More problems with the Collins Class submarines

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More problems with the Collins Class submarines

Posted 27/09/2013 by David Watt

On 26 September 2013, an article in The Australian newspaper revealed aspects of a ‘confidential’ Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) report which identifies ‘68 critical problems’ with the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins Class submarines which might prevent them from continuing to operate until the development of a replacement class of vessels. The Department of Defence responded to The Australian stating that the ‘purpose of the report was to identify potential issues and risks that would need to be addressed to extend the life of the class’ and that this was part of a normal process undertaken in the event that the service life of the class was to be extended.

If this report is correct, it undermines to some extent previous government and DMO assurances that ongoing maintenance issues with the Collins Class were under control and would potentially allow the Collins Class to operate until 2038. It is important to note that the Australian does not report the DMO as stating that it will be impossible to keep the CCSM in operation until a replacement is in the water but it does indicate that many challenges will have to be overcome if this objective is to be met.

Since well before the commissioning of HMAS Collins in 1996 there have been ongoing problems with the class. The longevity and complexity of issues surrounding these submarines makes this a difficult issue to follow—outlined below are references to a number of key resources to facilitate a better understanding of the project’s history.

The project to develop and build the submarines is discussed in two Parliamentary Library publications, Procuring change: how Kockums was selected for the Collins Class Submarine and Getting in early: lessons of the Collins Submarine program for improved oversight of Defence procurement, both by Derek Woolner. Woolner’s book The Collins Class submarine story: steel, spies and spin (2008), is also a rich source of knowledge on the history of the Collins Class.

In 1991 the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) reviewed the Collins Class project in Department of Defence: new submarine project, (audit report no. 22, 1991–92) and again in Management of the Collins-Class operations sustainment (audit report no. 23, 2008–09).

In March 1999, Malcolm McIntosh and John Prescott were commissioned by the Minister for Defence to provide an independent assessment of the Collins Class submarine (CCSM) project. The review team was specifically instructed to consider reports received by the Minister for Defence, ‘examine the history of the project, the current status of the project and the proposals to rectify any outstanding issues’. The resulting Report to the Minister for Defence on the Collins Class submarine and related matters was publicly released on 1 July 1999.

In August 2011, the Government announced a review into the sustainment of the CCSM, which was headed by John Coles. An interim report was released in December 2011, and the final report, Study into the business of sustaining Australia’s strategic Collins Class submarine capability, was released in December 2012. The Minister’s media release which both announced the release of the Study and touched on the Government’s response can be found here.

A key recommendation of the Coles Review, as it became known, was that a reduction in the duration of planned maintenance for the Collins Class would make the largest single contribution to a higher level of submarine availability. Another recommendation of the Coles Review was to establish an In-Service Support Contract between DMO and the Australian Submarine Corporation for maintenance and support services for the CCSM. This was implemented in June 2012 in the form of ‘a rolling five year contract with options to be exercised subject to satisfactory performance’.

At much the same time as the Coles Review was taking place, the DMO carried out a study into the service life of the Collins Class. This review found ‘no single technical issue that would fundamentally prevent the Collins-Class submarines from achieving their indicative service life or a service life extension’. This finding fed into the Coles Review and has been repeated by the Minister on several occasions. Although it was not released publicly, it is probably this report to which the recent article in The Australian refers.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has also followed the Collins Class submarines during their development and subsequent life. In Cutting edge: the Collins experience (2006), Patrick Walters, while not ignoring the problems in the development of the submarines, takes a positive view of the capability outcomes as well as the benefits to Australian industry.

In another ASPI publication, The once and future submarine—raising and sustaining Australia’s underwater capability (2011), Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson illustrate the ‘unacceptably low levels of availability and capability’ in the CCSM fleet between 2003–09 and point out the need for forward momentum on developing a replacement.

In Mind the gap: getting serious about submarines (2012) Davies and Thomson canvass the problems associated with the Collins Class and discuss the possibility of a submarine capability gap emerging by the late 2020s.

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