As Defence looks to undertake a major upgrade program of its Collins-class submarines to bridge the gap with RAN’s future nuclear-powered submarine capability, one company already has a wealth of experience in this work.
Now that the Future Submarine program has been scrapped in favour of a nuclear-powered alternative, as announced in September by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, increasing attention is being focused on the Life of Type Extension (LOTE) program (Project CN62 – previously Sea 1450) covering all six of the RAN’s Collins-class fleet.
Aimed at avoiding a capability gap prior to the entry into service of the nuclear-powered boats, the program will involve a two-year upgrade for each Collins boat on reaching 30 years of service – the first in May 2026, the others at two-year intervals – that will extend their life by 10 years and enhance their capabilities.
Although CN62 is yet to gain full approval, first pass was achieved in June and there is no doubting the program’s implementation, and its critical importance. Even if both CN62 and the nuclear-powered submarine program adhere to current schedules, the RAN will still field only eight submarines until nearly 2050 unless the nuclear-powered build and introduction to service can be accelerated.
The LOTE will replace three of the major systems on the Collins – main motor, diesel generators and electrical distribution systems. This challenging undertaking will be combined with the usual maintenance and obsolescence management of a scheduled full cycle docking (FCD) while somehow compressing both activities into the two years normally allocated for an FCD alone.
This will probably be achieved by replacing the capability insertion-type work normally included in an FCD work package with the LOTE workscope, although Defence recently revealed that some undisclosed LOTE updates would be accorded lower priority than what it termed ‘the core work package’.
As well as building, sustaining and upgrading the Collins class, ASC is also Collins’ Design Authority. As such, it has been progressing system design for a potential LOTE for several years; a 33-strong team was already engaged on this in 2019.
As of March 2021, ASC had received $25 million reallocated from the now-defunct Future Submarine program to fund a LOTE definition plan; LOTE signatures study; and LOTE business case, concept design and workforce capability development, Defence disclosed to Senate Estimates. The period over which the funding was provided was not disclosed.
LOTE scoping studies by industry on combat, sonar, and periscope systems together with an optronics business case and concept design development have also been funded by the same program within the overall redirection cap of $34 million.
This preliminary expenditure pales into insignificance given the estimated $3.5 – $6.0 billion cost of the LOTE program as outlined in the 2020 Force Structure Plan and reconfirmed by Defence at Senate Estimates in June.
Notwithstanding the generous Defence-sized variance included in this estimate, the amounts involved underline the challenges faced by ASC in heading an undertaking well beyond the scope of its experience to date.
Looking ahead, a major LOTE support role as a strategic partner now appears increasingly likely for Collins’ designer Saab (the Saab Group acquired Kockums in 2014).
Saab and Defence
The submarine construction and design heritage derived from Kockums stretches back more than a century and includes recent and very relevant major upgrades to two Swedish Navy Gotland-class submarines, a further development of the Västergötland-class on which the slightly larger Collins’ design is based.
Kockums’ already fragile relations with ASC worsened after the Swedish company was acquired by German shipbuilder HDW in 1999. Its 49 per cent shareholding in ASC was then acquired by the Commonwealth, and the company effectively walked away from the Collins program amid litigation involving intellectual property rights and technical disputes.
However, ASC and Defence subsequently gained full access to Collins IP under an enduring settlement reached in 2004, and continue to benefit from this.
Meanwhile ASC and Saab Australia have successfully collaborated on a $55 million contract to upgrade the well-regarded Saab Integrated Ship Control Management and Monitoring System (ISCMMS) equipping the Collins fleet, and installing the upgrade on two Collins-class boats.
The system was developed by Saab in the early 1990s to safely manage essential functions such as manoeuvring, power and life support.
Stage 1 saw Saab completing the design, software and hardware development for the updated ISCMMS and its installation by ASC on HMAS Collins and HMAS Waller. A separate $24.2 million Stage 2 contract was signed in 2018 for ASC to complete ISCMMS installation on the four other submarines, an exercise that is still underway.
The inter-company relationship was further enhanced in October 2019 when ASC was contracted to provide design services to Saab in support of the two A26-class next-generation submarines being designed and built by Saab for the Swedish Navy.
In June, Defence was surprisingly positive in responding to Estimates questions on notice, referring to its continuing support for ASC in what it termed its ongoing engagement with Saab to progress LOTE, and denying that it had decided not to engage with the company as the designer of the Collins class.
Defence also confirmed it had not changed its position on remarks made in Estimates in 2015 by Warren King, then head of the now-defunct Defence Materiel Organisation, that Saab had an important role to play in upgrading the Collins submarines.
This was good news for Andy Keough, Managing Director of Saab Australia, who as a former commander of two Collins-class submarines and a senior business role with ASC, has the background and experience to ensure the Commonwealth is fully aware of Saab’s capabilities.
“The comprehensive mid-life upgrade (MLU) of the two Gotland-class submarines allowing them to remain in service until at least 2030 means Saab has already undertaken in Sweden many of the things we’re seeking to do on the Collins-class,” Keough said.
“This is a challenging (strategic) environment, we can’t afford to waste time and money doing things that have already been done elsewhere and not leveraging off those lessons and those skills,” Keough emphasised.
“Experienced people who have done the work before are much quicker getting through to the solution space than someone who is a qualified naval architect with significant experience in the submarine domain but none-the-less has not specifically done that job before.”
The company’s upgrade credentials were on display in 2003 and 2004 when two Swedish Navy Västergötland-class submarines were cut in half by Kockums to receive a 12-metre hull insert accommodating a Stirling air independent propulsion (AIP) package. A pressurised diver’s lockout for special forces operations was also installed in the base of the sail.
Two sister boats were subsequently upgraded by Kockums with AIP and extensively ‘tropicalised’ after their sale to Singapore and subsequent commissioning as RSS Archer and RSS Swordsman in 2011 and 2013 respectively.
Most recently, the Gotland MLUs in 2018 and 2019 involved each hull being cut open in the mid-tank section, in this instance to add a 2-metre hull insert accommodating sea water and freshwater cooling and water chiller plants to meet the cooling requirements of new equipment.
Before arriving at Saab’s Karlskrona shipyard, each 62-metre, 1,600-tonne Gotland boat was joined at sea by company personnel to complete whole-of-platform surveys to establish the exact configuration of all on-board installations.
Once inside the assembly hall, electronic units, cabinets, cables and connectors were removed from the submarine prior to the start of ‘hot work’ (cutting, welding, and drilling).
In addition to the hull insert, the MLUs included incorporating a diver lockout chamber into the forward part of the sail and introducing three new masts into the sail structure, one serving an optronic sensor head and two for communications.
Other enhancements included upgrading the legacy AIP capability with the latest Mk.4 Stirling engines, introducing a new navigation suite, and modernising the sensor package, the combat management and communications systems, and the submarines’ control room.
Upgrades to numerous ancillary systems ranged from exhaust valves and nuclear, biological and chemical protection to gas monitoring and the weight compensation system.
Gotland and Collins synergies
For Sverke Lindholm, Head of Strategy with Saab-Kockums, the MLUs for the two Gotland-class were “really, really huge, the largest we have ever done.
“Gotland and Collins are siblings, they were produced during the same time period, they belong to the same design philosophy, there are many similarities,” he told ADM.
“Now the Gotlands are more or less new submarines, and we would approach a Collins LOTE with a great deal of recent experience.”
In no particular order, lessons learnt included finding some systems in worse condition than anticipated, taking into account the latest SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) and IMO (International Maritime Organisation) regulations, the importance of a land-based test site for any prefabrication work, the importance of settling a basic design before moving to more detailed planning, and new requirements for cyber security both during and after the program’s completion. This included a ban on workers taking cell-phones on board.
More than 20 of the new systems introduced under the Gotland MLU program had also been selected for the A26, reducing risk, training costs and maintenance.
Replacing a number of outdated systems proved less of an issue than expected – “you don’t have to worry about modifying an obsolete system, you just cut the entire thing out and you’ve got open space to work in a replacement which is often more dense and more compact,” Keough commented.
“This is what ASC is looking at from a whole of platform approach; how you’d bring together the scopes of work and match capability with obsolescence.”
As confirmed by Defence, ASC will lead the work packages for LOTE activities.
With the workscope for the program yet to be announced, Saab Australia was meanwhile building connections with ASC to understand some of the potential areas for consideration, and for ASC to understand Saab’s engineering base and experience, Keough said.
“Then it will basically be a judgement based on skillsets, capabilities and capacities,” he commented.
“ASC have cut the Collins-class submarines previously, they’ve got skillsets there. Saab is experienced in building ‘cans’ of equipment that are pre-modified, pre-manufactured such that when the submarine arrives for its LOTE they have been manufactured, they have been tested, and they’re good to go.
“So that’s something which may be beneficial. The platform management system is software-based and software and potentially hardware upgrades will be required for that.
“So far as platform design and engineering changes are concerned it really comes down to the scope of work. We’d need to work out the appropriate roles and responsibilities with ASC and see where they think Saab could value-add to the activity”.