service, or there should be good evidence of a sponsoring government’s intention that it should enter by 1986 and it can be assessed from trial results before a submarine contract is entered into, that the technical production risks are low.
“A minimum requirement shall be that the design shall be a derivative of a proven in-service design of demonstrable performance and reliability.”
I then commented: “That is a fairly fundamental and very clear statement. As we are aware, the two submarines that have been selected for the project definition study, the HDW-IKL type 2000 and the Kockums type 471, are in fact not in service and exist on paper only. That is no doubt the reason why in many respects we are already starting to run into very serious difficulties with this project.”
These difficulties rapidly escalated and so did the cost. At the close of tenders in November 1983, the estimated project cost was $1.3 billion. By the time of the award of the project definition study in May 1985, this had soared to $2.6 billion. By early 1987 the reported project cost had risen to $3.5 to $4 billion and then to $5.6 billion.
Eventually, what became the Collins-class submarine was to cost the Australian taxpayer a billion dollars a boat, plus the additional repair and maintenance costs referred to earlier.
Moreover, in my 1987 parliamentary grievance speech, I said of Kockums, whose type 471 became the Collins-class submarine: “I turn now to Kockums, the other contender which was short-listed. Again, we see a whole range of problems here, not only in relation to Kockums itself but also in relation to the request for tender document.
“We have very real problems in relation to whether Sweden, which is not part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or any Western alliance, can produce a boat which is compatible with Western navies.
“Another problem is whether over a period Sweden will be able to guarantee support by way of spare parts and other requirements in times of conflict, because we have certainly had experience of the Swedes having reneged on us in terms of providing spare parts and other requirements when we have been in a time of conflict.
“We have a further problem with the Swedes in that, like the Germans, they do not have experience in building large, deep water, long-range boats. When we add to that the possibility that the type 471 has been penetrated by Czech intelligence, there seems little doubt that Kockums itself has certainly been penetrated by Eastern bloc intelligence, as has much of Swedish industry elsewhere. That must be a further area for concern.”
Most of the Collins-class submarines were ultimately constructed in Adelaide, South Australia. Elements of the submarine were constructed elsewhere around Australia, which created additional problems when all of the components had to be integrated in Adelaide.
It is envisaged that the six Collins-class submarines will be retired by 2025. The present federal Labor Government’s Defence White Paper of 2009 intends that they will be replaced by 12 new so-called “Future Submarines” of high technology and substantial capability.
Let us trust that the hard lessons from the Collins-class submarines project have been learned. In brief they are:
• Don’t at the outset breach the conditions stipulated in your own tender documents.
• Pick a submarine-builder who can construct long-range, deep water submarines.
• Pick a submarine that comfortably integrates with other Western alliance navies.
• Maintain strong ministerial oversight of the project throughout.
• Finally, don’t assume that the professionals actually know what they are doing.
Ken Aldred is a defence specialist and former federal Liberal member of parliament for Victoria.