Submarines: A Singular Sensation


May 27, 2009: Although Australia is planning to expand its submarine fleet to twelve boats, it was recently revealed that only one of the six current subs is available for service. Four of the boats are undergoing maintenance, and another one is undergoing several months of repairs to fix a problem with its batteries. Even if all six boats were ready for services, there are only sufficient crews available to send three of them to sea.

Despite all these problems, Australia recently decided to make the submarine the key component of its fleet in the near future. Over the next decade, 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. The purpose of this shift is to provide a naval force more capable of dealing with any Chinese moves into Australian waters. The Chinese fleet is undergoing rapid expansion, and it's believed that this poses a potential threat to Australia.

To make this new strategy work, Australia has to fix the problems with recruiting, and retaining, sufficient sailors to man the submarine fleet. The problems are numerous. The principal one 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).

Currently, the Australian Navy has six Collins class subs, and the sailors who serve on these boats are not happy. This has been a problem for years. Recently, the navy surveyed the submarine sailors and were told that the 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, 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. Worse yet, 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 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 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 areas, that 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 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, and these are the largest non-nuclear subs in service.

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 new class of subs are going to build on the Collins design, and will probably be a bit larger, and probably have an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. This enables the sub to stay underwater for over a week at a time. Before the decision to expand the size of the sub fleet, the "Collins Replacement" boats were to enter service in 2024, just when the oldest Collins class sub was ready for retirement. That building plan will have to be sped up if the submarine fleet is to be doubled in a decade.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close