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In deep water: where now for the Collins class submarines?

In 2011 Minister for Defence Stephen Smith announced a review on the Sustainment of Australia’s Collins Class submarines. The review is led by John Coles, an independent expert from BMT Defence Services…

Are Australia’s Collins class a feat of engineering genius or an expensive boondoggle? iStock

In 2011 Minister for Defence Stephen Smith announced a review on the Sustainment of Australia’s Collins Class submarines.

The review is led by John Coles, an independent expert from BMT Defence Services in the UK. An interim report has just been released (while the final report is due by April 2012).

There have been a number stories published in the press (led by The Australian’s Cameron Stewart) on the issues with the submarine fleet.

Australia’s Collins Class submarines are the most expensive in the world. The fleet of six submarines costs taxpayers $630 million a year to maintain, or $105 million for each submarine. In comparison, the US Navy Ohio – a nuclear submarine which holds three times more crew and is five times bigger costs about $50 million a year (see figure below).

Are the Collins class submarines value for money? Courier Mail

The 2007-08 performance outcome for the Collins fleet shows that it achieved only 64% of its mission capability and, according to opposition Defence spokesman David Johnston, the fleet rarely features more than two operational submarines at the same time.

In June 2011, The Australian published a story claiming there was not a single Collins-class submarine that was seaworthy at the time while 40 serious defects were discovered on one of the submarines.

Understanding the need for a new and more efficient fleet, the 2009 Defence White Paper calls for 12 large submarines which could cost up to $35 billion and could be built in South Australia, according to the Defence Industries Minister. At first, off-the-shelf submarines were considered. However, the French-Spanish Scorpene class boat and the Spanish S-80 submarine have been ruled out as Defence argued that they did not meet requirements Australia’s broad needs.

Some defence experts do believe that the Collins-class submarines are a naval engineering triumph and a showcase of Australia’s expertise. According to Derek Woolner, an expert on defence procurement projects based at ANU, the Collins-class submarines represent one of the few military projects that was delivered close to budget and an average of 26 months behind schedule, one of the shortest delays with military purchases. It is also a unique concept with no other engineering design of its kind anywhere in the world.

We may have the submarines, but do we have enough submariners? Defence

But the technical issues surrounding the submarines are further strained by internal conflicts within Defence’s engineering workforce. In October 2011, the engineering union APESMA (Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists & Managers Australia) conducted a careers intentions survey at a key Defence workplace that underpins the maintenance of the current Collins class submarines and the expertise for the future submarine program.

The survey found that 80% of engineering staff plan to leave within five years if engineering issues (related to work and pay conditions) are not addressed soon. There is already deep concern that Australia’s existing engineering defence workforce lacks the expert technicians to deliver the fleet of 12 new submarines, and may need to partner with another nation to fill the gaps.

This view is shared by the review panel, as included in the interim report:

In Canberra, it is difficult to find more than a couple of individuals with any serious claim to submarine domain knowledge; in SA and WA the participants are critically dependant on a few key experienced individuals. The impression we gained was of an organisation surviving from day to day, with no spare capacity to think about the future. Without a clear plan to resolve this situation, it will be just a matter of time before the program grinds to a halt or the risk of a serious incident reaches unacceptable levels.

Why is it so hard to get it right?

In his excellent piece in The Conversation, Derek Woolner explains that acquiring military equipment is a complex process in itself. It’s a fine balance between understanding the complicated technical nature of the equipment, evaluating the risks involved, taking into account the large time frames and possible delay. The political games outside and within Defence don’t help either.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report last month about the risks involved when acquiring military equipment. It looks at three possible views to evaluate risks:

  • the use of commercial investment analysis that could be used by the military
  • the desperate need of qualified project managers to make the right decisions when evaluating and agreeing to take on more projects and the input that the private sector can provide.

The way forward

The interim review provided a much-needed glimpse into the way Defence operates when it comes to the Collins-class submarines.

It showed us that the situation is complex with many stakeholders at play. Defence has pledged to implement some of the recommendations immediately. The maintenance and design of the existing and new submarines is clearly an engineering project of gigantic size.

But as John Thornton so elegantly puts its: “If ever a project required a Team Australia approach, this is it.”

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Bruce Tabor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    Oh please, do not quote figures from the Murdoch press and assume they are even vaguely accurate or free from political bias.

    To start with, the estimates for the unit operating costs of the Ohio Class are for 1996 ( A contemporary government estimate for the Collins class was an annual operating cost of $36 million for the entire class - $6 million each. (

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    1. David Smith

      Director ACT Branch APESMA

      In reply to Bruce Tabor

      I tend to agree that the best option is likely to be a home grown option for the reasons outlined above. if we don't do what we can to retain existing expertise and encourage the growth of new expertise not only will it be dififcult to continue to maintain the current generation of submarines but it will make the development of the next generation much more problematic. The RAND Institute made an assessment of a need for a technical workforce (private and public) of around 1000. That is a significant challenge given the current state of the workforce.

    2. Frank Moore


      In reply to Bruce Tabor

      Bruce, you have it there. "USN Virginia class nuclear subs (political impossible)". That's all it is hampering the correct decision. Politics.
      Let's face it, many of our current fleet of decision makers are/were leftist Fabian actors, too willing to toe The Party Line at any opportunity.
      Hence the creation of the Collins.
      We have been left without an effective submarine deterrent fleet for ? how long now?
      And you want to repeat the mistake? Again!
      When our strategic position is so much worse…

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  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Quoting figures for the Ohio class is a bit misleading, given the economies of scale the USN can bring to bear in every aspect of their lifespan. But anyway, as the article points out, we can build 100 subs if we want to at any cost. They’ll just be alongside the whole time for want of crew.

    I recall interviewing someone who was very high up in the Australian submarine side of things. He wrote the project directive regarding the potential replacement for the Oberons. To quote him:

    “I said that…

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  3. Richard Davis

    Telecommunications Engineer

    Nuclear subs have a thermal footprint like the side of a barn and are very noisy. A Diesel electric sub in stealth mode will beat them every time.

    1. Frank Moore


      In reply to Richard Davis

      Gee Whiz Richard, I don't doubt your word, but, if they are so visible, why do the great powers and wannabe great powers want to keep on building them? Many of them keeping them as their major nuclear defense shield, or, in the case of GB and France, their only means of strategic missile defence. Have they all made mistakes?
      And if you waste billions, money we'll never have use of again, creating SA's "work for the dole" scheme, and build the world's then biggest Diesel Electric U Boats, and they…

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  4. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Thermal signature??? Not very relevant when you're sitting 200m down in the Arctic Ocean. Sure, you have to come up to unleash your Tridents, but it's all a bit late to get out the infra-red camera then.

  5. Robert Miles

    logged in via Facebook

    My view is the Collins class were a flawed concept based on a misunderstanding of effective techniques of a/s warfare to counter the Soviet fleet in the later stages of the Cold War. The idea of using conventional subs as listening platforms to listen for soviet subs is reay bayy

  6. Robert Miles

    logged in via Facebook

    RN enthusiasm for the performance of Oberons and Valiants as quite listening platforms in late 1970s naval exercises rather misled the RN and RAN about the capabilities of conventional subs to perform at the level on nuke subs or against them. The whole purpose of mass soviet fleet exercises and movements to sea like Ocean 1970 is to establish precedent and reassurance when large Soviet Naval movements too place, but most of to create not to much worry when large

  7. Robert Miles

    logged in via Facebook

    In reality nuclear subs could only be countered by nuke depth charges, once SOSUS systems were sabotaged. NN

  8. Robert Miles

    logged in via Facebook

    Effective criticism of the Aussie Future 12 sub class needs to empasise its absurdity. Half a dozen off the shelf subs of smaller size for much more limited roles of a/s training surface units on small diesel sub threats and for for operations of North Australia from bases in say in Cairns or Darwin.
    Australia can not really operate independly of the US and USN. Even a capability to fire even a couple of nuclear level cruise missiles is irrelevant. Dennis Healy in the debates over CVA01 was to consider only one contingency that justified RN carriers ( and the same scenario is probably the only one that can justify USN strike carriers today). Mig attack on a fleet running through Straights of Summatra