Editor’s Note: This article reviews the current status of Australia’s Collins-class submarines and the criticisms being levied against the project. Since the design and acquisition of these submarines represent a significant policy and industrial step in the acceptance of submarines as a primary national security force for regional powers, this article is presented as a matter of prime interest/or the U.S. submarine community.
The Royal Australian Navy’s Oberon class submarine, HMAS OVENS, commissioned in 1969 and withdrawn from service four years ago, is being prepared on a Fremantle slipway for display in the West Australian Maritime Museum, a gift from the Federal Government. The Oberons are being replaced by six, or possibly eight, Collins class submarines, based on Type 471. In the last few years, the RAN has taken the lion’s share of new capital equipment spending for the services.
In the buildup to Australia’s 1998 general election, there was much adverse media comment on Kim Beazley’s choice, as the then Minister of Defence, of the Swedish Kockums Type 471 submarine. Members of the Howard Coalition government were not averse to having Beazley, now Leader of the Labor Opposition, associated with the costly submarine project’s emerging defects and delays.
The politicization of the project occurred not only at the federal level. Port Adelaide’s selection as the construction site for the Collins class gained the Australian Submarine Corporation and other South Australian-based firms opportunities for combat systems that included advanced radar. sonar. and other electronic devices, weapons, targeting and launching equipment, and computer software. Competition among the states had been fierce, not only prestige but new jobs and improved industrial skills were at stake.
Beazley changed Australia’s defense thrust to the defense of Australia on an independent basis. He wanted to project a coherent strategic capability into Southeast Asia and the southwest Pacific with a two-ocean navy, based on both east and west coasts. Recently, there has been supported for two additional submarines, at approximately half a billion Australian dollars each. This has occasioned a swelling chorus of criticism based on leaked data regarding the submarines acoustic signature and a so-called damning U.S. report. The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Don Chalmers, denies that a U.S. Navy report on the Collins class program was damaging to either the project or to the RAN. 1 Some of the ill-informed critical barrage involved distortions of the truth and little understanding of a navy’s capabilities. At least one vitriolic commentator made reference to the back of the boat.
One of the world’s largest conventional submarines, at about 3,000 tonnes, the Collins class, based at HMAS STIRLING, on Garden Island, near Fremantle, is expected to serve until around 2025 under peacetime conditions. They will be a deterrent to potential enemies and, with the F-111 strike and F-18 fighter forces, defend the air-sea gap to the north of Australia. Australia cannot afford a nuclear submarine force and has no nuclear engineering industry. At the time that the decision was made for the Type 471 anti-nuclear feeling was strong in Australia. No submarine producing countries had conventional models ·with the range and capabilities required for Australia’s strategic circumstances and weather and sea conditions. A credible submarine force needed much of the work to be done in Australia. Requirements were still in the planning stage, and from the start, it was expected that upgrades would be made to meet evolving needs. Four of the Collins class have been launched. At present, none have been fully certified for combat operations, although HMAS COLLINS and FARNCOMB have been provisionally accepted into service. HMAS WALLER is undergoing trials.
In March 1998, the press, with such headlines as “Out of Their Depth”, and “Sub Standard”, gleefully criticized the efforts of the Defence Departments project management of the new submarine program after auditors noted, “numerous defects discovered late in the construction” of the Collins class. However, the Coalition•s Minister of Defence, at that time Ian McLachlan, welcomed the findings of the Australian National Audit Office. He was encouraged by the assessment that the Collins class, still expected to come in within budget, had the potential to achieve the capability specified in the 1987 contract. He noted that a period of testing and evaluation had been anticipated before the submarines’ acceptance into naval service since the ambitious requirements extended the technology available at the beginning of the project. On March 26, 1998, the Australian reported that the auditors had found most of the quality problems were discovered in items supplied from overseas which the project team had had little chance to scrutinize during construction.2 The report also commented that, despite unresolved management and technical problems, there had been achievements that demonstrated the capacity of the Australian industry to produce to world-class standards.
There have been three categories of problems. The RAN admits that with hindsight it might have ordered things differently, but it is confident that problems with the combat system can be overcome. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all encountered similar delays when installing new technologies.
The Collins class was planned to patrol for 70 days. The greater a conventional submarine’s range, the more food, and fuel is required. Consequently, there is less space for the crew, hence the need for more automation. Because they are larger, nuclear submarines do not require the compact, highly integrated system proposed in the 1987 contract for the Collins class. The system, called SIMS/SIS Shipboard Information Management System/Shipboard Information System), aims to pull together monitoring and maintenance for every system on the submarine, from crew to engines. Each submarine has two systems, with their own power, monitoring everything and keeping records of all crew members, their skills, and training. This immensely complicated advanced data management system uses more computer power than a space shuttle.
The RAN will not accept the media’s blithe recommendation to scrap the system, designed to be controlled from any one of the seven onboard consoles, and throw it away. Instead, it has chosen to bypass some of the problem areas, adapting the system so that improvements can be added over time. Boeing Australia’s business development manager (naval combat systems), referring to the most sophisticated development task in Australia’s history, claims to be •delving into the outer edges of the envelope” and meeting the technical challenges.
Stealth is the second problem. While it was admitted that the Collins class was aiming for capabilities not found before in conventional submarines, as the noise problem became apparent there was a perception that the entire project was a serious mistake. Sententious articles were written about the compromising of a submarine’s essential tasks of remaining undetected in whatever operational role is necessary. The Australian Submarine Corporation’s director, Hans Off, was astonished that a normally closely held secret. the noise signature, should be debated in public. The worst problem, involving cavitation, was solved by a bit of fine-tuning. The original propeller has been redesigned , and is said to be performing well. The RAN is looking at other propeller designs in case they are needed. There is still some debate between the RAN and the Australian Submarine Corporation about the unusual dome-shaped bow of the boat and the taper of the stem casing. The Collins class was originally designed to be quiet at low speed, according to the 1985 specifications. Since then the RAN’s operational doctrine has evolved as a result of working with UK and U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. Off points out that with higher speeds a conventional submarine needs to snort more often, making it more readily detectable.
The U.S. Navy was asked to review the acoustic signature data and the RAN’s potential solutions. The David Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center, which tests scale models of U.S. submarine design, will later this year test a 1: 10 scale model of a Collins class submarine with revised casing. In Vice Admiral Chalmers’ view, in the conditions in which the submarine would operate on patrol, it does very well. The admiral has pointed out that the Oberons are now quieter than when they were built, in fact, they are quite different submarines. The admiral wants to use COLLINS as a development submarine and then transfer the developments to other submarines.
The engines have been another challenge. In January 1999 it was reported that design changes were necessary to stop seawater seeping into the diesel engines. The Swedish design, adequate in calmer northern waters, proved unreliable in the much rougher seas off the Australian coasts. In a written reply to the Adelaide Advertiser, the RAN blamed the gravity separators which had occasionally failed to remove saltwater from the fuel before it reached the engines. All six Collins-class will be fitted, at a small cost, with gravity coalescers from within the total project cost. Last September, HMAS FARNCOMB was stranded in Darwin harbor as a result of different engine faults.
Critics of the new submarine seldom compare the capabilities of the Oberon and Collins classes. Commander Mel Rose, captain of HMAS WALLER, has pointed out that while the Oberon class is limited to single figures in detecting and generating target tracks, the Collins can track contacts running into three figures. The Oberon class can fire and control two weapons, whereas the 100 Collins will be able to fire six and has already demonstrated that it can fire and control four.
With the benefit of hindsight, critics with little comprehension of naval and strategic concerns, have made comments about Australia straining to 11punch above our weight”. Nonetheless, the adaptation of a Swedish model to Australian requirements, the meshing of contributions from diverse sources, and the foresight and determination of the many civilian and service personnel involved have been commendable.
Early in March 1999 Deputy Chief of Navy Rear Admiral Chris Oxenbould conceded that delays of 20 months in the project had left Australia with a reduced capability in the short term. The last of the Oberon class, HMAS OTAMA, could, however, be decommissioned at the end of 2000, rather than 1999, by which time the Collins class would be fully operational.
On March 18, Minister of Defence John Moore released the terms of reference for a Submarine Review team consisting of Dr. Malcolm Mcintosh, chief executive of CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) and former BHP (Broken Hill Proprietory Co. Ltd.) chief executive John Prescott. Hans Orff, managing director of the Australian Submarine Corporation, noted that none of the five internal and external inquiries of the project had found any evidence it was unsuccessful.
The Opposition offense spokesman claimed that the review was prompted by pressures from 11 ill-informed, trouble-making, and irresponsible government backbenchers. Labor was confident the Navy had the project well in hand.