- A.N. Other
- Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Farncomb
- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Commander Andy Millar CSC RAN Rtd
Andy Millar is dual qualified as a submariner and anti-submarine specialist who was intimately involved with the submarine project since its inception in 1982. He retired from the RAN in 1999 after 40 years naval service, having held the position of the Collins class Planning Manager from 1985. Andy was responsible for drafting the original Evaluation Plan which resulted in the selection of the Swedish Type 471 design for the Royal Australian Navy.
It is ten years or so since I had any direct involvement in the Collins Project and therefore the situation and views expressed here are necessarily influenced by circumstances as they were at that time. The story of how Collins was selected, constructed and brought into service is now part of Australia’s maritime history. As the years pass, much of the passionate and emotive arguments and political point-scoring that characterised the early years of the project have begun to be stripped away and a true picture is beginning to emerge. Nowhere is this more evident than in Peter Yule and Derek Woolner’s book The Collins Class Submarine Story – Steel, Spies and Spin published by the Cambridge University Press, Melbourne in 2008 and in New Depths in Australia-US Relations: The Collins Class Submarine Project by Maryanne Kelton of the School of Political and International Studies – The Flinders University of South Australia, March 2004. Both provide great insight into the Collins program and are highly recommended for further reading.
The article that follows was first published in Australasian Ships and Ports in December 1999, and has undergone some updating. It should be read in that context.
Some may still argue that Australia chose the wrong submarine and that ongoing problems continue to plague the boats. I remain of the view that the project was an outstanding success.
The Collins Class Submarine Project
There has been more written and said about Australia’s Collins class submarine project than any previous major Defence acquisition project in Australia’s history. It seems that everyone, including local newsagents, taxi drivers, journalists and correspondents, submariners past and present, admirals and politicians all knew exactly what went wrong and how it could be fixed. Sadly however, much of what was written, said or portrayed on television was, at best, woefully exaggerated and inaccurate or, at worst, deliberately malicious and misleading.
Let it be quite clear. The Collins class submarines built here in Australia by Australians were not “expensive lemons” but first rate, world class submarines, equal to, or better than, any conventionally powered submarine in existence, and now recognised as such by our major allies. As a direct result of the Collins program, Australia now equals or surpasses world best practice in a significant number of submarine and submarine related technologies.
Much has been said and written about the submarines problems, problems that any submarine designer might expect to encounter when bringing a new design into service, but almost nothing has been said about any of the outstanding successes. Here are but a few:
- Delivery of the submarines. The fact that Australia, which has never previously built a submarine, delivered all six Collins class submarines within two years of the original schedule and that these submarines are now recognized as the most capable of their type in the world, is a remarkable achievement and compares more than favorably with major submarine building countries such as USA, Britain, Germany and France.
- Dynamic performance. The underwater maneuverability of the submarine is outstanding and exceeded the contracted requirements in many areas. The overall dynamic performance including diving depth, speed and maneuverability is better than that of all known conventionally powered submarines then in service.
- Integrated Ship Control Management and Monitoring System (ISCMMS). To meet the RAN requirement for minimum crewing, a high level of automation was necessary. The result was ISCMMS. ISCMMS is a software based ship management system, regarded originally as one of the project’s higher risk areas. It has been an outstanding success. At the time of its introduction, it was the only known, fully automated submarine control system in existence.
- The habitability standards of the Collins class are equal to or better than any other conventionally powered submarine.
- Anechoic tiles. The anechoic tiles developed by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation in co-operation with the Australian Submarine Corporation, and the adhesive that keeps those tiles on the hull, have proved a great success. They were designed specifically for Australian operating conditions and illustrate how the RAN, DSTO and industry are capable of working together to produce a first class product.
- Steel development, production and welding. Although based on a Swedish formula, the steel in the Collins class was locally developed and produced. It took the production and welding of high strength steel in Australia to new and higher levels. From a quality viewpoint the welding carried out by Australian welders at ASC had a rework rate of between 0.1 and 0.3 percent against an industry standard of 3%. Australian welders performed between 10 to 30 times better than their overseas counterparts.
- Australian Industry Involvement. (AII). Prior to the Collins project, the AII level in major defence projects seldom exceeded 12-15%. The initial goal for the submarine project was 60% Australian content. ASC was eventually contracted for 70% AII and actually delivered some 72% – a truly remarkable achievement.
- SUBSAFE program. Based on the US system but further developed to meet Australian requirements, the Australian SUBSAFE program, introduced for the Collins class, was arguably the most comprehensive and well documented system of its type in existence.
- Industry quality standards. Many, many industries that were driven to raise their Quality Control and Assurance to international standards in order to participate in the project later found that their quality accreditation resulted in their winning competitive tenders on the worlds markets. A great plus for Australian industry. Such companies as Pacific Marine Batteries that manufactured the submarine batteries, Pump Technology who provided pumps, Buchanan Aircraft Company that produced the fiberglass submarine outer casings, Wellman Australia who manufactured the air purification systems to name but a few who raised their Quality Standards to new levels, directly as a result of the project.
- The Australian technology knowledge base, even in those areas where problems were experienced (noise and combat system), received an enormous boost. The skills and technologies now embedded in Australia as a direct result of the Collins project are invaluable, both for new projects and for in-service support of Collins. Our challenge now, is to sustain them.
But why does Australia need submarines at all, and if we do, was it necessary to build them here in Australia? Do they represent value for money in today’s strategic environment with the enormous pressures on an already overstretched Defence budget?