Patrick Durrant | Sydney
During a Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence, Trade and Legislation Committee (Senate Estimates) hearing today, top Navy and Defence personnel were subjected to sustained questioning on the issues affecting the two Canberra class LHDs which are currently being investigated at Fleet Base East in Sydney.
Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, in answer to questions from Labor Senator Kim Carr, confirmed that migration of oils across seals in the azimuth propulsion pod systems had been observed and investigations were continuing to confirm whether this was a design problem or rather one due to excessive wear and tear.
In HMAS Adelaide, currently in drydock, there was also the discovery of tiny metal particulates in the pod lube oil which, according to VADM Barrett, may be a result of excessive loads being placed upon bearings.
The two LHDs have been conducting an ambitious program of trials and evaluations since they were commissioned in 2015 and 2016. But VADM Barrett said the Navy had been careful to operate the ships within the specifications outlined by the manufacturers.
"We've not operated the ships beyond the sustainment for which we've been given funding for," he said.
VADM Barrett confirmed the total days spent at sea by both vessels in 2016 numbered 118 with Adelaide and Canberra having conducted 42 and 19 days respectively so far in 2017.
Senator Carr asked whether similar issues had been observed in pods in service elsewhere in the world, including in the merchant marine. Deputy Secretary CASG Kim Gillis replied that in the early introduction of similar systems, which were in regular use by cruise liners and other large vessels, there had been issues with seals but the particular Siemens pods in use by both the Australian and Spanish navies were quite unique. In response to further questioning from Senator Carr, Gillis confirmed the Spanish Armada's Juan Carlos I did have an issue with its pods but they were unrelated to those believed to be affecting the Australian vessels.
Original equipment manufacturer Siemens had sent its top engineers and designers of the system to Sydney to inspect the problem on the HMAS Adelaide, Gillis said.
"It is a concern to them as much as it is to us," he said.
VADM Barrett said Navy was in the midst of conducting a root cause analysis and it was far too early to suggest that the problems may be a result of a design flaw.
HMAS Canberra had conducted further trials at sea on 17th and 18th May. Oil samples had been taken and were currently being tested with results due within two weeks.
At this stage he confirmed HMAS Canberra would participate in the multinational amphibious exercise off Queensland at the end of June; Exercise Talisman Sabre. He admitted that she may have operational restrictions placed on her depending on the outcome of the ongoing propulsion pod investigations.
At that point HMAS Adelaide was expected to leave the Captain Cook graving dock. She would then undergo further testing and any learnings from this would be applied to HMAS Canberra.
"Both ships will be back in service by the fourth quarter this year," VADM Barrett said.
With the original intent of improving the LHDs amphibious capability at Talisman Sabre now in jeopardy, VADM Barrett said that Navy would now need to consider other ways of doing that and referred to experience that had been gained by HMAS Canberra from the recent Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise conducted off Hawaii last year.
Gillis confirmed that Navy was able to draw upon one complete set of spares for the propulsion pods, but further spares were required as a result of problems in the additional pod. Imports of further spares were given top priority after there had been some initial delays he said.
An interactive schematic of the Siemens propulsion pod system very similar to the one in use on the LHDs can be viewed here.