Submarines: The Cursed Subs Of Oz


January 29, 2010:  Australia's submarine fleet seems to be cursed. Normally, two of the six boats are out on patrol, two are conducting training (but available for operations) and two are undergoing maintenance. The reality is that, right now, only one of the Collins class subs is available for operations, while one is conducting training. The other four are undergoing repairs or maintenance. Actually, a string of breakdowns has put three of the subs into a period of extended repairs. That means that the current situation may last for a year or more.

All this comes at a bad time for the Australian Navy, because last year it was decided that submarines would become the key component of the fleet. 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. 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).

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. 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 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 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, 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, 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  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 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.