THE LESSONS OF COLLINS
Byline: Rex Patrick / Sydney
Midway through last month Professor Hugh White wrote an article in The Melborne Age entitled “Our Military Strategies Indefensible“. In it he made passing critism of Defence with respect to Australia’s Future Submarine Program, commenting “…while [Defence] allows a slow-motion, high-cost train smash in the replacement submarine program that jeopardises the future of perhaps the most important single capability for Australia over the next few decades“.
What makes this comment especially interesting is that it is not the first time a train smash analogy has been employed in realtion to an Australian submarine program. In response to a damning Collins Class submarine skit by the ABC’s Hungry Beast in March 2010, one retired RAN submarine Admiral stated in a semi public forum that [The Collins Program] is a Defence-led train smash.
In a prelude to next month’s SEA 1000 article – which will propose an elegant and affordable solution to Australia’s submarine woes – it seems prudent to reflect on the Collins saga with an aim to draw out the big lessons.
It is interesting to compare Australia’s Collins Class Submarine acquisition with that of the Republic of Korean Navy (ROKN) Type 209 project.
It is noted that this author had involvement in both; as one of the first crew members posted to NUSHIP Collins and as a sub-contractor who rode South Korea’s first Type 214, Son Won Il, on a number of occasions during her initial sea trail. However, most of the material for this article is drawn from Yule and Woolner’s The Collins Class Story and Chung’s Ultramodern Conventional Submarine KSX (this book about the Korean submarine force has its own section devoted to Lessons of the HMAS Collins Class Submarine¬ – including a copy of the “Dud Subs” article that appeared in the Daily Telegraph)
A comparison is interesting because of both the similarities and the differences.
Royal Australian Navy Submarine Force Capability
Australia’s submarine project office kicked off around 1982. At the time the RAN was arguably the most capable and experienced submarine force in our region.
The project initially called on the Defence Department to procure a proven submarine design but later pursued a unique design of submarine tailored to exacting Australian requirements.
Parts of the first submarine were built by Kockums in Sweden, but the majority of the work was carried out here in Australia by a company stood up specifically to build the boats. Boats two through six were built here in their entirety.
In 1994, HMAS Collins proceeded to sea for the first time. Although the public were unaware, the initial submarine was not in a fit state to do so. A report written later by John Prescott and Malcolm Macintosh – released publicly on 1 July 1999 – made this clear… and whille painful, some viewed it as an opportunity to stop, take stock and seek to tackle the problems. A Submarine Capability Team was set up to address all of the issues identified and to get all six boats fully capable as soon as possible. Some short-term success was advertised in the form of an impressive performance by one Commander Andy Keogh and his team on WALLER during RIMPAC 2000, but 10 years later we are lucky to see more than one unit ready boat at any one time and for most of the time. The boats have degraded capabilities due to a variety problems ( such as batteries, diesels, generators, towed arrays, and emergency propulsion) which by and large have been known about for many years. We currently have two submarines laid up at ASC for a total of nine years.
The DMO has Collins at pole position on its list of Projects of Concern. It appointed a 3 star equivalent, Mr Kim Gillis, in 2009 to rehabilitate the Collins Class. He had a massive task ahead of him. Kim quickly moved on the greener pastures. In his wake we have seen the appointment of Air Vice-Marshall Deeble as the Program Manager Collins (and Wedgetail) who has initiated “stabilise, rebalance and continuous improvement” activities for the submarines. We have also seen the commissioning of a substantial review by John Coles, the output of which will feed into a “Collins Reform Program” and on May 3 the problem was re-assigned to a three star civilian, Mr David Gould, General Manager Submarines. There are many who think that the magnitude of the problem is simply beyond all of this manoeuvring. Overheard in the halls of Parliament was an eloquent description of the situation as: “it’s a revolving door or people and plans”.
Republic Of Korea Navy Submarine Force Capability
The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) submarine project office also kicked off in 1982. It was an embryonic event. The procurement program was postponed in 1984 but recommenced in 1986. The South Koreans were steadfast in their desire to have a proven submarine design. The focus of their negotiation with the three contenders (Type 209, Agosta, Sauro) was performance, price, technology transfer, military assistance and education & training. The Type 209 was eventually chosen with the first to be built by HDW in Germany (with Defence and shipbuilding personnel sent to Germany to participate in the build) and the remaining 8 to be built in batches by the longstanding Daewoo shipyard in Korea.
In October 1992, Korea became the 43rd nation to join the submarine community. Since then South Korea and its Navy have demonstrated an outstanding capability with respect to submarine force construction, sustainment and operation.
In international exercises such as RIMPAC and Tandem Thrust, ROKN Type 209 submarines have demonstrated superiority in the detecting and attacking of powerful “enemies”.
In 1998 the ROKS LEE JONGMOO participated in RIMPAC (as did HMAS ONSLOW). It sunk 13 warships (150,000 tons) and was the only submarine to survive until the end of the exercise.
ROKS PARK WI participated in RIMPAC 2000 (HMAS WALLER participated also, with great success). Considering the 1998 RIMPAC achievements, “enemy” forces kept a close watch on PARK WI, making it a top priority for sinking during the exercise. However, she sank 11 enemy ships (96,000 tons) and, again, survived to the end of the exercise without being detected once by enemy forces. Admiral “Big Al” Konetzni, COMSUBPAC at the time, publicly praised the performance of the ROKN submarine.
In 2002 ROKS NA DAEYONG participated in RIMPAC (as did HMAS SHEEAN). It sank 10 enemy ships (100,000 tons) and, matching the trend, survived to the end of the exercise.
In 2004 it was ROKS CHANG BOGO’s turn to take part in RIMPAC (as did HMAS RANKIN). It successfully launched a total of 40 simulated torpedoes against 15 surface ships, including the nuclear aircraft carrier, USS JOHN C STENNIS, and her accompanying escorts. It survived until the end of the exercise without being counter detected and without mechanical issue.
ROKN submarine performance at these exercises has invited keen attention.
The ROKN have moved on to their next program, with three of a planned force of nine Type 214 submarines now commissioned. They have not looked backwards. Their submarine force doesn’t have any issues with respect to operating with the United States Navy, which they do on a more regular basis than our submarines.
RADM Doug McAneny said in 2009, “The Koreans are very strong allies in the region. They are frequent participants in many of the multi-lateral and bi-lateral exercises we do in the region and we do sub on sub work with them as well”.
Fight in the Dog
Mark Twain once said … It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, it’s about the size of the fight in the dog.
It is clear that the ROKN submarine program has been highly successful. The ROKN have been involved in numerous exercises and operations over the past few years from Australia, to Hawaii and beyond – and done very well. They have boats with proven capability, which they are comfortable putting in harm’s way, with courageous, motivated, and well led professional crews.
Two years ago South Korean deployed ROKS Lee Eokgi to Hawaii for RIMPAC, at the same time, no doubt, as supporting more up-tempo ASW exercises in home waters. Australia, for the first time in decades, could not even muster a submarine to send to war.
At a time when South Korea was on a war footing, they managed to send a submarine to RIMPAC, while we were struggling to keep our boats at sea. We were at the nadir of submarine availability. If we had been called upon to assist operations in and around Korea, it is unlikely that we could have done so at that time.
Now, with the comparison above in mind, we move to the lessons of Collins.
LESSON ONE – UNIQUE CAN MEAN WORSE
The first lesson is this. The quest for a submarine that meets unique requirements can ultimately result in the delivery of a solution that under performs compared with proven but not fully compliant solutions.
The Collins story above is testimony to this. We have a submarine that on paper is supposed to achieve more than it has ever managed to demonstrate. Worse, we have seen lengthy periods where the submarines were further constrained from the demonstrated capability baseline (e.g. diving depth was constrained for a long time after the 2003 flooding incident on Dechaineux). The submarines are plagued with issues that cut deep into the heart of availability; a lack of availability that denies our submariners the necessary sea experience to become competent and confident operators across the wide range of roles and functions performed by most other first order navies. It also denies us the ability to develop and test new tactics and technologies.
The impact of the Collins program goes beyond the submarine force has also been felt across the entire ADF. It has assisted in eroding our ASW acumen – a rather undesirable situation noting the proliferation of modern submarines into our region.
The indirect impacts are more difficult to quantify: what impact has there been on other areas of capability as funds were diverted into the Collins ‘get well’ programs? Over $1 billion was spent in the mid-2000s on fix-it programs and now FY14/15 forward estimates indicate that total per annum submarine force costs will rise to over $1 billion. Has anyone calculated the total cost of ownership of Collins thus far and divided the total number of Collins sea days into that number? Would anyone dare?
But it’s not just about the money expended. Money spent on building Collins and subsequently fixing it has robbed the submarine force in other ways. Take DSTO for example: what has been the impact on DSTO’s research as their resources were directed into submarine specific problems? One might suggest that over the past 20 years they have been largely focussed on providing fixes to the submarines, not capability leaps.
People who advocate a unique design of submarine for Australia cite two main reasons: we have a unique set of capability requirements and/or we have a unique mission set.
With respect to unique capability requirements, right now, other submarine forces are conducting a superset of the operations that our submarines are – or ever did. They are doing so in colder waters than us. They are doing so in warmer waters than us. They are doing so over similar or longer distances. Requirements should not all be viewed equally. They should be objectively categorised as essential, important, desirable or welcomed, such that they those below essential can be appropriately traded off against performance and cost risk. Often the last ten percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.
With respect to unique mission sets, these also need to be traded off against performance and cost risk – particularly those that are not first tier (i.e. Defence of Australia missions). We should look very carefully at the mission sets that might serve our allies in far off places, but also consider the risk that an allies’ mission set might impose upon our project.
LESSON TWO – IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN JUST SUBMARINES
The second lesson is this: Submarines alone do not alone make for a submarine capability.
Experienced Defence personnel are well aware that there are many “inputs to capability” – a capable platform is but one of them. What is needed is a well thought-out submarine capability strategy. This must address all of the things that might make a submarine more effective. These include: warfighting, intelligence capabilities, ocean surveillance and cueing capabilities, communications – and so on.
We need to remove the focus solely from the submarine. With a (shrinking) finite budget we must be careful not to direct all the money at a submarine design and submarine build organisation.
LESSON THREE – HAVE A REALISABLE SUSTAINMENT MODEL
The third lesson is this: Don’t proceed down a bespoke solution path if the Australian Government is not prepared, or able, to sign up to and fund a sensible sustainment model.
An industry was established to build the Collins Class submarines. Unfortunately, once the last submarine was delivered, much of that industry re-deployed to other defence and commercial areas. Much of the knowledge gained has evaporated and, as a result, it has becomes harder and harder, and more expensive, to sustain our submarines.
There are two basic long-term sustainment models for countries which design and build submarines.
Sustain through export is one of the models. France, Germany, Russia, Spain and Sweden have adopted this model. Unfortunately, were Australia to venture down this path, it would be venturing into a market where others have significant heritage and experience. We would find ourselves in a situation where DCNS, HDW, Navantia or Kockums would not assist us in our endeavours to become their competitors. We would have to accept that we would be on our own and that the first few boats built here would, by and large, be prototypes. South Korea ultimately hopes to export submarines and has started discussions with prospective purchasers, including Indonesia.
Sustain through a continuous build program is the second model. This is the model adopted by China, Japan, the UK and the US. Such a model here would involve signing the taxpayer up to a very expensive endeavour. This is a very difficult proposition to sell, noting Australia’s population base and GDP is very different to nations who have such a model.
Irrespective of the approach, there is a fairly significant difference between those countries that design and build submarines and those that simply construct them. Serious design and build players have a submarine industry. For example, Germany doesn’t just have a shipyard building submarines. It has a number of in-country research, design and manufacturing feathers to their cap; HDW for submarines, Atlas Elektronik for submarine combat systems, Siemens for submarine main motors and fuel cell systems, Exide Technologies for submarine batteries, Gabler for mast solutions, Carl Zeiss Optronics for periscopes and optronic masts, Rohde & Schwarz for submarine communications … and so forth. A similar story can be rolled out for all serious players. No one has been talking of an Australian submarine industry mirroring that just described.
If Defence can’t get sign-up from the taxpayer, – at best a highly unlikely proposition noting the results they received from the last cheque that was written – Australia should not proceed down the bespoke path. We would just be setting ourselves up for failure and committing a grave injustice to our submariners.
LESSON FOUR – PICK THE RIGHT PARTNER
The fourth lesson is this: Pick the right partner and methods for knowledge transfer.
There are some that argue that Australia made a fatal error when it isolated itself from the original submarine designer, Kockums. Whilst Australia obtained intellectual property (IP) sustainment rights to the Collin design, it did not have the necessary knowledge of the design to utilise this effectively.
In every case where you are designing something, it is imperative to know not just how something is done but why. When the Israelis signed the contract for the Dolphin class submarines combat system, they sent engineers to Bremen to work with Atlas Elektronik staff writing the code. When they left, they had the source code (a commercial deliverable) but, more importantly, they had a solid understanding of it and how to modify it.
Unfortunately IP, such as documents, diagrams, process flows, describing a final design doesn’t normally describe the 15 paths the engineer took to get to the final design. In other words, such documents do not actually contain the real knowledge of lessons learned/experience gained.
As Australia moves forward, it needs to pay particular attention to the partner we select. That partner needs to have a pedigree of submarine design and past performance in such endeavours, a solid market share and future roadmap for its products. Additional requirements should be a strong balance sheet with a willingness to invest in an Australian program such that there is incentive to avoid program failures. Finally such a partner should have a favourable view of Intellectual Property terms and associated cooperation schemes whereby knowledge, not just IP, is transferred and that we have a sustainment model that allows us to retain that knowledge across generations.
Einstein once said … We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
There is a certain irony that, with all the problems/issues we’ve had with Collins, there are many espousing we should go into the next program on paths that will introduce even more risk. Surely one of the lessons from Collins must be to reduce or ensure that risk does not exceed levels that we can effectively handle/manage. One can be forgiven for having difficulty understanding why we would want to load the FSM program up with risk from the outset, particularly when we don’t have to.
It is a difficult task to argue the case in current circumstances for a $36 billion Collins replacement program. But we need to take things one step further and think of what the implications of such a program going wrong are. $36 billion could easily turn into $70 billion … not to mention a national security disaster.