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Big Boats, Big Budgets, Big Plans
by James Dunnigan
October 30, 2011

Australians were dismayed to discover recently that their 3,000 ton diesel-electric Collins class submarines cost more to maintain and operate than some of the larger American nuclear powered boats. Each of the six Collins class subs currently costs over $100 million a year for operation and maintenance. That is more than it costs to operate some of the American boats (6,000 ton Los Angeles and 7,800 ton Virginia class attack subs, and even larger ballistic missile subs.) Part of the problem is that Australia only has six Collins class boats, while the U.S. has over 40 Los Angeles class subs, and over 60 nuclear subs in all. That allows the Americans to achieve economy of scale.

Australia has other problems with its submarine force. Currently, only two of the Collins class subs are operational, with the other four undergoing maintenance or repairs. Normally, two of the six boats are out on patrol, two are conducting training (but available for operations) and two are undergoing maintenance. One of the four that are undergoing maintenance could quickly be sent to sea. But the reality is that, right now, only two of the Collins class subs are available for operations, while one is conducting limited training. The other three are undergoing a period of extended repairs. The current situation may last for another year then it will get better.

All this comes at a bad time for the Australian Navy, because two years ago it was decided that submarines would become the key component of the fleet. Over the next two decades, Australia will double the number of subs in service, from six to twelve. This will mean that more than half (12 out of 23) of their major warships will be subs. What is remarkable about this is the relative isolation of the submarine sailors within the Australian navy. Because of that, and the smaller crews of subs, few submarine officers achieved high rank in the navy. But the admirals have come to recognize, for all that, the submarine is the best warship for Australia's needs (defense against a superior surface fleet, or enemy subs seeking to blockade the nation). The new class of 12 subs will replace the Collins boats in the 2020s. The new boats will be larger (about 4,000 tons) and cost about $2 billion each (more than the U.S. Virginia class nuclear powered attack subs).

While the admirals are building more subs, the sailors who man those boats are jumping ship. The sailors who serve on these boats are not happy. This has been a problem for years. Opinion surveys of submarine sailors found that submarine crewmen felt unappreciated and overworked. Half of them were getting out of the navy as soon as their current enlistments were up. Many found the work boring, and felt they spent too much time at sea. As a result, for the last few years, only enough qualified sailors were available to provide crews for 3-4 of the six Collins class subs. Each boat requires a crew of 45 highly trained sailors (eight of them officers.)

The initial navy response to this was to offer large cash bonuses to get existing submarine sailors to stay in the navy, and to attract qualified recruits to serve on subs. This helped a bit, but at the expense of officer morale. The bonuses increased sailor's annual pay by up to $38,000, which meant officers were now making less than many of the men they commanded. Worse yet, not enough new recruits were attracted. The submarine service has high standards, and many of those who were interested, were not qualified to undertake the long training courses.

The situation was further complicated by a booming economy, and big demand for those with engineering degrees, and a few years of experience. This made it easy for engineering officers to leave the navy and get a higher paying, and more comfortable, civilian job. The navy responded with cash bonuses, better living and working conditions, and other fringe benefits. But the submarine force cannot have their working conditions improved much. While the subs are of modern design and recent construction, they are still subs. That means not much space or privacy in there.

All Western navies have similar problems, and have applied similar solutions, with some degree of success. U.S. subs have the advantage of being larger (because of the nuclear propulsion) and with larger crews (nearly three times the size of the Collins class boats). This apparently helps. Other nations have small, modern, diesel-electric boats like the Collins class, but do not send them off on long voyages. Australia can't avoid the long voyages, because Australia is surrounded by vast oceans, which require a lot of time to traverse. It is boring to transit all of that, and that was exactly what the dispirited sailors reported when asked.

The navy leadership has, in deciding to double the size of its sub fleet, agreed to either fix the morale and recruiting problems, or risk seeing most of those boats rarely going to sea, and manned by inexperienced crews when they did. The solution appears to be a combination of more pay, and using larger crews, so that everyone does not have to spend so much time at sea, or carry more people on cruises and reduce the workload for each. Another option is having two crews for each boat, a practice long used for American SSBNs (ballistic missile subs) and some surface ships. Another solution is the larger size of the next class of subs, that will provide, literally, more living room.

The current Collins class boats were built in Australia and delivered between 1996 and 2003. They are based on a Swedish design (the Type 471.) At 3,000 tons displacement, the Collins are half the size of the American Los Angeles class nuclear attack subs, but are nearly twice the size of European non-nuclear subs. Australia needed larger boats because of the sheer size of the oceans in the area.

There were a lot of technical problems with the Collins class boats, which the media jumped all over. Part of the problem was that Australia does not have a large shipbuilding industry, and thus has a small pool of experts to draw on for the extra difficult task of building submarines. The design of these subs was novel and ambitious, using a lot of automation. This reduced the crew size to 45, but resulted in a higher workload for the submarine sailors. This is a major reason for the morale problem. Another problem with the small crew was that every one of the sailors had to be pretty sharp to begin with, then required years of training to learn the job, and more responsibility for each sailor as well.

The new class of subs is going to build on the Collins design, and will probably have an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. This enables the sub to stay underwater for over a week at a time. The decision to expand the size of the sub fleet will take time, because the "Collins Replacement" boats will not start entering service until 2025, just when the oldest Collins class sub is ready for retirement.


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