Morale: Automation Kills Submariner Spirit

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March 1, 2009: The Australian Navy has six Collins class subs, which are the core of Australian naval power, and the sailors who serve on these boats are not happy. The Australian admirals are at a loss about what to do. Recently, the navy sent in some psychologists, to discuss the matter with the sailors, and obtain details from the sailors themselves. The results were demoralizing for all concerned. The sailors 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, only enough qualified sailors are available to provide crews for three of the six Collins class subs. Each boat requires a crew of 45 highly trained sailors (eight of them officers.) The initial navy response 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 sailors annual pay by up to $38,000, which meant officers were now making less than many of the men they commanded. Not enough new recruits were attracted. The submarine service has high standards, thus many of those who were interested, were not qualified to undertake the long training courses. The global recession may help, because the Australian economy has been booming, providing many opportunities for the kind of guys who would qualify for the submarine service.

The Collins class boats were built in Australia during the 1990s, and 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 s 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. 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 Australian navy has been suffering from a serious geek shortage for several years now. With a total strength of 13,000, being short a few dozen people in some job categories can have serious repercussions, and that's what happened to the submarine force. For example, the navy is short about a third of the marine engineering officers it needs. There are less serious shortages in officers specializing in electrical systems and weapons systems. Australian warships have been active in the war on terror, resulting in many crews being away from home for up to six months at a time. There are shortages of both officers and sailors with technical skills.

The situation is further complicated by a booming economy, and big demand for those with engineering degrees, and a few years of experience. This makes it easy for engineering officers to leave the navy and get a higher paying, and more comfortable, civilian job. The navy is responding 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 (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 large water areas, that require a lot of travel time to traverse. It is boring to transit all of that distance, and that was exactly what the dispirited sailors reported when asked. At the moment, there is no solution in sight. So while Australia can buy modern submarines, they have not yet found a way to obtain crews to operate the boats.

 


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