27 Juli 2011
HMAS Sheean and HMAS Collins (photo : Gnangarra)
The January 2010 failure of a generator aboard HMAS Farncomb was just the latest in a long history of problems faced by its fleet of 6 Collins Class diesel-electric submarines – which have sometimes been reduced to just 1 operational vessel. That readiness issue presents an immediate financial headache for Australia’s government, and adds a longer-term challenge to the centerpiece of Australia’s future naval force.
With just 6 submarines in its fleet, Australia’s current deployment set-up leaves little room for error. Even a normal setup of 2 in maintenance, 2 for training but available if needed, and 2 on operations makes for a thin line, given Australia’s long coastline and sea lanes. Almost 15 years after the first Collins Class boat was delivered, they are still short of this goal. When crewing problems are added to the mechanical issues, Australia’s 2009 White Paper plan to build 12 diesel-electric fast attack submarines as the centerpiece of the 2030 Australian Navy is attracting questions…
It present, 2 submarines are in “deep maintenance” and completely unavailable (HMAS Sheean, and Rankin), 1 submarine back is in port facing indeterminate maintenance (HMAS Farncomb), and 1 “limited availability” submarine is fit only for training (HMAS Collins). Of its 2 operational boats, HMAS Waller was in port for major battery repairs as recently as May 2009, and HMAS Dechaineux is just out of dock.
The latest issue with HMAS Farncomb involves failures in 1 of the submarine’s 3 French Jeumont-Schneider, 1,400 kW/ 440-volt DC generators. As the Australian Department of Defence puts it:
“The problem stems from the way some of the generators were manufactured. At no time was the crew at risk but investigations are continuing in order to determine the impact this deficiency might have on the remainder of the submarine fleet.”
A generator failure is a serious issue for a diesel-electric submarine. The generators must power all systems on board, from oxygen generation to combat electronics, and also drive the Collins Class’ 7,200 shp Jeumont-Schneider DC motor. Given the dangers inherent in a submarine’s mission, electrical redundancy, back-up capability, and reliability are all critical.
There are fears that fixing HMAS Farncomb’s generator problem could require cutting open the pressurized hull. If that’s the case, repair costs would be high, and Farncomb would join 3 other boats in a long “deep maintenance cycle”.
HMAS Deschaineux was due back in the water in early 2010, but didn;t re-enter service until May 2010. HMAS Sheean isn’t due back in service until 2011, and HMAS Rankin has no set date yet – it is merely “in queue” behind Sheean. While HMAS Collins has reportedly had its generators given a clean bill of health, investigation of the entire fleet’s generators is underway. If additional problems are discovered, the repair schedules for Deschaineux, Sheean, and Rankin become much less predictable.
So, too, does the future success of Australia’s estimated A$ 36 billion future submarine program.
One of the goals for the Collins Class program was to advance Australian shipbuilding capabilities, by creating state-owned ASC Pty Ltd. to build a foreign submarine design. ThyssenKrupp’s Swedish Kockums subsidiary was chosen to design them, based on the A19 Gotland Class. At 3,000t, their long-range design is the largest diesel-electric submarine type in the world.
Launching a submarine building industry is very difficult, however, and using what amounts to a new design adds to that risk. The Collins Class has performed well in exercises with the US Navy, where it has scored successes against American Los Angeles Class nuclear-powered fast attack subs. On the other hand, it has also encountered a long-running sequence of issues, including significant difficulties with its (Australian chosen) combat systems, issues with acoustic signature due to mechanical faults, major program cost growth to A$ 6+ billion, and schedule slippage.
The effects aren’t just mechanical, or financial. Crew retention issues are exacerbated by low mechanical readiness, which restricts training opportunities and so limits the available pool of crew. That forces higher deployment rates away from home and family among qualified submariners, which in turn feeds back into low recruitment and retention.
Collins was launched in 1993, and delivered in 1996. Its successor boats of class were commissioned in 1998 (Farncomb), 1999 (Waller), 2001 (Deschaineux and Sheean), and 2003 (Rankin). The persistence of serious mechanical issues and very low readiness rates, into 2010 and beyond, raises legitimate questions concerning the long-term risks of Australia’s 12-submarine plan for its future navy.
Australia is a middle power with a small population, without a long submarine building tradition, and without an active submarine construction line. That it overcame these disadvantages to build and field the Collins Class is a respectable achievement, notwithstanding the problems that class as faced in service. At the same time, the strategic stakes in Asia are rising rapidly, and submarines are becoming more important as the country’s neighbors grow their economic and military power into the sea lanes around Australia. An expanded submarine force makes strong strategic sense as a key guarantor of Australian interests and sovereignty – but in some respects, any new program will be starting again from square one. Over a decade can be expected between the commissioning of HMAS Waller in 2003, and construction of any new submarines.
Does repeating the Collins program’s industrial structure for the core of Australia’s future defense risk creating the same cost and readiness issues in the new submarines? If not, why not, especially given the long interval between delivery of HMAS Rankin and future construction of the next submarine type? What are the strategic risks of treating the core of Australia’s future defensive posture as a make work program first, and a defense program second? What savings might be had by simply ordering some or all of the proposed 12 boats from a foreign manufacturer? Should ASC become a wholly-owned subsidiary of whichever firm wins the competition to build Australia’s next 12 boats? Or should the 12-sub program just be scaled back sharply, as too big a risk for cost inflation and low value for money?
Some of these questions are already being raised, by politicians and media editorials. Unless these readiness and technical issues can be turned around, Australia’s governments, of whatever party, should expect more questions.