Sparring continues in Australia about the seaworthiness of the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) six Collins-class diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK). The country’s biggest daily, The Australian, reports none of the Aus$10 billion fleet are currently available, but the sea service said two boats are operational.
The Adelaide-based The Advertiser newspaper added the defence department stopped short of explicitly saying they could put to sea. “Two submarines are currently in their operational cycle, and it is incorrect that there are no seaworthy submarines,” the Australian military said. “Navy is presently able to meet the government’s standing requirement for submarine availability to respond to operational needs.”
The paper said two boats – HMAS Dechaineux and HMAS Waller – are understood to be docked at HMAS Stirling in Perth. The Dechaineux had been due to take part in the Bersama Shield five-nation training exercise off Malaysia last month but broke down in Singapore. “The submarine had a number of defects at the time,” just-retired RAN chief Vice Admiral Russ Crane told a Senate Estimates committee. “It was some way through a very significant deployment and, as a result of those defects, it was unable to sail for that exercise. Those defects ranged from defects on freon units to defects on the emergency propulsion unit and on the motor.”
Crane said HMAS Dechaineux was repaired in Singapore and sailed home, arriving on May 30.
“The submarine is available at the moment; it is not out of action,” he told the committee on May 31. He retired June 7.
HMAS Waller returned a fortnight ago from the Black Carillon exercise and is due to undergo maintenance. Crane added the Waller had to wait for the return of HMAS Farncomb, which is undergoing emergency repairs. The three other submarines are in scheduled maintenance – HMAS Collins in West Australia (WA), and HMAS Rankin as well as HMAS Sheean at the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) at Port River in Adelaide.
The Advertiser added claims the entire fleet was out of action “appears to misunderstand how Navy and Defence maintain and operate the submarine fleet”. Explaining the numbers in Senate estimates, Crane said: “We aim … to have four of the six submarines available to us in WA. Of those four submarines that are available, at any one particular time we expect that two or three would be available for operations.”
The defence department this week justified this number, saying submarines were complex. “As with any piece of complex machinery operating in a harsh environment, unscheduled mechanical failures will occur,” the department said. Maintenance is conducted by ASC which said it could not comment on the operational state of the boats but emphasised scheduled work was a major undertaking. “The two boats at ASC in South Australia (SA) are undergoing full cycle dockings,” an ASC spokeswoman said. “This activity takes place every eight years, takes 12 months in preparation and 30-39 months in implementation. It has over 5000 tasks and takes up over 720 000 production hours.”
The problems now afflicting the Collins boats – which follow a history chequered with difficulties – has spurred critics of Australia’s naval ship building capability, the tabloid said. Calls have been made for the government to scrap its promise to build the next generation of submarines in SA and buy boats from foreign manufacturers. But the SA government has invested heavily in establishing a shipbuilding capability now being used for the air warfare destroyer programme. “The State Government’s investment at Techport Australia ensures SA industry has the skills, infrastructure and capacity to deliver on this major defence project,” Defence Industries minister Kevin Foley said.
“Federal governments, both ALP and Liberal, have given repeated assurances that the submarines will be assembled here in Adelaide. South Australians can be assured that this government continues to fight hard for the defence industry in this state.”
This was a view shared by his Opposition counterpart Martin Hamilton-Smith who “absolutely” rejected claims the Collins’ problems indicated Australia wasn’t up to the task of naval shipbuilding.
The problem was the system where defence orders were so far apart that a continuity of workforce skills was difficult to retain, he said.
The Australian newspaper has reported the Dechaineux is in dock in Perth for an intrusive inspection of its main motor after limping home from Singapore, where defects were found in its propulsion system. “It is understood Dechaineux will be unable to sail for at least several weeks,” the paper rported Friday. The Waller was also in dock after engineers found signs of the same propulsion system problems that last month forced Dechaineux to withdraw from a five-nation defence exercise in the South China Sea.
“The navy’s plans to improve the reliability of the fleet are being undermined by the discovery of unexpected defects, especially with the propulsion system, as the submarines begin to age. There is also a shortage of spare parts,” The Australian said. The navy has become increasingly evasive about the state of its submarine fleet and is restricting its public comments on the issue, citing national security. However, critics say the navy has in the past been open about the availability of its submarines and that it is hiding behind claims of national security to avoid public scrutiny.
The RAN late last month apologised to Britain, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand for the Dechaineux breakdown, which forced a major naval exercise in the South China Sea to take place without the involvement of any submarines. The embarrassment was compounded when the navy newspaper, Navy News, wrote an imagined report of the daring exploits of Dechaineux during these war games before it realised that the submarine had been scratched from the exercise.