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THE BUILDING OF AUSTRALIA’S COLLINS CLASS SUBMARINES

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Dora Alves is an Asia-Pacific specialist who was born in England and educated at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University. She holds graduate degrees from American and Catholic Universities. She has visited and lectured frequently in the area of her specialty, directed the Southeast Asia-South Pacific strategic studies course in the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, NDU, and edited International Essays and the Pacific Symposia. She is the author of books on Australia defense and the Anzac alliance.]

The Australian decision to build the six submarines of the Collins class in the country represents the largest and most complex technical undertaking in Australian history. Indeed, beyond China, India, and Japan, it is difficult to identify an Asian state that has produced-albeit with major foreign assistance-a weapon system as complex as a modem military submarine.

The Australian government’s decision to build submarines in country was highly controversial. Previous Australian undersea craft had been procured from Great Britain. A requirement for only a few submarines and the need to train submariners in Britain and to obtain weapons and other submarine equipment from other countries made the potential viability of the program doubtful.

But it has been successful!

The first Collins class submarine, now being readied for trials at Osborne, on the Port River about half an hour from the city center of Adelaide, South Australia’s capital, will not be the first submarine commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The RAN has had submarines since February 1914 when two British-built E class, the AEl and AE2, joined the fleet. The first of the Oberon class, which the Collins class will replace, was

1The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this article arc solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of the Department of Defense, any other U.S. government agency, or any agency of a foreign government.

commissioned into the RAN in 1967.

When in 1987 the Australian government decided to build six diesel submarines in Australia, its goals were to increase defense self-reliance and to enhance industry’s ability to produce, support, and maintain weapons systems at competitive prices.1

Competition was fierce among the Australian states submitting bids to build submarines by November 1986. South Australia, with a good record in defense industry, and New South Wales, traditionally the shipbuilding state, fought hard. Both states had Labor governments at that time. The task force put together in South Australia with the support of South Australian Premier John Bannon was successful with its proposal. The Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, made it clear that he wanted the widest distribution practicable of subcontracting among the states-a politically sensitive issue.

The Australian Labor government endorsed the Department of Defense recommendation of the Swedish Kockums Type 471/U.S. Rockwell International team, and endorsed Adelaide as the construction site. The Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC), a consortium created for the submarine project, claimed costs at Osborne, the new greenfield site, were 25 percent less than in comparable European yards. The Swedish model was selected over competitors from Britain, France, and Germany-the last to the end a very close rival. Kockums has built submarines for the Swedish Navy since 1915 and was interested in establishing a base in Australia to attract work in Southeast Asia. Originally, Kockums AB was a 52.5 percent shareholder in ASC but was required to sell down its shareholding by the end of 1990 to 49 percent. The other shareholders are the Australian Industry Development Corporation (AIDC), a semi-governmental body that helps foster industrial development through loans and equity contributions, and the building materials firm of James Hardie Industries.

The South Australian task force, claiming that Adelaide was the perfect location geographically, industrially, and logistically, was helped by the South Australian government’s support for the building of the largest shiplift in Australia and the construction of the large coastal ferry ISLAND SEAWAY. This provided experience in computer aided design and manufacturing methods analogous to those needed for the Collins class.

ASC’s managing director, Dr. Don Williams, described the consortium as a ship assembler and integrator that aimed at having subcontractors achieve 85 percent of the program. “We bring it together, we assemble it, we integrate it, we test it, and we deliver it,” he said. From the start it was acknowledged that integrating the combat system would be a major challenge. In addition to Rockwell (Rockwell Systems Australia, in conjunction with the parent company in the United States), most of the software was written by Computer Sciences of Australia. There was no Australian precedent for the application of integrated logistic support (ILS). ASC is integrating the work of domestic producers and overseas worldwide leaders in their fields as well as hundreds of subcontractors and suppliers.

ASC acquired Carrington Slipways of Tomago near Newcastle, New South Wales, as an extra source for hull assembly, and O’Connor Engineering Adelaide (now ASC Engineering) to control outfitting and gain experience for the whole-life support of the submarines. Kockums-ASC employs about 1,000 workers-a boon to Adelaide in the current recession and is ambitious to market high technology shipbuilding worldwide. In 1990, 40 ASC operatives worked on the Kockums shop floor in Malmo, South Sweden, learning how the work is done and why it is done like that. The Australians typically worked three months with their Swedish opposite numbers. At the Kockums plant in Malmo the design team and the shop floor are integrated with as many people as possible being rotated through the drawing office. Kockums emphasizes workers’ autonomy, with everyone doing a range of jobs-a contrast to the conservative, often rigid demarkations of Australian unions.

South Australia’s selection to build the Collins class was influenced by its good record in industrial relations. Nonetheless, construction work at Osborne was halted in March 1988 by what The Australian newspaper termed “bloodymindedness of the Australian union movement”. Work stopped before submarine building was due to begin due to labor’s resentment at ASC’s acceptance of only three unions. Fourteen other unions were reported to have wanted involvement in the lucrative construction project.

Australian shipbuilding trades’ powerful unions have a long history of disrupting work in Australia’s shipyards. In October 1991, the Industrial Relations Commission ordered 60 strikers back to work after a demarkation dispute. Boilermakers and welders of the Metals and Engineering Workers Union were told to negotiate with the Federation of Industrial, Manufacturing, and Engineering Employees Union whose members worked for the subcontractor. In February 1993 work on the first submarine hull stopped for 42 days following a two week ban on overtime by the Automotive, Metal, and Engineering Union. This time, using tight production schedules to enforce demands, the union refused to accept that 18 quality control technicians were salaried workers. The costs of the delay were borne by ASC and the time was made up. The consortium plans to launch one Collins class submarine every 18 months to 2000.

The new submarine’s modular construction allows components from a number of sites to be assembled by ASC. The hull is in six principal sections, each substantial) y outfitted before assembly. The first two sections were built in Sweden, but all the sections and platforms for the remaining five submarines are being built at Osborne. The first Swedish built section reached Australia in mid June 1992 after an eight week voyage aboard the heavy lift ship PROJECT ORIENT. The two deck structure contained the control room, galley, and berths.

A number of Australian research industrial facilities are working on the Collins class. The engineering work done at the W oomera rocket range that was wound down in the 1960s was the genesis of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO). The engineers and scientists of DSTO contribute to sustaining existing defense platforms and procedures and extend the life of platforms and equipment. The Gulf War taught the lesson that most modern weaponry is ineffective without the technical know¬∑how to keep it operating, as Saddam Hussein demonstrated. Now the southern hemisphere’s largest defense research and development center , DSTO is investigating how the wake of a submarine can be reduced. Dr. Graham Furnell of the Materials Research Laboratory, DSTO, states that the wake of a submarine traveling at average speed at depth can be detected 50 meters above and below the craft. Also, while towed sonar normally have the diameter of a cable, the Collins class will have a DSTO developed fiberoptic array incorporating hydrophones that, with their protective coating, will have the diameter of an antenna wire. DSTO is also working on a algal bioreactor to purify the air in the submarine that will be smaller and more efficient than present chemical reactors. The RAN specifies that it must be capable of removing 2.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide per hour even during periods of strenuous activity on the part of the crew. To this end, experiments are being conducted with the alga Dunaliela salinas. The DSTO Maritime Operations Division is at work at the acoustical range about 100 km from the West Australian base at HMAS Stirling near Freemantle. Noise, sea states, currents, and wind levels are being investigated to provide data for the design of a system to measure noise levels from submarines and lead ultimately to making the new diesel submarines quieter.

The Collins class should be exceptionally hard to detect by active sonar as a result of Dr. David Oldfield’s work on anechoic tiles. Anechoic tiles were first used by the Germans in an effort to defeat British Asdic (sonar) in the Battle of the Atlantic. Unable to obtain the technology overseas for a modem version, DSTO designed its own. Oldfield’s tiles are designed specifically for the Collins’ shape and for warm water.

Although most of the work on the Collins project is done by Australians, the submarine’s construction has involved some 550 subcontractors and 30 countries, giving Australia the benefit of technological transfer and skills growth. In late October 1988, Rockwell Electronics Australia was awarded the contract to supply the internal and external communications systems. Work is being done at Lilydale, Victoria, in cooperation with local partners and British Aerospace Australia. Rockwells’ managing director, Don Boyce, points out that of the 400 technicians employed all but five were Australian. Another early participant was Cincon, Cincinatti, which provided two integrated software packages for manufacturing and financial control. The database was designed to grow as the project became more complex bringing together a new design, a new manufacturing facility, and 500,000 components. The system was upgraded to extend ASC’s corporate systems to subsidiaries in different parts of Australia.

In the spring of 1989 the major Australian company Pacific Dunlop and German’s leading battery manufacturer, Varga Batterie AG, took equal shares in Pacific Marine Batteries. A new $A6.5 million facility was built, scheduled to produce one battery a year from 1993 through 1998. Pacific Dunlop personnel were trained in Germany. The masts contract was won by Riva Calzoni of Italy. To meet Australian content specifications, a separate contract was negotiated with Australian Defence Industries (ADI) Ltd., Maribyrnong, Victoria.

The $A 140 million contract for the propulsion system was won by the French company, Jeumont Schneider, which is working in cooperation with 12 principal Australian partners. Jeumont supplies eight navies with underwater propulsion systems. The first diesel engine was built and tested extensively in France. The French company later said it was impressed by the Australian ability to integrate new technologies in a project that is international in scope. Jeumont is now looking at a marriage of French and Australian strengths.

Broken Hill Proprietary (the well-known BHP) at Port Kembla and Bunge International Steels at Unanderra, New South Wales, are producing special steels using techniques provided by Sweden. Highly skilled welders went to a technical college to learn to use the special steel and to achieve military specifications. New skills have been created by ILS contractual obligation. It guarantees that the Collins submarines would go to sea 80 percent of the time, while the Oberon class have only a 50 percent availability.

Despite all the media and political naysayers, the COLLINS’ launching on 28 August 1993, was on time and on budget, which is rare for a first-in-its-class of this magnitude. Two days later a defense marketing pact was signed in Stockholm. The Swedish Defense Minister Anders Bjorck said the Memorandum indicated Sweden’s preparedness to take part in further joint ventures, adding that Sweden hoped that sophisticated defense products, not only submarines, could be built cooperatively in Australia and marketed in the region.

The resignation of ASC’s managing director, Dr. Don Williams, after the launching was seen by a number of commentators as indicative of the consortium’s turn in another direction. His skills in heavy engineering and financial and industrial relations management achieved a triumph; emphasis would now be on submarine sales that would ensure revenue and enhance regional defense cooperation. Rear Admiral Oscar Hughes, the RAN’s original Collins project director, who has now retired, saw a future for Australia as a focal point for regional submarine programs. Potential joint ventures that might involve full or part construction in Australia would likely be smaller than the Collins. Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore are considering submarine purchases. Australian industry and trade, aware of the advantages of economy of scale, are very supportive of export.

Government-to-government and navy-to-navy relationships will be crucial in the regional marketing process. However, Australian Democrats, who have an impact out of proportion to their numbers, claim that increasing submarine strike power in other nations would be like planting a time bomb in the region.

The submarine project has had to overcome defects and delays. In late 1992 there was a flurry of media comment when the Australian National Audit Office reported that deficiencies in the original contract and Department of Defence project management had allowed ASC to extract a big price increase from the government. The charge was vehemently denied by the RAN project director, Rear Admiral Oscar Hughes, who expected to be within budget at the completion of the project. ASC’s Don Williams considered the assessment ill-informed.

Six months after the formal launching, the Australian Minister for Industry claimed that anonymous letters were being sent to media outlets about defects in the submarines. The Federal and State Governments and the RAN stated that BHP had delivered a defective load of steel and that surface imperfections were being tested, and that there was no question about the structural integrity of the welds. Problems with software had already been acknowledged by ASC when these came to light in the final testing. Rear Admiral Oscar Hughes successor, Commodore Geoff Rose, dealt with adverse comments on 17 July 1994. Saying that he had spent a lifetime in submarines and “couldn’t believe the fuss being made,” he dealt with the alleged defects one by one. On 19 July, Senator Robert Ray, the Minister of Defence, announced that software problems for the fully integrated combat and command systems would delay sea trials until the end of 1994. The computer equipment would be gradually improved as the trials continued. The RAN has no intention of rushing the project. The RAN’s concern is to get it absolutely right for the first submarine and that concern will be reflected in the delivery time for following submarines.

The readiness of some commercial and political critics to denigrate the submarine project may reflect an element of sour grapes at the allocation of the contract, or it may reflect the conviction that what is imported is bound to be superior, or possibly, as ASC’s Williams asserted, it is part of the national psyche to predict, even delight, in failure. On the other hand, the hope was expressed in the Financial Review, “In the past 30 years we have thrown off the oppressive cultural cringe that used to drag down the arts in Australia. May the economic cringe be the next to go.”2 The enterprise of building the submarines and the ramifications has succeeded beyond expectations. The real problem is in the level of defense spending which never achieves the commitments of the White Papers. The 1976 commitment was dropped in the second and subsequent years and the 1987 commitment, a minimum of 2.6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), did not survive a year. Defense expenditure is now 2.3 percent of GDP. Competition among the services for scarce funding makes it unlikely that the RAN, which is building new frigates as well as the submarines, will get the two additional frigates that were an option in the original contract and considered necessary by the RAN to support its “two ocean” operational concept.

The COLLINS, the largest, most powerful diesel submarine in the world, provides an option,to strike offensively at an adversary and has an advantage over other platforms in such roles as ASW, maritime strike, and intelligence collection-surveillance. The Collins-class submarines are an integral part of the broader defense policy leading to reduced dependence on overseas imports and fostering Australian expertise that can lead to regional stability.

NOTES

1. Senator Robert Ray, Minister of Defence, “Defence into the 21 Century”, atatement in the Australian Parliament House, 30 May 1991.

2. Peter Roberts, Australian Financial Review, p. 2, 30 August 1993

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