Past and future Australian submarine fleet

 Robert Bond   Director   Citizens for Defence


Past and future Australian submarine fleet

Six Collins class submarines defend our 36,000 kilometres of coastline.

1)      Planning for a new class to replace the RAN’s Oberon-class submarines began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Proposals were received from seven companies; two were selected for a funded study to determine the winning design, which was announced in mid-1987. The submarines are an enlarged version of Swedish shipbuilder KockumsVästergötland class and were originally referred to as the Type 471.[1]

2)      The Collins class submarines are 3051 tonnes surfaced and were built by the Australian Submarine Corporation at Port Adelaide South Australia between February 1990 and March 2003.[2]

3)      The sub can reach 10.5 knots (19.4km/hr) on the surface or at snorkel depth or 21 knots (39km/hr) submerged. The sub can travel 11,000 nautical miles (20,000 kms) surfaced or 9,000 nautical miles (17,000 kms) at snorkel depth.[3]

4)      When submerged the sub can travel 32.6 nautical miles (60.4km/hr) at 21 knots (39km/hr) or 480 nautical miles (890 kms) at 4 knots (7.4km/hr).[4]

5)      The sub can dive to over 180 metres deep with the exact figure classified.[5]

6)      The sub is powered by 3 x Garden Island-Hedemora HV V18b/15Ub (VB210) 18-cylinder diesel motors driving 3 x Jeumont-Schneider generators (1,400 kW, 440-volt DC).[6] A single 1 x Jeumont-Schneider DC motor (7,200 shp, 5.4 MW), drives a 1 x seven-bladed, 4.22 m (13.8 ft) diameter skewback propeller which propels the sub.[7]

7)      The sub has six 21-inch (530m) torpedo tubes and carries 22 torpedoes.[8]

HMAS_Sterling 18-9-12The Collins-class is a shipwreck of troubles

 8)      The Collins class submarines have been an utter failure since they were commissioned. For instance on the 21 May 2009 HMAS Waller tied up at the Henderson shipyard south of Perth for urgent battery repairs, the only seaworthy sub is HMAS Farncomb. The other four boats are either out of active service (HMAS Collins) or out of the water for major maintenance known as full cycle docking (HMAS Sheehan, Rankin and Dechaineux). This total lack of availability has persisted through to the present day with one sub available most of the time and sometimes two subs fit to sail.[9]

9)      For example, The sub that engages in the yearly multinational exercises off Hawaii usually embarrasses this nation by having to limp to harbour to have hose repairs or have major generator malfunctions such as the January 2010 issue with HMAS Farncomb involving failures in 1 of the submarine’s 3 French Jeumont-Schneider, 1,400 kW/ 440-volt DC generators, and this has served in many respects as the final straw.[10]

10)  These submarines are economically unrepairable with two years in dry-dock for maintenance for every three years of use. The engines need replacement and this will require the pressure hull to be cut to replace them. This will take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars as the pressure hull will have to undergo extensive recertification testing.[11]

11)  On April 14 2011 the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank wrote “…the boats have spent so little time in the water due to maintenance and crewing problems that the hulls have not been pressure cycled anywhere near to the extent anticipated. However, a life-of? type extension for the Collins is not an especially appealing prospect for a number of reasons. To start with, the drive train in the Collins has been problematic since day one, and attempts to keep the fleet going into the late 2020s would almost certainly require work to replace the highly problematic diesel engines (which are already ‘orphans’ in the world of maritime diesels). That alone is an undertaking requiring major engineering work, not to mention a lot of money. It is a simple fact of geometry that the engines can only be removed by cutting the pressure hull. Given that less complex mid-cycle dockings are taking 100 weeks to complete (against an anticipated 52 weeks), this exercise would result in considerable downtime. It could be that every five years of additional life would come at the cost of one or two extra years out of the water and/or conducting sea trials for each boat being upgraded. This would further exacerbate the already disappointingly low availability of the fleet.” [12]

12)  Aug 3/12: Problems continue. After reporting a successful torpedo firing and sinking exercise during RIMPAC 2012, Australia’s DoD reveals that a leak is forcing HMAS Farncomb to return to port immediately. Fortunately, the submarine was at periscope depth, and the problem “has been traced to a split in a hose on the submarine’s weight compensation system.” The Liberal Party’s shadow defence minister, David Johnson, reminds Sydney Morning Herald readers that these kinds of breakdowns are all too common:“Farncomb is no stranger to this kind of incident… In August it lost both its propulsion motor and emergency back up in deep water off the Western Australian coast. The second, a few months later in the South China Sea, involved a build up of toxic gases that had the crew wearing oxygen masks and blowing its emergency ballast tanks for a rapid ascent. In May last year another Collins Class submarine, HMAS Dechaineux was forced to return to Singapore for repairs after breaking down on its way to a training exercise, also in the South China Sea. It was the only submarine due to participate in the 5-nation exercise and the embarrassment was amplified when the Navy News published a pre-written account of its daring exploits on the presumption nothing could go wrong.”[13]

13)  April 21/12: Unsalvageable? Commander James Harrap, a 20-year navy veteran, resigns from the RAN after commanding both HMAS Waller and HMAS Collins. While the boats and their crews had “serviced the navy well and achieved much,” the media obtain a copy of his overall assessment. It is stark and scathing: scrap the class. “I don’t believe the Collins-class are sustainable in the long term and many of the expensive upgrade plans which have been proposed would be throwing good money after bad… Over the last two years, I believe these problems have become worse… Throughout my command of both Collins and Waller, full capability was never available and frequently over 50 per cent of the identified defects were awaiting stores… Collins has consistently been let down by some fundamental design flaws, leading to poor reliability and inconsistent performance. The constant stream of defects and operation control limitations makes getting to sea difficult, staying at sea harder and fighting the enemy a luxury only available once the first two have been overcome.” The submarines’ diesel engines come in for special criticism, but they are far from his only target. His final conclusion: “I do not believe we have the capability to independently design and build our own submarines.” The Australian .[14]

14)  Dec 13/11: Coles Review, Phase 1 Following its July 19/11 announcement (q.v.) and Nov 4/11 delivery, Phase 1 of the Coles Review of RAN submarine sustainment is made public. It goes so far as to call the government’s chosen structure to manage Australia’s submarine force “unfit for purpose,” and the report’s own statement of its raison d’etre is a concise summary of the fleet’s visible issues: “Despite increases in funding for sustainment, and strenuous efforts on the part of the various authorities and agencies involved, the level of submarine availability continues to fall. The length of dockings is increasing and submarines frequently have to return to harbour with problems. Loss of availability had also been caused by lack of crews, and the level of crew availability remains critical to the support of operations. Ministers became increasingly concerned about damage to the national reputation and frustrated at the apparent inability of Defence to sort out the problems……”.[15]

15)  Oct 15/11: $$$$ Australian media look at the Collins Class’ annual costs: “Figures obtained by the Herald Sun, show the six Collins subs cost about $630 million a year – or $105 million each – to maintain, making them the most expensive submarines ever to put to sea… The annual price for “sustainment” (maintenance and support) is $415.9 million for 2011-12 with operating costs running at $213.4 million for the year, for a total of $629.3 million. A US Navy Ohio Class nuclear attack submarine – more than three times the size of a Collins boat – costs about $50 million a year to operate.” See: Herald Sun | Courier Mail , incl. infographic | Australia’s Daily Telegraph .[16]

16)  At present, the Collins class is costing $105 million a year but this will quickly balloon out to $150 million per annum when substantial upgrades to the Collins class planned under DCP Project Sea 1439 (conservatively estimated at $30 million per ship per year to 2021)[17] takes effect even though the Collins class availability is close to zero. By contrast, a nuclear Ohio class submarine three times the size of the Collins class costs $50 million to operate per year with excellent availability.[18]

Future Submarines

17)  The government has named four options for the acquisition of the Future Submarine:- a newly designed developmental submarine:- evolution of an existing submarine design:- modification of an existing design for Australian needs:- purchase of an existing military off the shelf (MOTS) submarine design.[19] All four options would be assembled in Adelaide. Nuclear submarines built overseas have been specifically ruled out by the government.

18)  A (MOTS) purchase is the cheapest by far but these European subs are only 2000 tonnes and cannot meet the needs of the Australian navy as outlined in the defence White Paper. The French Scorpene class is a typical example with India purchasing six Scorpene submarines for US$3 billion in 2005.[20] The size of the (MOTS) submarines limits their capacity to launch unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) deployment and Special Forces insertions. The Scorpene can do 20 knots (37km/hr) and has six torpedo tubes for its 18 torpedos.[21] It is best suited to coastline duties such as the Mediterranean where it operates close to its base.

19)  It is hard to see Australia testing out a new design because of the myriad of risks associated with the development of a new submarine. Cost overruns and technical and construction problems could delay the commissioning of this submarine to well over 15 years if the Collins example is to be repeated.[22]

20)  This year, there have been discussions between Japan and Australia about whether the Japanese Soryu class submarine would be suitable for Australian needs. It is 4000 tonnes and could become available to Australia because Japan has just lifted a ban on exporting military equipment to any country except the US. However, little is known about the systems or design of this sub, or whether Japan will reintroduce a ban on military systems in the future leaving Australia in the lurch for maintenance needs.[23]

21)  The government is attracted to repeating the same mistakes made in the building of the Collins class and that is to take a smaller European design of 2000 tonnes and enlarge the craft into a 4000 tonnes vessel. The degree of redesign will be determined by the suitability of the underlying design for Australian conditions and the changes necessary to meet the required range and endurance profile and to fit systems like a MOTS US combat system and (potentially) an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) capability.[24]

An Australian Virginia class nuclear attack Submarine

22)  The American Ambassador, Jeffrey L. Bleich, has advised Australia during February 2012 that the US is more than willing to lease or sell nuclear powered Virginia class attack submarines to this nation to improve our defence force.[25]  

23)  The Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine has a weight of 7,900 metric tonnes and is being built in the US at Newport by General Dynamics Electric Boat Company. The submarine costs $2.5 billion to buy and $50 million a year to operate. (based on 2012 prices) [26] SSN Virginia was commissioned in 2004 with 5 Virginia-class subs commissioned to date with 2 subs a year planned to be built from 2011 until 2025.

24)  These state of the art submarines can maintain a speed of 32 knots submerged for months on end travelling tens of thousands of kilometres in that time compared with an Australian built dieselectric submarine that will do little more than 21 knots for a distance of 32.6 nautical miles or 480 nautical miles at 4 knots.[27]

25)  In addition, the Virginia class submarines are equipped with five cutting edge sonar systems ranging from new active/passive sonar, to world leading low and high frequency towed sonar array backed up by the advanced electromagnetic signature reduction system built into it.[28]

26)  As well, this submarine has photonics masts instead of traditional periscopes located outside the pressure hull. Each mast contains high resolution cameras, along with light- intensification and infrared sensors, an infrared laser rangefinder, and an integrated electronic support measures array.[29]

27)  The Virginia Class new attack submarine is an advanced stealth multimission nuclear-powered submarine. The noise level of the Virginia-class is a lower acoustic signature than the Russian Improved Akula Class and fourth-generation attack submarines. To achieve this low acoustic signature, the Virginia incorporates newly designed anechoic coatings, isolated deck structures and a new design of propulsor.30]

 The propulsor stops corrosion and makes the ship stealthy


28)  The Virginia has a Fiber optic fly-by-wire Ship Control System and this replaces electro-hydraulic systems for control surface actuation. [31]

29)   The S9G nuclear reactor  core life is estimated at 33 years which is the life of the submarine. The fuel rods will never need changing.[32]

30)  The sub has a crew of 120 enlisted and 14 officers.[33]

31)   The Virginia-class carries 16 (fire and forget) Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of 1000 miles. The vertical launching system has the capacity to launch the 16 Tomahawk submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) in a single salvo. There is capacity for up to 26 mk48 ADCAP mod 6 heavyweight torpedoes and sub harpoon anti-ship missiles to be fired from the 21in torpedo tubes. Mk60 CAPTOR mines may also be fitted. [34]

The ships 16 vertical launch tomahawk missiles and 38 torpedoes

32)  The Virginia-class has been specifically designed for spying on enemy coastlines with the use of unmanned underwater vessels (UUV). Although in its infancy, UUVs will grow into a far superior system than smaller submarines trying to navigate and hide in shallow waters.[35] The Virginia also carries the 60 tonne mini sub to the site and up to 16 SEAL commandos can be transported to shore for espionage or for spying.[36]

33)  Oceanic and Naval Systems advanced SEAL delivery system (ASDS), to deliver special warfare forces such as navy sea air land (SEAL) reconnaissance units for counter teams or Marine -terrorism or localised conflict An integral lock-out / lock-in chamber is incorporated into the hull for special operations. The chamber can host a mini-submarine, such as Northrop Grumman’s operations. [37] 

The SEALs can exit the sub while its underwater by passing through this airlock