- Book reviewer
- Ship design and development, Book reviews, Naval Technology, Submarines
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Collins, HMAS Farncomb, HMAS Waller
- December 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The building programme was a triumph of organisational skill, with equipment from widely diverse sources in Australia and overseas arriving at designated times at the assembly shed. The special high yield steel was developed and manufactured in Australia to the most rigorous specifications, having been shock-tested and found to be tougher and more rupture-resistant than overseas submarine steels. New high standard welding techniques were also developed. All welds were ultrasonically tested, and the incidence of faulty welds was about one tenth of the average in world submarine construction.
The highly automated software-driven ship control system – enabling a one third reduction in complement – was, and is, an outstanding success. Sadly, the over-ambitious tactical data handling and combat system was a continuous nightmare for all concerned, and was eventually scrapped after over twelve years of vain and expensive endeavours to get it to work. It seems probable that similar specifications would prove achievable today, but processing power in the `80s was inadequate and contractual inflexibility prevented changes to specifications despite the onward march of time and technology.
A body blow to the project, with serious long term consequences, was the takeover and virtual destruction of Wormalds in the late 1980s by a private equity group. Wormalds had been one of Australia’s most successful multinational companies with one of the most advanced electronics research labs in the country. Its close links with most of the important Australian industrial firms, its excellent managerial skills, and the leadership and dedication to the submarine project of its CEO, Geoff Davis, were all lost. Nonetheless, on 23 August 1993 Collins was launched ‘on time and on budget’.
Unfortunately the timeliness of the launch involved some sleight of hand in that neither the design nor some of the fabrication had been completed. Problems flowing from this were compounded by inadequate training programmes for the Trials Crew of Collins.
Sea trials for this first of class began on 31 October 1994. Throughout the trials Rockwell’s combat and tactical data handling system was almost useless, despite ongoing modifications and efforts to get it to work. Stand-alone equipments were progressively installed for each sensor to meet basic requirements of safe handling and navigation. Frequent delays occurred due to mechanical, software and electrical failures. Operating and maintenance manuals were inadequate, as were maintainer training and the provision of spares and diagnostic equipment. Recurring problems centred on the diesels, stern gland, periscopes and hydraulic couplings. A constant headache was the poor performance of the combat system. On the other hand, the boat exceeded specifications so far as dived handling and battery performance were concerned. Collins was finally commissioned into the Fleet on 27 July 1996, albeit with many persistent problems.
Commander (as he then was) Peter Sinclair and the first crew of Collins blazed a brilliant trail for others to follow, surmounting endless problems. Many lessons were learnt and Farncomb (the second boat) and the others benefitted enormously from them. Equipment shortcomings were relentlessly addressed, but problems with the diesels and cavitating propellers in particular remained.
Another problem which loomed ever larger was that of flow noise due to turbulence at speeds over eight knots at various sites on the hull. The project’s decision to locate the bulbous bow sonar over, as opposed to under, the tubes as preferred by Kockums, caused a significant deformation in hull shape. By then, insufficient funds were available to build and tank-test a new model so no tests were conducted. DSTO’s facility at Fishermans Bend performed a critical role in identifying these flow-noise problems, which were not confined to the bow area. In addition, the US Navy played a major supporting role. DSTO also did brilliant work in addressing both engine radiated noise and the mechanical breakdowns to which the Hedemora diesels were subject.
A landmark moment came in 1998 during a visit to the US by the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Chalmers. He met with Deputy CNO and told him frankly of the problems we were having with noise and the combat system. Within a week CNO despatched two Admirals, experts in the field, to investigate and offer any and all assistance. Shortly after this, in March 1999, a new Minister, John Moore commissioned the Mclntosh and Prescott investigation and report. They concluded that the longstanding mechanical problems were being steadily overcome, but that the combat system was fatally flawed and should be replaced with a ‘proven-in-service’ system. Rear Admiral Peter Briggs was appointed to lead a ‘submarine capability team’ with unprecedented powers to fast track solutions, reporting solely to him as Minister, and with realistic funding to achieve these solutions. Briggs took full advantage of the authority at his disposal to give his inimitable dynamism full rein in modifying casings as recommended by DSTO and the Americans, acquiring new and quiet propellers, and fixing the range of other persistent problems which had beset the boats. Among the most important of these fixes was the development of a temporary ‘augmented’ combat system to provide adequate interim data handling for a minimum acceptable operational capability until the new system had been selected and set to work. In all these activities DSTO and the US Navy played a major role.