Reflections of a Collins Submarine Captain
Byline: James Harrap / Perth
The Maritime Patrol Aircraft was still out there – an Australian AP3C with the formidable ELM2022 radar, entirely unforgiving to submarines in most circumstances but for some reason not today. I instructed the watchleader to remain at periscope depth since it gave us the best chance to identify and intercept our target, the approaching task group consisting of frigates HMAS NEWCASTLE and HMNZS TE KAHA and the tanker HMNZS ENDEAVOUR. Our assessment of the oceanography was such that periscope depth was also favourable for avoiding detection by the ships sonar. There was of course the chance of visual detection by the aircraft too, with the submarine only being five metres below the waves, or the periscope – raised for 30 seconds every 6 minutes – leaving a wake if we tried to go too fast. But with a southerly wind at 20kts there were plenty of white caps around and in my experience the benefit of remaining at periscope depth was worth the risk.
Over the next 90 minutes the tense scenario played out. First the frigates then the tanker became visual. The AP3C seemed to be obsessed with tracking something further to the north – possibly a whale or just some disturbance in the ocean –that worked in our favour. We got into the position I wanted, about 7km away with good bearing separation on all the targets, ideal for our torpedoes. ‘Pass the Deepfield message [indicating a torpedo attack] then let them know where we are and get the hell out of here’ were my instructions to the watchleader, dutifully carried out. HMAS COLLINS dived to 100m, increased speed and headed off, north, back to where the aircraft was until recently searching – I thought it unlikely it would revisit the old datum since it was proven false.
This was March 2012 and HMAS COLLINS was in the Western Australian Exercise Areas conducting Exercise Triton Storm, an annual high-end training event. It was my last three weeks at sea as a submarine captain and there couldn’t have been a better way to finish off. Operating at a heightened, but sustainable degree of readiness the crew bring together skills, equipment and experience to deliver a capability feared and admired throughout the world and desperately needed as part of Australia’s national defence. It’s just getting it all together which is the big challenge.
Time for Change
There are a few times in each of our lives when we make a complete career change and set course in an entirely different direction. For me now is one of those times, having completed almost 20 years in the Royal Australian Navy, 15 of them as part of the submarine force, culminating in Command of submarines HMAS WALLER and HMAS COLLINS.
Leaving the navy direct from command is uncommon, though not unprecedented; I am however the only command qualified submariner in several years to depart for a non-defence and non-government related industry. Whilst my reasons for the sudden change are many and varied, this article is about my experience as a Collins Class submariner. Since 1999 I have served onboard all six Collins Class submarines and intend to provide an insider’s view on one of the most intensely debated and captivating defence projects of the last two decades.
My submarine experience has spanned the full spectrum of submarine operations and I have sailed on six different classes of submarines (3 SSN and 3 SSK) with 5 different navies. I don’t pretend to be an expert on all aspects of submarine design and operations, but I consider myself to have a pretty good idea. One thing common to all my submarine experience is that no design is perfect and no single navy has the monopoly on superior equipment and procedures.
Military and naval capability is not, as many believe, resident only in the specifications of the hardware employed. Capability is a much more complex equation depending on: weapons, equipment, personnel, communications, command infrastructure, training and experience to name but a few. In the same way that being a winning Formula 1 racing team is not just about the car, a submarine is not an advanced naval capability just because of the platform. Informed commentators and military professionals understand this; unfortunately journalists and politicians often do not. Consequently, much of what has been written about the Collins Class, and proposed replacement options I believe to be inaccurate or incomplete.
Contrary to the perception held by many, the Collins Class has served the RAN well and achieved much. Despite some well publicised failures, the successes of the Collins Class are also numerous and have been significant though, as is the nature of submarine operations, these have not always been widely publicised. However, as I became more experienced and learnt my trade as a submariner it was seldom concerns about any foreign enemy which occupied my time, but rather fighting the enemy within. Submarines are highly complicated machines and being a submariner has always required a skilled blend of operator/technician unique within naval service; but the Collins Class has taken the technical arguments to a whole new level. The planned maintenance requirements are onerous enough but 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 have maintained an operational capability for most of the past 15 years, but that is often despite many aspects of the submarine’s design rather than because of it.
Numerous limitations and failings of the Collins Class have been made public but somehow, with support from government and key private contractors, the RAN has managed to work through or around most of these. I have no doubt that this can continue to be the case for the next few years, but there are now some disturbing themes which must be addressed. I can’t help but think that, just like me, it is perhaps time for a drastic change here too.
The current challenge
Reliability, sustainability and crewing constraints have been persistent concerns in recent years. The links between these three issues compound the challenge faced by the submarine force. Reduced reliability and increased failure rates on equipment place a greater demand for replacement parts and labour thus increasing sustainment costs whilst also limiting the number of available submarine sea days. This lack of available sea time limits training and experience opportunities for the crews and slows the rate at which the submarine force can re-grow.
Sustainment and reliability problems have plagued the Collins Class since first launch. This is not news to anybody who has followed the history of the boats. As commissioning crew onboard HMAS RANKIN, I recall fitted equipment being ‘cannibalized’ to support the other boats even before the submarine was commissioned. The expected reply to stores demand signals is usually ‘Nil Stock Global’ reflecting no suitable inventory holdings – though this is often attributable to accounting inadequacies as much as it is a true reflection on the state of inventory. Over the last two years though I believe these problems have become worse; throughout my command of both COLLINS and WALLER full capability was never available and frequently over 50% of the identified defects were awaiting stores.
Sustainment is a very topical issue and costs are quoted in the order of $400-500 million per year (and total operating expense about $800m) with various organisations currently working on managing this problem. During 2011 the navy instigated a Submarine Logistics Continuous Improvement Program to address known inadequacies in submarine logistics support. Additionally the Coles review was initiated by the government in 2011 and will cover some similar ground. Whilst these initiatives and others are probably justified, and no doubt will result in some improvements, they will not provide a miracle cure to the problem. Lack of available stores inventory, increased equipment failure rates and submarines living with reduced capability is something I expect will persist for the remaining life of the Class.
The personnel dimension
In 2008 the navy’s submarine workforce numbers fell to an almost unrecoverable level due to significant attrition of qualified personnel and lack of recruitment to this volunteer force. Re-growth of the submarine workforce is critical to maintaining and building submarine capability for the RAN. The seagoing workforce currently consists of three submarine crews with a desire to stand up a fourth as soon as practicable, each crew consists of about 60 officers and sailors of various skill sets and experience levels. The submarine force is supported ashore by additional personnel in various essential roles such as logistics, maintenance, operational planning and training to name just a few. Some of these positions do not require seagoing submarine experience, but the bulk of direct support roles do. Training and experience growth is consistently a top priority for the navy but lack of available submarine sea days reduces opportunities to build not just the seagoing but also the support workforce. I believe the navy is currently doing a good job to recover the submarine workforce, though unnecessarily encumbered by the inadequacy of the defence personnel management framework. The situation is fragile and will remain so for some time to come.
Of equal importance to the ‘uniformed’ navy workforce is the support provided by Defence Materiel Organisation, ASC, other prime contractors and government organisations. As my time in the submarine force progressed I have come to know many of the key support personnel on the waterfront, many of them former submariners with whom I have previously served at sea. The navy long ago gave up the ability to conduct all maintenance itself and external support is essential; so whilst not always considered as part of the submarine force numbers, the people within these organisations are vital to sustainment of submarine capability too. Many of these people are dedicated and capable individuals – though I can’t say the same for all components of the support organisations. Skills shortages here also impact on submarine maintenance schedules, work quality, availability and ultimately capability.
Failure to adequately address the human element will lead to a demise of submarine capability just as rapidly as an inability to put submarines to sea caused by Materiel deficiencies. The future of submarine capability must consider both the navy and non-navy components of the personnel dimension.
Capability, present and future
Another aspect of sustainment is the need for capability enhancement in order to take advantage of new technology. When I commanded WALLER in 2011 it was a different boat to the one I received my dolphins onboard in 1999. The combat system and torpedo were entirely different, the sonar was similar but much improved and other more subtle changes such as the sewage system and ISCMMS (the boat’s platform control and monitoring system) were evident. The Collins Class have evolved but the pace of change is slow and the cost is high.
Sustainment budgets and schedules must continue to factor the requirement to improve the capability. Much of the existing equipment is bespoke (and often obsolete), the need for upgrades is increasing but cost of acquiring and retrofitting equipment is high. Rising numbers of defects swell work scope during maintenance periods and merely getting the scheduled maintenance done in the allocated time is a challenge before capability replacement and upgrade is even considered.
Whilst continuous improvement is essential, there comes a time when the incremental changes possible in this process are not enough. Some components of the submarine are either not able to be changed or to do so would carry a prohibitive mix of risk and cost. The Collins Class has many components that we are simply stuck with for the life of the platform. For example the diesel generators fit into this category because of their size; unfortunately they are quite possibly the least reliable diesel engines ever built. They have been problematic throughout the life of the class and, despite some design modifications and improvements, are only kept running by ingenuity and sheer determination of the crews at sea and supporting contractors alongside. Because of components and immutable design issues such as these, Collins has a finite service life.
There is also a component of ‘technology pull’ that limits the effective life of any submarine platform. To extend the earlier analogy: it would be impossible to win next year’s grand prix in a 20 year old car – no matter how good the driver and support team are. HMAS COLLINS when first launched was hailed as being ahead of its time; I don’t entirely agree with that, but it was the vanguard of a new generation of submarine design. That was in the early 1990s. Since then numerous advances have occurred in batteries, electric motors, air-independent propulsion, sonars and electro-optics – all of which have revolutionised submarine design even further. These changes have been significant and whilst it may be possible (though very costly) to keep Collins operational for another decade or more, most advances can’t be retrofitted and the boat will most likely be so technically obsolete by 2022 that the credibility of the capability it offers will be seriously eroded.
The Strategic Imperative
Despite the problems I have highlighted above, I still standby my earlier comment that our submarines deliver a significant capability and that this is because of the whole package, not just the platform but all other components as well. This could not happen without a solid commitment and strong leadership by government and the most senior levels of defence to sustain the capability. The skill and resolve to do this is admirable but doesn’t come without having made some difficult choices and shown the tenacity to see them through. This is definitely a theme which must continue. To ignore the decision on the future of the submarine force is to choose to erode any advantage we still possess, because within our region submarine capability is increasing at an alarming pace.
China continues to build submarines at a rate unmatched anywhere in the world whilst the quality and capability of the Chinese submarine fleet increases faster than the nation’s GDP. India has this year taken delivery of a Russian built Akula SSN and continues with its own construction programs. Other regional nations are buying or building their own submarines at a ferocious pace, all with recently developed technology unavailable onboard a Collins Class. I am not advocating we join a new arms race, I am saying we have been in one for quite a while and we need to keep up. The 2008 Defence white paper made a clear case of the continued requirement for submarines and while the type and numbers may be debatable the need for the capability is not.
There are a number of options available when it comes to our future submarine force. If my time onboard Collins has taught me anything it is that any submarine is better than no submarine at all, so my first recommendation is simple – do something. I don’t believe that 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. Though sustaining what we currently have is essential until we can get a replacement class of submarine commissioned. Growing the size and experience of the submarine force requires boats at sea; that must be our primary aim.
Secondly, reliability and long-term sustainability are crucial for our future submarine. Lack of platform reliability is the single most limiting factor for the Collins Class, let’s never repeat that mistake. A submarine capable of most of the tasking available most of the time is better than one that claims to do all of the tasking but is only available some of the time. For any future submarine, robust through-life support and sustainment is just as important as any other design specification.
Australia’s strategic circumstances are unique, but so are those of Singapore, India, Japan and every other nation. That does not mean that our next submarine platform needs to be entirely unique though. As I have stated, the Australian submarine capability is vested in more than just the platform, so even with an existing design the capability would remain unique and would be superior to other similar platforms if supported in superior ways. For example, if we are able to retain the Mk48 Mod 7 torpedo (in my mind the best torpedo available) we could operate a similar submarine to our adversary and still have a clear advantage. Additionally, a cheaper initial build and sufficient funds for through-life upgrade and sustainment is better than a more expensive platform which we can’t afford to service or upgrade. We don’t need the best submarine money can buy but rather the best submarine capability we can afford.
Many of the arguments supporting the unique requirements for our future submarine focus on long duration patrols, extended ranges, and lengthy covert ocean transits. Whilst a scenario can be created to necessitate this, you can’t let one extreme and hypothetical situation define the reality of our future. I do not believe an SSK significantly larger than Collins is possible, much less a good idea. There will always be some missions that can’t be achieved, let’s focus our solution on the ones which can.
Whatever decision is made regarding our future submarine, it will remain with us for many years to come. The value of a modern and capable submarine is significant, but so are the costs of ownership and we must be realistic about what can and can’t be achieved. Collins has consistently been let down by some fundamental design flaws leading to poor reliability and inconsistent performance. This has taken a toll on submarine availability and sustainability of our workforce.
The cost and requirements of through life support and capability upgrades were poorly planned and have been difficult to implement. Whilst we have been able to fight on with the Collins Class, the challenge of doing so has been significant and will continue to increase. An inability to keep up with rapid technological change, coupled with high Materiel failure rates has aged the boats prematurely, adding cost and complexity to through-life support. The boats must be sustained in the short term, but I do not believe a service life extension for Collins is even possible, much less recommended.
The navy has continued to struggle with crewing and supporting its submarines, as have DMO, ASC and others, we must strive for best practice as we continue to address personnel issues. I do not believe we have the capability to independently design and build our own submarines, nor do we have the ability to grow the submarine workforce at a faster pace than what has been achieved over the past two years. Our future must build upon our past, with regard for our failings as well as successes. We can’t afford to set ourselves impossible requirements, because we will surely fail to meet them.