The Collins class, the world’s biggest most advanced conventional submarine-the Swedish Kockums Type 471 adapted for operation in the warm, tropical waters of Australia’s north-is being built at a greenfilled site at Osborne, near Adelaide, South Australia. Work officially began on the Australian Submarine Corporation’s (ASC) A$120 million facility on August 17, 1989. Refits for the submarines will in the future be done at Osborne.
While work went on at Osborne, future COWNS crews were trained at HMAS Stirling, Garden Island, Western Australia. Stirling, nearer to Singapore fllan to Sydney, was commissioned July 28, 1978. Development accelerated once the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) two ocean policy was endorsed. 2 On March 16, 1993, Governor General Bill Hayden opened the purpose-build facility, the Submarine Training Systems Centre. The A$SO million center would be managed until 1996 by ASC’s College of Customized Training, Rockwell Ship Systems of Australia and Scientific Management Associates. On 2 March 1996, then Deputy Prime Minister Kim Beazley (this was before the Labor Party’s election defeat) opened the Maritime Operations Division Stirling to test and evaluate the Collins class. Former Minister of Defence, now Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley has always been a strong supporter of the two ocean policy and the relocation of the RAN’s submarine base from Neutral Bay, Sydney.
Ships and submarines operating in the strategically important north and northwest areas have an increased effective operating time from Stirling. Besides having ready access to deep water, Fleet Base West-the official RAN designation-is without the east coast impediments to northward passage of the Great Barrier Reef and the narrow gaps of the Torres Strait. The RAN ensures the security of the trade routes, at a time of increasing economic development, and of Australian coastal waters. The decision to locate half the fleet on the west coast was influenced by considerations of Middle East oil and the mineral wealth of the Pilbara region, notably in iron ore and liquid gas.
The six contracted submarines-there are options for two more-are named for noted admirals and heroic other ranks of World War II. COLLINS, the first submarine, was launched in May 1993 and in November 1994, after harbor trials, underwent sea trials in the Gulf of St. Vincent, off South Australia, staying submerged for 14 hours. On December 15, 1995, FARNCOMB was launched on Adelaide’s Port River. HMAS COLLINS had many parts fabricated in Sweden and other countries with assembly and installation in Australia. However, then M”mister of Defense Robert Ray was able to claim at FARNCOMB’s launching that the ship was almost entirely-more than 90 percent-Australian made.
A lurking Australian insecurity seems to mistrust the locally-made in many fields. The media seized on and headlined every setback, inevitable though they were in a first undertaking of the complexity of the Collins clus. Headlines such as “Computer Bugs Delay $S.6B Submarine Project” and “Navy Takes Delivery of Faulty Sub” were not uncommon.’ Delays were due to software development Issues, and the first deep dive was postponed until the RAN’s A$20 million new submarine rescue system, able to rescue crews at crush depth, was in place. Twelve to eighteen months of naval trials are considered necessary before the submarines are fully accepted. Despite the glitches, the crews are impressed by the submarines’ capabilities-and the ability to stay submersed, completely covert. The essence of a submarine’s role is to cause maximum disruption to enemy shipping for very long periods.
The RAN insisted that delays were to be expected, and that what mattered was getting things right so that later ships could profit. The original contract delivery dates were: WALLER, December 1997, DECHAINEUX, September 1998, SHEBAN, November 1998 and RANKIN, October 1999. It is expected that WALLER, the third submarine, will be ready for sea trials early in 1997. ASC has achieved considerable production savings by modular construction. Considerable off-site work is done in other parts of Australia where the necessary industrial capabilities already exist.
On January 23, 1996, the South Australian newspaper, The Advertiser, reported that a world-class standard of performance had been achieved by COWNS’ fint successful deep dive. She had spent two hours at approximately 300m depth-approximately, because precise depth is classified. Speed, endurance, and living condition trials were to follow, but Mr. Hans Ohff, ASC’s managing director, considered that COWNS had probably outstripped its competitors.
On July 15, 1996, COWNS, 15 meters in length, about 8 meters in diameter, and having a displacement of some 2,5OO tonnes, was handed over to the RAN and commissioned on July 26, 18 months behind schedule. Tho ASC and the RAN have emphasized that there was no penalty to Australian tax payers in this delay, one to be expected in a technically complex project.
The original schedule was set in 1987 and it was a remarkable achievement for a country which had never previously built a submarine to compare very favorably with results achieved by other countries (including the United States) that are more experienced in submarine construction. Difficulties encountered in the development of the combat system software were tho principle cause of the delay-the task was simply of greater magnitude and complexity than anticipated. The strategy has been to develop incremental versions of the software to meet each phase of COLLINS’ sea trials, with each version more capable; building on experience and correcting faults found in the previous versions. This will continue until the combat system software is fully functional-probably in 1998. The software remains a focus of management attention, but significant progress is being made.
Media accounts notwithstanding, at commissioning, the version of the combat system then fitted had sufficient functionality to allow the submarine to maneuver and operate in complete safety at all speeds and depths, to provide most combat functions, and to allow provisional acceptance into naval service, allowing the submarine to progress to the next important trials phase of operational test and evaluation. Where full integration and functionality are no~ for the moment, possible, work-arounds and stand alone arrangements are being incorporated. Although a fully compliant combat system is unlikely to be available before late 1998, the submarine could, if required, be deployed on operations.
Asked, in late August 1996, whether the Australian government will consider acquiring long range, stand-off strike missiles, including the Tomahawk, Defence Minister Ian McLachlan said that the government had “‘no proposition before us at the moment”. Technical definition studies will be made before a decision is taken on this sensitive issue. At present, no Southeast Asian nation has such weapons.
What are the prospects for a further two submarines?
In its pre-election policy statement, the government said it would consider the requirement for additional submarines toward the end of its first period in office (of three years) in light of strategic circumstances and other competing priorities at that time. After spending 17 hours at sea in COLLINS last May, the Minister said that the government would await the outcome of further operational trails, and any decision was at least a year away. Therefore, a decision on additional submarines might be expected sometime in the latter part of 1997 or during 1998.
Kim Beazley said on July 23, at a business function in Adelaide, that Australia should order two more submarines to combat increased regional militarism and to create local jobs and economic growth. He added that the capacity for bluff was sustained by a small number but not the reliability of interdiction. Expansion from six to eight Collins class would, in Beazley’s view, lock in the capability that has been developed for both Australian industry and its defense industry future. Controversy about submarine numbers bas surfaced because others maintain that, rather than two more submarines for ASl billion, Australia should acquire the much needed airborne early warning and control system (A WACS) without which no modem defense force can adequately protect its air space, or the missiles.
The submarines are very cost effective, but the question is whether or not additional submarines are a higher priority than other competing acquisition priorities. At the time of the last assessment, Navy and Deference did not consider additional submarines to be a sufficiently high priority to defer other projects competing for scarce resources.
Editor’s Note: As an update note to this account, Dr. Alves submitted the following from the Melbourne Herald Sup of November 1, 1996:
“Combat capabilities onboard Australia’s Collins class submarines will not be operational for two years, Federal Parliament was told yesterday.
The 1996 projection for the conclusion of the submarines’ software design is about three years later than originally planned.
But Defense Minister Ian McLacblan has thrown doubt on the project’s ability to even meet that demand, saying
“when and if it comes good”.
The remark during question time was immediately seized on by Independent MP Graeme Campbell, who said it showed the minister was wavering on his opinion of the subs’ potential.
Mr. Campbell, who has been pursuing the Collins issue for 10 years, questioned the competence of the subs’ acquisition team.
He said later the Collins project was in real trouble and the project’s $5 billion cost could blow out to about $10 billion.
Mr. McLacblan, responding to Mr. Campbell’s question in the House, said an interim system was in place but did not yet meet the design criteria.”