Australia’s Collins Class Subs, Submariners On Track for Upgrades
Australia’s six SSK Collins-Class diesel-electric submarines are undergoing a major A$ 857 million (USD $624 million) capability boost, as integration & testing of the same tactical combat system present in the USA’s most modern attack submarines commences. Upgraded state-of-the-art Mk 48 Mod 7 ADCAP heavyweight torpedoes are also on the way. Meanwhile, the Royal Australian Navy is changing some of its recruiting practices and recruiting submariners directly, in an effort to attract the high-skills individuals needed to operate their new fleet.
The Collins were designed in cooperation with Kockums AB, but largely built in Australia. They are the world’s largest diesel-electric subs and among the most advanced as well, successfully scoring kills on American SSN Los Angeles Class attack subs during joint exercises. Yet their history has been replete with cost overruns, schedule overruns, and serious teething problems. Most of these issues have now been resolved, albeit at additional cost; the combat system upgrade is simply the latest, last, and most significant hangover from those past problems.
As Undersea Warfare notes, development of the Collins Class began in 1981 with a program to specify and procure a replacement for the aging Oberon Class. A contract with the Australian Submarine Corporation for the design and construction of six submarines, with associated services, was awarded in June 1987. The first of the class, HMAS Collins, was laid down in February 1990 and commissioned in July 1996.
Collins was the first submarine ever built in Australia, and the 18th submarine to have entered service with the Royal Australian Navy since 1914. The Collins-class boats were among the first to be totally designed using computer-aided techniques. Highly automated systems control running machinery, course, speed, depth, and trim, which minimizes crew requirements. The ships thus require a crew of 45 (8 officers and 37 sailors), compared to an Oberon’s crew of 64.
HMAS Farncomb was commissioned 18 months later, in January 1998. By this point, the class’ problems and schedule slippages had become severe and undeniable. This is not uncommon, especially given the government’s ambitious drive to have the subs largely built in Australia. Nevertheless, the problems were so manifold, serious, and persistent that a major public report was commissioned.
The 1999 Mcintosh-Prescott report covered the initial shortcomings of the Collins class subs, shortcomings so severe that the submarines were not considered fit for combat duty. It noted that the vessels were noisy and vulnerable to attack, piping problems posed a serious hazard, their engines broke down regularly, a badly shaped hull and fin made too much disturbance when they moved at speed under water, the view from the periscope was blurry, the communications system was outdated, and the propellers were likely to crack.
The resulting upgrade programs have included upgrades to weapon systems, improvements to the sonar system, tactical data handling system and weapons control system, upgrade and operational fixes to reduce acoustic signature. More significantly, they included personnel shifts and changes in Australia’s defense procurement approaches.
Construction continued. HMAS Sheean was commissioned in November 2000, HMAS Waller and HMAS Dechaineux were commissioned in February 2001, and the final budgeted submarine HMAS Rankin was commissioned in March 2003.
HMAS Farncomb, Sheean, Dechaineux, and Rankin all received major upgrades and design changes, both mechanically and in terms of their combat systems. That program was declared complete in March 2003. More limited mechanical fixes and required improvements were also made to HMAS Collins and HMAS Waller. In March 2004, the Royal Australian Navy accepted the “Operational Release” of the six Collins Class submarines.
The Mcintosh-Prescott report had indeed recommended that the Rockwell combat system should be fitted with temporary upgrades that would make the subs fit for service, but the long term verdict was that they would have to be replaced entirely. Boeing’s interim fix for the existing combat system, they said, was just a “short-term band-aid” to get some necessary capability quickly and allow the subs to enter operational service – but it was clearly noted and understood that a full combat system replacement was necessary over the longer term.
With respect to the new combat system, the report recommended that the government use only proven in-service systems that could be installed relatively quickly, were configured with less-integrated architecture, and were built with more robust commercial off-the-shelf equipment.
This seems to have been the policy followed by the Australian government, which leads us to the present situation, and to “Project SEA 1439, Phase 4A.”
After a series of acquisitions, Raytheon Australia now maintains the Collins submarines’ current combat system. The replacement combat system will also be Raytheon’s: the CCS (Combat Control System) Mk. 2, Block 1C, Mod 6 (aka. AN/BYG-1 v8 CCS) from the US Navy’s SSN-744 Virginia Class submarines. The AN/BGY-1 will also be retrofitted to the SSN-21 Seawolf Class and some SSN-688I Improved Los Angeles Class subs. The AN/BYG-1 development agreement was signed with the US Navy in November 2004, and a Joint Project Office (JPO) has been established in Washington DC to manage the RCS program under an Armaments Cooperative Project arrangement rather than the standard Foreign Military Sales arrangement. Thales Underwater Systems is also involved in the Australian effort, providing new suite displays and processors to integrate their Scylla bow and flank array sonar with the new CCS.
Australian Defence Minister Sen. Robert Hill reports that the first CCS has been delivered and is currently undergoing integration with Australian components and sensors in Western Australia, whereupon it will be put through a rigorous testing program before going to sea. The first submarine to be fitted out will be HMAS Waller, which had been excluded from the previous upgrade program. The ship is currently docked at Adelaide’s ASC facility, and will be ready to start sea trials with the new system in early 2007.
The new combat system and Mk. 48 Mod 7 ADCAP torpedoes are to be installed in all Australian submarines by 2010, and Sen. Hill said the design and installation of the Replacement Combat System and Heavyweight Torpedo System are both on schedule and on cost. Like the AN-BYG-1 CCS, the Mk 48 Mod 7 ADCAP (ADvanced CAPability) heavy torpedo, due to enter service in 2006, is being developed under an Armaments Co-operation Project with the US Navy. In Australia, the program is known as SEA 1429 Heavyweight Torpedo.
Finally, Australians wanting to get in on all of this action will soon be able to apply to join the Submarine Force directly from civilian life, as part of a positive recruitment drive aimed at further increasing submariner numbers and quality.
In the past, Navy has selected suitable personnel for submarine service from within the Australian Defence Forces and Royal Australian Navy, and has also done some recruiting overseas. Under the new model, direct application will be possible and then a stringent selection process would be used. It will be similar in concept to the process used for recruiting Australian Special Forces as part of the Special Forces Direct Recruiting Scheme. The Royal Australian Navy is also investigating further creative measures to recruit submariners and promote the Submarine Force.
Submariners have long seen themselves as an elite group, and have generally been treated accordingly. With arms and especially advanced submarines proliferating in Asia, many believe that Australia’s submarines will play an increasing role in defending Australia and her interests. These substantial investments in upgrades, equipment, and above all recruiting all point to the conclusion that the Australian government has come to share this view.
- DID – Australia’s Submarine Program In the Dock.
- Undersea Warfare Magazine (Winter/Spring 2002) – Torpedoes and the Next Generation of Undersea Weapons. Includes desired Mk. 48 ADCAP advances, and also more advanced weapons on the US Navy’s drawing board.