Assuming that contractual issues with Sea 1000 are resolved and design and construction eventually proceed more or less as scheduled, a further vital but as yet largely unheralded challenge awaits; transition.
This involves successfully managing the transition of Australia’s submarine capability from the six-strong Collins-class fleet to the 12 Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A Future Submarines, a massive and extended undertaking ranging from manning and training to basing and support.
Although the RAN and CASG were unable to provide any subject matter experts to discuss these issues, ADM was able to explore on condition of anonymity the challenges these involved with several past and present members of the submarine community, and with Mark Sander, a former submarine commanding officer and president of the Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA).
While the Collins’ early days in service were complicated by a variety of materiel issues, the initial transition from the Oberon fleet to the new class was also challenging.
“Initial training was a debacle because it was supposed to be computer-based but for the first couple of crews it was nearly all carried out with overhead projectors. And of course the submarines were not ready on time, a possibility that simply hadn’t occurred to anyone,” recalls a Collins CO who preferred to remain anonymous.
“Everything started to concertina. You couldn’t get people through the training pipeline, you couldn’t get your submarines out and working, your Oberon-class boats were paying off, and you ended up with a capability gap.
“And when you got on the boat the combat system wasn’t working and you had problems with the sonar which got to the point where they had to commission a backup system to ensure the boat could return to periscope depth safely.”
Inadequate planning, delays, unreliability; all problems which should not arise again – but will they?
“The vast majority of current submariners have only served on Collins,” stated a second senior Collins’ alumnus. “If there aren’t people available, whether still in uniform or not, who remember and understand those early Oberon-Collins transition issues they’re going to make the same mistakes.
“It’s going to be complex; we’re doubling the size of the fleet and I’m not sure everybody fully understands what that actually means in terms of the number of personnel, the infrastructure, the training pipeline.
“What’s needed is a comprehensive strategic plan with recommendations and a timeline endorsed by government. We may be told that such plans are being formulated today, but I’m not aware of them.”
This will be particularly relevant to a situation where for some years Navy will be operating a mixed fleet of Collins and Future Submarines.
“I was posted in command of Waller twice and the boat kept on getting delayed and I kept on going back to sea on Oberons,” Sander explained to ADM. “That was unusual; once you were posted to the Collins program most people didn’t come back. They remained in the program rather than returning to the Oberons for further operational experience. Whilst the boats were in the early stages of their build there was not a lot for them to do, which was a negative on both sides.
“Today, we’re going from a Swedish-designed submarine to a French-designed submarine and although the systems will perform the same task, the manner in which they will do it will be different. It’s a different engineering culture, and transferring sailors trained for a delayed Future Submarine back to Collins will be more challenging.”
However, upgrading Collins or using the class as a testbed for equipment also destined for the Future Submarines would ease this issue. One change affecting operational procedures will be the Future Submarine’s non-hull-penetrating optronic mast.
Where previously the only person looking through the periscope was the Captain or one of the officers, now everyone will be able to see on screens what’s being shown through that mast. How best to optimise this new system will be a further learning curve that operators will have to climb.
With unemployment running at around six per cent, sourcing sufficient uniformed workforce to virtually double submarine service personnel when the fleet moves beyond the current six boats will represent a major challenge on its own. The development of a much larger training pipeline to push people through that will initially retain combat system and platform trainers for both classes will also be a significant challenge, notes another former Collins CO.
“Where we’re struggling is at the senior warfare officer level – executive officers and commanding officers.
“Over the past 5-10 years we’ve recruited a number of people from other navies and persuaded former COs to rejoin but that’s a limited resource which will run out.
“To get a commanding officer you need a pool of 10 or so officers who go through submarine training and progressively drop out; people don’t appreciate that kind of attrition rate.”
Also inherent in the personnel challenge is the future basing of the sub-surface fleet, given the general assumption of a west coast/east coast split.
“Are you going to have all 12 boats at HMAS Stirling – I don’t think so, it wouldn’t make any sense,” commented a serving Collins officer to ADM.
“We’re not only buying more submarines, they’re larger, requiring more space at port. Garden Island on the east coast is full, Stirling is also full so you look at some sort of tender concept or you build a new base, and that always has challenges and costs.
“If you want to build on the east coast you’re looking at Port Kembla, maybe Newcastle, or even Brisbane, which means you need to look at your infrastructure and everything that goes with it. It’s an issue that must be addressed within the next few years.”
The yard being built at Adelaide’s Techport was for construction, suggesting maintenance for west coast submarines would be moved to Perth. At the moment, full cycle dockings (FCDs) can take place at either Adelaide or Perth but the construction phase in Adelaide will take an enormous amount of space and people from the FCD workforce there.
“But if you split your fleet you probably don’t want to take your east coast submarines all the way around to the west coast to have them maintained, you’d probably want to have an intermediate facility on the east coast. You’d also want two full cycle docking spots available, probably on the west, because it’s going to happen, you’re going to have two submarines wanting full cycle docking at once.
“I don’t think Navy has got its head around this.”
The potential split basing would also require innovative solutions for manning, including a possible west coast allowance.
“Don’t believe all the words about submariners going to the west and never wanting to leave. 90 per cent of the recruit pool lies in the 90 per cent of Australia’s population on the east coast, that’s where their families are, and a lot of them would return to the east if they could,” commented a former Collins executive officer.
“The first-of-type Future Submarine won’t go to sea till around the early 2030s so we’ve got another 12 or so years until we have to find that first extra crew, but 12 years goes pretty quickly and you have to build up your reserve of sailors and officers,” Sander commented separately.
“And don’t forget we have to have industry support for those submarines and that’s going to be more challenging as well, given the requirements at the same time for the new Hunter-class frigates and offshore patrol vessels.”
Finally, Sander warns not to underestimate the cultural shift involved in moving from one platform to another.
“The Collins people viewed the old Oberons as diesel dinosaurs and Collins was the new way of doing business, therefore a lot of the lessons we had learnt about how to do submarine operations were not forgotten, but discarded.
“Good submarine practice is the same no matter what platform you’re in and many of the procedures, the processes we had always always use with our O-Boats were just put aside on the argument that this was a new type of submarine.
“That’s a dangerous thing to do; it’s a cultural issue which has been identified and I’m sure will be addressed for this new submarine,” Sanders said.
This article first appeared in the November edition of ADM.