Monday 04 Jul 2022 | 23:19 | SYDNEY
Monday 04 Jul 2022 | 23:19 | SYDNEY

The Collins class was not a disaster

30 March 2012 08:41

Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the ANU. He is co-author, with Peter Yule, of The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin.

We can agree with Stephen Grenville that the Government's intention to build its future submarine fleet in Australia needs objective scrutiny. So far that hasn't occurred, with most commentary arguing that the proposed 12-boat fleet cannot or should not be built in Australia. Unfortunately, most of this commentary has been marred by false or misleading assumptions.

Despite negative media coverage, the Collins submarines have not been failures and their acquisition was not a disaster.

Since the 1980s, the test of efficient defence equipment acquisition has been adherence to the original delivery schedule as a measure of how much additional effort the vendor needs to meet performance specifications. Measured by this criterion, the Collins was one of the best managed of acquisition projects. At an average delay of 26 months for the six boats, the Collins was bettered for major capital programs only by the ANZAC frigate. This was a far less complex vessel, with project management facilitated by following the submarine by 6 to 12 months.

The construction yard established at Port Adelaide was among the most efficient in the world. Component elements made by companies around Australia were so precisely managed that the Australian Submarine Corporation assembled them at a rate reaching a submarine per year. This was global best practice, up with Sweden and Japan. Indeed, the only manufacturing fault recorded was faulty welding in the bow section of the first boat – done in Sweden and the only section produced overseas.

Nor was the Collins project a financial disaster. Indeed, its $5 billion allocation remained within budget throughout production – no more than you would expect for a fixed price contract. At the final stages of production an additional $1.17 billion was allocated to bring the submarines to an acceptable operational standard.

Popularly associated with media reports of faults in the Collins design, most of the spending was to update equipment made obsolescent by technical progress since the setting of the original design parameters. Only $143 million was needed to correct the faults that had emerged with the boats, a figure that one suspects would be gladly accepted by the providers of today's major equipment, suffering under the stern contractual hold of the Defence Materiel Organisation.

The defects in Collins' performance were to be expected in any project of this nature. More importantly, in the context of local production, they were corrected without need to call on the European industry. The technological expertise available in the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and similar (though far more grand) US naval research centres produced solutions, even to problems with the original combat system. The Navy confirms that critical areas of Collins performance remain equal to or better than that of any other submarine in the region.

Most submarines in the Asian region were built in the country that operates them. In fact, very few countries buy their submarines from an overseas builder. This is because the industrial base needed to sustain submarines is close to that needed to build them and building provides better access to intellectual capital.

Submarine fleets are small and subject to such intense security that there is no commercial market that can be drawn upon for their maintenance, in the way that, for instance, Qantas Air Services can provide military aircraft maintenance. Commercial submarine maintainers, such as the British company Babcock, are few and so heavily integrated with their customer navy that they are effectively part of the naval function.

Furthermore, sustaining submarines throughout their service lives requires more than simple maintenance. The RAN's future submarines will operate beyond 2050, encountering significant changes in technology and strategic circumstances. To sustain them as effective weapons systems the RAN will need the capacity to upgrade, modify, test and trial changes to their design.

Submarine sustainment costs three to four times the acquisition price, emphasising that there is no such thing as a cheap submarine. Costing around $0.5 billion per unit, European submarines seem attractive, but an operational vessel sustained over 30 years costs much more. The reported unit price of US$2.5 billion paid by Brazil for four French Scorpene submarines and the necessary support to build, maintain and develop future capacity gives a truer idea of the cost of submarine operations. This is a lot closer to the notional $3.33 billion price for a design optimized to RAN requirements (based on the project's estimated $40 billion lifetime cost).

I have argued elsewhere that significant structural weaknesses have degraded the RAN's sustainment of the Collins submarines, in much the same way as its amphibious transport fleet. The resultant poor media image has hampered the Navy's case for the submarine it wants. Whatever design is selected, from whatever source, the RAN will need a greatly revised structure to sustain future submarine operations.

The Navy's ability to properly maintain submarines is a significant issue but, like the passion of economists to dismantle secondary industry, not the first place to start thinking about the future submarine. Logically, the Government first has to decide what it needs the submarines to do and how the RAN should operate them to achieve these objectives. The details so far released are sketchy and incomplete. Only when they are filled out with more clarity can the answers to how and where navy acquires the submarines be decided sensibly.

Photo by Flickr user Royal Australian Navy.