The submarine community has an uncanny knack for understatement, with the Submarine Institute of Australia conference last week demonstrating this in spades – which is perhaps reflective of the nature of people that work in this space. In any case, the event provided a valuable opportunity to focus on the submarine capability.
The conference theme was centred around the Collins class life of type extension (LOTE); current thinking and the technology to be delivered under Sea 1450 from both defence and industry perspectives. The interplay between the current capability and the new platform under the Future Submarine was never far away.
Assistant Minister for Defence Senator David Fawcett set the scene, acknowledging the history of the Collins journey.
“Collins has been an outstanding success despite everything the program has gone through,” Fawcett said, recognising the ‘lived experience’ of the audience.
“The scale and scope of what has been achieved with Collins is impressive.”
All speakers reflected on the lessons learned from the Collins program and how they can be applied to the Future Submarine program.
Sen Fawcett again mastered the art of the submariner understatement: “Stubborn relations between partners led to poor engineering decisions and outcomes.”
Director-General of Submarines Commodore Tim Brown outlined the gains that the Collins fleet has made since the adoption of the Coles review. The fleet has been meeting its material ready days benchmarks for over a year, the submarine workforce has grown by 45 per cent in the past three years, and the Collins fleet participated in over two dozen exercises in 2018 with 2019 set to be even busier.
CMDR Brown also referred to the perennial workforce issue. “For a submariner joining the force today, the force they will be a part of in two decades will be unrecognisable,” he said.
Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, head of the Future Submarine Program, confirmed that Collins will be the main submarine capability of the ADF into the 2030s while the transition to the Future Submarine comes together.
He was also honest in his summation of priorities and where the submarine capability sits in the ADF’s order of battle. “[The Future Submarine] is not a capability that will take precedence over all over ADF capabilities in terms of funding,” RADM Sammut said. He then confirmed that the budget of the program has not changed since the end of CEP to choose the design partner.
RADM Sammut also noted that successful management of projects of concern, where Collins featured for years before it was removed in October 2017, requires a reset of relationships rather than contracts. In this sense, the timing of the strategic partnering arrangement (SPA) is about making sure the relationship starts off on the right foot.
Head of Naval Group Australia John Davis and head of Future Submarine for Naval Group France Jean-Michelle Billig confirmed that both businesses are working towards the SPA and are engaging with Australian SMEs as details come together.
“This contract is not just about delivering 12 submarines,” Billig said. “It’s about Australian sovereignty in the long term.”
The detailed practical and policy steps of how this would be achieved over the life of the program were sparse from both Naval Group presenters. Billig did confirm that their AIC plan and strategies have now been approved by the Commonwealth and are in the first of three phases.
“We’re engaging and qualifying companies right now.”
Jim Burnside from ASC provided some industry led insights on the second day on how Collins came together and is now performing.
“Collins was contracted [so that] the first boat would be the same as the last boat,” Burnside said (an approach the Future Submarine will not be taking). “This approach evolved as the program progressed.”
He also confirmed that 70 per cent of the build program was Australian, with 90 per cent of dollars spent on Collins sustainment heading to Australian industry.
“LOTE is a great engineering challenge for our team as we develop our workforce,” Burnside said. “Collins wasn’t designed as a 3D model, but we now have that available in our PLM system as we move towards a digital twin approach.”
My favourite understatement of the event came from Peter Chaplin of PMB Batteries, the company which has supplied batteries for the Collins program from the beginning.
“Stuff catching on fire isn’t great,” Chaplin said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done in getting the balance right in submarine battery technology. Smoke is not the level of excitement we’re looking for.”
The company has dedicated approximately half of its 60-strong workforce to R&D efforts, noting that the global environment for battery-related patents is booming with thousands of new patents filed annually.