CREW SIZE UNDER PRESSURE
Byline: Rex Patrick / Sydney
In 2008 the Defence Department commissioned a review into submarine workforce sustainability which, when completed in 2009, made a number of recommendations to ensure Australia could deal with the pressures facing its submarine workforce and “to develop the required level of capability from the Submarine Force”.
The targets set in the review had navy moving through a number of phases. 2009 to 2011 (the ‘stabilise’ phase) was to see three sustainable crews for three of the six submarines. A fourth crew was to be achieved by 2012 (the ‘recovery’ phase), three crews to two platforms in the years 2012 to 2015 (the ‘consolidate’ phase) and a workforce expansion to lay the foundations for transition from the Collins Class submarines to futures submarines from 2015 onwards (the ‘grow’ phase).
“It’s not that we don’t have enough submariners, just too many submarines” – Anon
Despite a strong commitment at the highest level of Defence, and some novel (for Navy) salary package negotiations revealed by the Chief of Navy at Senate Estimates in February this year, the RAN has fallen short of its targets.
Crew shortfalls on Australia’s Collins class submarines don’t bode well for the future submarine project, which has the chartered responsibility of growing the number of submarines in the force from six to twelve. It’s a problem not lost on the media, which has questioned the sense in pursuing twelve future submarines when the RAN can’t currently crew six. Nor is this lost on Rear Admiral Moffitt, Head of the Future Submarine Program, and the man who penned the Submarine Workforce Sustainability Review.
Most modern diesel electric and air independent submarines have a crew of around 30. A German Type 212 has a crew of 27, a French Scorpene has a crew of 31, a Spanish S-80 will have a crew of 32 and an Israeli Dolphin has a crew of 35.
Nuclear powered submarine crews are larger. A French Barracuda has a crew of 60, a British Astute has a crew of 98, while the US Virginia and Ohio have crews of 129 and 155 respectively.
Crew size is determined by a number of factors; mission, automation, reliability and watch keeping arrangements. There are also a number of other pressures with respect to keeping crew sizes down.
The variety of missions a submarine is expected to perform has an impact on the crew size. The sets do so in a couple of ways.
Firstly, the different missions will almost certainly have an influence on the size of the submarine, predominantly as a result of the demand for payload space and the need for a particular propulsion plant. The size of the submarine in turn has an influence on the size of the crew, with a larger submarine requiring a larger crew given any set automation levels,.
Secondly, each mission and the operational & tactical circumstances under which they take place will have an influence on the platform and combat system (defined in this article as the command & control system and all of the sensors and communications systems) related tasks that need to be performed by the crew. For the platform system, high-level tasks might include the monitoring of all platform systems, the accurate keeping of depth & heading and the operation of platform systems machinery. For the combat system, high-level tasks might include planning, tactical picture compilation, tactical evaluation, engagement, intelligence collection, defensive operations and support tasks (navigation, communication etc.).
Levels of platform and combat system integration and automation should and will have an impact on crew size.
Automation is now commonplace on modern submarines. Remote monitoring techniques improve operational information flow & machinery health status to watch keepers while also simplifying or eliminating human interaction. Modern submarines allow operation of all control surfaces by a single operator and the monitoring/control of almost all platform systems by two watch keepers through a centralised monitoring and control panel.
Automation is normally determined at the submarine design stage following an analysis of the complexity, frequency, duration and simultaneity of platform and combat system elementary tasks. It also takes into account consideration of human control versus automation feasibility and the required level off safety. Safety factors also come into play. The policy of customer navies with respect to the importance of human operation versus automation will also have a significant impact.
Whilst automation does allow for the reduction of crew sizes, overall numbers must be considered in the context of effective submarine operation during standard and peak loads, sustainment of the submarine throughout its total mission and submarine survivability in both benign and combat conditions.
The reliability of both the platform and combat systems elements will influence crew sizes.
Failure of equipment places additional workload on the crew. Poor reliability of equipment and systems may even require additional engineering or technical personnel to be embarked.
Since submarines deploy to sea for days, weeks or months, they must have watch keeping systems that allow for continuous operation of the platform.
Most submarine forces adopt either a two- or a three-watch system, with each watch being six hours long.
The two-watch system allows for smaller crews and generally enables the submarine to conduct most of the tasks without the need to call on assistance from off-watch personnel. Nonetheless, it places greater strain on crews due to the fact that personnel are working 12 hours in a day and typically have around only four to five hours of continuous sleep. In the two-watch system there are normally fewer personnel ready to immediately assist in damage control situations. A two-watch system may adversely affect the ability of a submarine crew to operate for months on end.
The three-watch system requires larger crew numbers and will almost certainly require a surge in the numbers of on-watch personnel in complex tactical scenarios. A three-watch system uses, in the case of the US Navy, an 18-hour cycle, with more off-watch time available to the crew and continuous sleep for up to seven hours often possible. Management of trainees can be shared between on-watch and off-watch personnel and there are often enough off-watch personnel up and about to immediately render assistance during emergencies.
The most common approach taken is to use a three-watch system. Two examples are cited, one on a Scorpene class submarine and one on a Los Angeles Class submarine.
A Scorpene class submarine has a nominal crew of 31. This includes the Commanding Officer, six other officers, 12 non-commissioned officers and 12 ratings. The normal watch arrangement is to have 9 personnel per watch and 4 non-watch keepers.
A Los Angeles class submarine has a nominal crew of 141. This includes the Commanding Officer, 13 other officers, 18 non-commissioned officers and 109 ratings. The normal watch arrangement is to have 25 personnel per watch and 66 non-watch keepers.
The RAN runs a two-watch system on the Collins Class.
THE TREND TO SMALLER CREWS
Crew size is related to submarine size. However, the argument is circular; submarine size is influenced by the size of the crew.
A larger crew requires a greater number of cabins and/or bunks, more crew amenities and larger recreational space requirements. It also places a requirement on the submarine to have more capacity for fresh water generation and stowage, larger food stowage areas and more escape equipment. Refrigerated stowage space in particular is an absolute space driver noting that although space can often be found for additional supplies in extenuating circumstances this is not true for perishable items.
In addition to greater space requirements, larger crews and the larger support systems required to support them in turn result in the consumption of more energy, with its associated impact on the hotel load and therefore on the capability to generate and/or store energy.
Cost also applies pressure to reduce the size of crews. Larger crew numbers, as a result of greater space and support requirements, add cost to the procurement of a submarine and result in a larger through life wage bills – for frigates, the wage bill for the crew is around 40% of the life cycle cost.
As crew numbers decrease, broader knowledge and higher training levels for each individual crewmember are required. Education and experience levels must be considered more carefully when crew numbers are small.
THE ANSWER FOR SEA 1000
If Australia procured an off-the-shelf submarine to fulfil its future needs, would this solve our submarine manning problems?
This author’s view is ‘yes’.
Smaller crews reduce the total submarine force personnel numbers vis-à-vis the larger crew sizes associated with a 4000 tonne own submarine design, thereby simplifying the personnel requirement burden on Navy.
Additionally, the possession of reliable submarines increases the number of sea days gained through submarine reliability, which would see a commensurate increase in the number of sea days available for training new entrant submariners. Commander James Harrap, a recently retired Collins Class submarine Commanding Officer, wrote in a May 2012 APDR article, “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.” The Chief of Navy revealed recently at Senate Estimate hearings another dimension to the problem. Talking of the submarine command qualification course, (called ‘Perisher’ because of the terminal effect that course failure has on a participant’s submarine career), he said “The success rate really depends on the experience level that the candidate has. Clearly, over the last few years, with submarine availability being what it is, you would be disingenuous to pretend that it did not have an impact on the experience level that the candidates are going to the course with.”
Year Planned Actual
2009 Unavailable 17
2010 Unavailable 16
2011 15 16
2012 17 14
2013 18 …
2014 18 …
2015 18 …
Table 1 – Perisher Planned and Actual (Source: Hansards)
Reliable submarines may also increase job satisfaction amongst submarines. Harrap also pointed out, “ … 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”. Men and woman join the submarine to be submariners, not to deal with perpetual engineering problems.
But can Australia’s high-end submarines missions be accomplished with a smaller crew?
Some claim that Australia conducts unique operations with a tempo that far exceeds that of other submarines nations and therefore their success with smaller crews can’t be translated easily into the Australian situation.
This assertion is contested by this author (who has and still does work with a number of navies around the world). It is fair to say, on account of their home porting at HMAS Stirling, that much of our submarine forces at-sea time is spent in the West Australian Exercise Area (WAXA). The WAXA is one of the most benign areas of shipping in the world. It has low ambient noise levels and sparse traffic densities. Rarely do foreign warships pass by Cape Leeuwin. Rarely do foreign maritime surveillance aircraft conduct tasks to the east of Rottnest Island. RAN submarines venturing into more challenging waters of the Indonesian archipelago and beyond into the South China Sea is the exception. For submarine nations like Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, all with off the shelf submarines and relatively small crews, it is the rule. These three countries are all emerging submarine players in the region and are likely to be conducting the sort of operations that the United States once relied upon Australia to perform.
Those that refuse to baseline Australia against Asian operators could alternatively be asked to look at a range of established submarine operators in and around the Baltic and the Mediterranean that manage to meet their national and alliance responsibilities in more densely and diversely populated waters.
Others claim that the likelihood of crew fatigue on long deployment will increase with smaller crew sizes.
This proposition is also questionable. Numerous smaller submarines have deployed for long time periods with small crews. German type 206 submarines have deployed for more than 50 days, despite their small 500 tonne size and small 23-person complement. Pakistani Agosta 90 submarines, at 2000 tonnes with a crew of 41, have also deployed for more than 60 days. This author has been to sea on Australian Oberon class submarines as well as both the Greek and South Korean Type 214s and can attest that the 25% decrease in size of the Oberon in comparison to the Type 214 for an almost 50% reduction in crew size makes for a more comfortable experience for the crew.
Perhaps with forward basing, a concept embraced by the United States Navy, deployment times would be reduced. Perhaps with more submarines, possible because of the price differential between a $10 billion off the shelf submarine and a $36 billion bespoke 4000 tonne design, the load can be shared thus reducing the demand placed on any one particular submarine crew?
THE COLLINS LOOKING GLASS
Maybe Australia’s perception of submarine crew requirements is seen through the Collins Class looking glass?
Collins is a boat that requires considerable technical effort to put and keep at sea. Modern submarine crew numbers are designed around technical staff performing platform control watch keeping roles with occasional defect rectification. The report by John Coles into Collins Class submarine sustainment, along with testimony from senior Defence and DMO officials at Estimates hearings, suggests that that this is not the case on Australia’s current submarine platform. Extra crew would be required to cope with the Collins engineering scenario.
Could it be that the combat system is also a contributor to the perceived need for a modern submarine to have larger crews than what other nations seem to use. Collins is a boat with a federated rather than fully integrated combat system and one with a command and control system that the US Navy’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation has determined “… is not effective in supporting operator situational awareness and contact management in areas of high‑contact density” or “did not meet the Navy’s requirements for target localization; however, the targeting solutions were often sufficient for a trained crew to provide the torpedo an opportunity to detect the target”. Prima facie, this would suggest that tactical picture compilation is troublesome and that manual Target Motion Analysis is required to achieve accurate target positional and kinematic state estimates. To offset this, additional personal would no doubt be required in the Action Information Organisation onboard the submarine. A 2011 NAVSEA sponsored Naval Postgraduate School report into the Virginia Class submarine combat system stated emphatically that greater levels of automation could be achieved in the AN/BYG-1 Combat Systems such that manpower utilization could be reduced by 52%!
In 2009 the Royal Australian Navy increased the size of each Collins class crew from 46 to 58. This move was in contrast to crew size trends in most, if not all, other submarine forces.
A REALISTIC AND ACHIEVABLE PLAN
In August 2012 a blue print was put forward in this magazine to take Australia’s troubled submarine capability from where it is now to a force operating the larger submarine it seems to be seeking to acquire. The plan did so in a three risk savvy phases; 1) restore, 2) enhance and 3) achieve the aspirational. The first phase of this plan was about restoring Australia’s submarine force to one that is reliable and deployable. A component of that was about making sure the country had a submarine type that allowed the navy to spend time at sea training new entrant submariners and giving those that had been awarded their dolphins (submarine qualification badge) the necessary job satisfaction to retain their services inside the force.
These phase one off-the-shelf submarines would allow the navy to test a highly automated smaller submarine fitted with a highly integrated combat system, mixed in with a forward deployed concept of operations (perhaps with a submarine tender thrown into the mix) to achieve its required mission.
This approach contrasts strongly with the notion of undertaking a high risk bespoke design program path where, in fact, the first submarine delivered would be a prototype. Noting the poor success rate Defence has with respect to ambitious procurement projects, a poor outcome, coupled with the troubled manning situation the RAN has at present, could easily result in disaster for the Australian submarine force.