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Fifth run around the Collins submarine mulberry bush

At least one senior defence force official, the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, will no doubt have a better reason than most to break out some serious Christmas cheer in the coming weeks.

After a decade of trouble with sustainability of the Collins class submarine fleet, Barrett was told in a recent study that there was a reasonable chance that by the middle of next year, the current fleet will have been substantially returned to the point where they will actually be able to meet their strategic requirements.

Confidence that two deployable submarines will be consistently available, with four submarines available to the Fleet Commander and of these four, three submarines are consistently available for tasking with one in shorter-term maintenance and two submarines in long-term maintenance and upgrade, comes from the fifth investigation (since 2011) into Collins class sustainment undertaken by John Coles.

The substantive brief given to Coles and his team was to review the opportunities for delivering an improvement on ‘benchmark performance’ previously determined for the six-boat fleet, while also investigating approaches to maintaining regional supremacy and reducing annual sustainment costs. As Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne has previously stated, there is a lot more investment to be made in the Collins fleet before the government gets around to substantively funding the Future Submarines.

The core of the Collins class transformation program has been to successfully transition to a new 10+2 year Usage Upkeep Cycle (UUC) to enable five submarines to be base-ported from the HMAS Stirling naval base in Western Australia for the next decade and more. Ensuring the Collins fleet can go the distance – including having three boats undertake a life extension program – will also help mitigate some of the risk of delays in the SEA 1000 Future Submarine project.

The early Christmas gift for Admiral Barrett is Coles’s assessment that Collins submarine availability will reach or better the international benchmark availability set for the fleet as forecast Material Ready Days progressively accumulate through the balance of the financial year to June 2017. After that, they should settle into a repeatable and sustainable pattern. Coles happily admits that there were few, including himself, who would have confidently predicted in 2012 that the performance now being delivered by the Collins class would graduate from ‘mediocre’ to ‘excellent’ in less than four years, and at almost level funding.

Early plans to foster the national submarine enterprise (ie Navy, CASG, ASC and Finance) to achieve the two submarine availability baseline – while also conducting the first two-year Full Cycle Docking (FCD) – were scuppered when HMAS Waller suffered a debilitating fire and was temporarily put out of service. Still, for the submarine enterprise to have now reached the forecast level of boat availability is a significant achievement, which Coles says “has not received the attention that it merits”.

As noted separately in this issue of Australian Defence Business Review, ASC has redesigned its approach to FCDs to align with the 10+2 UUC. Improvements to planning, productivity, inventory investment and performance monitoring have contributed significantly to reducing the 1,150,000 hours of maintenance formerly required to complete a 3.3-year FCD. Through several targeted investments and accompanying productivity improvements, it’s estimated that only upwards of 780,000 hours will see out an FCD in the slightly less than two years adopted under the 10+2 UUC regime. Key enablers for achieving the two-year FCD are said to include:

Drafting FCD maintenance instructions that outline the actual work to be undertaken;

consolidating the ASC’s planning and production departments into an Operations department to drive more effective planning and execution of maintenance;

improving the planning process to allow management of the critical path; and

undertaking productivity improvements to reduce the time taken to perform maintenance.

Since John Coles’s March 2014 progress review, ASC has documented the realisation of a range of productivity improvements to FCD activities, which have primarily been driven through: investing in Maintenance Support Towers; a production support desk, the utilisation of circumferential hull cuts and diesel and shipping route hull cuts; commissioning a diesel and generator off-board test facility; improved metal loss, blast and paint methods; resourcing an improved rotables (spares) pool; and investing in improved workshops and improved materiel flow through the maintenance areas.

So while that takes care of aspirations for 2017, what are the prospects for sustaining Collins class submarine availability at high levels into the 2020s? Some of the leg-ups responsible for propelling ASC towards international benchmark performance will not be repeated in the next round of FCDs. In the case of HMA Ships Farncomb and Collins, each had the benefit of a full set of rotable items sourced from the other boat.

With the move to a single-stream FCD regime commencing in June, there will no longer be a donor submarine to populate the rotable pool. Such items will need to be refurbished and returned to the subject submarine in quick time, otherwise additional equipment items will need to be purchased, thus undermining FCD cost management.

Accordingly, and in line with all the effort expended to assure submarine availability improvements since the Navy was struggling to front up a single boat in 2009, it really would be unfortunate if Material Ready Days gained through UUC efficiencies end up being lost due to spares not being readily available to fix defects or for routine maintenance.

Coles goes on to say it would be normal to expect other challenges will emerge for the submarine enterprise in sustaining the performance being achieved in bringing the substantive fleet back towards satisfying the Chief of Navy’s expectations. The first may be another unexpected episode on any one of the boats in the nature of that which disabled HMAS Waller.

In addition, Coles wrote he also saw the fate of the Collins class submarines and the Future Submarines moving forward as being “increasingly intertwined”, and thus leading to further opportunities to increase efficiencies in the Collins schedule whereby savings in time or resources could readily be used to either:

Incorporate capability enhancements to maintain regional superiority;

install equipment modifications to reduce unavailability from system or equipment failures;

provide training opportunities for both Collins and SEA 1000; and

de-risk the SEA 1000 project by creating opportunities for fitting and testing new equipment on Collins boats.

Looking forward over the next five years, Coles similarly anticipates a number of key issues arising that he considers will test the collective capabilities of the national submarine enterprise, and including:

Workforce – one of the biggest challenges will be the competing demand for resources between the Collins programme and the Future Submarine project. Coles says the enterprise will need to develop a cohesive plan to preserve the ongoing integrity of the Collins workforce, while also supporting the introduction of the Future Submarines;

Standing up five submarines in Western Australia – from June 2016, five submarines (instead of four) are in the process of being based in the West, and will thus need to be supported by adequate stores and other services so they can operate to their full potential;

Moving FCDs to Western Australia – a decision is also pending to move all FCDs to Western Australia. To achieve this without major disruption, the submarine enterprise will require a clear and substantive plan that demonstrates how this can be managed from a materiel, infrastructure and workforce perspective;

Life of Type Extension – the plan for Life of Type Extension of three boats is in very early development. Coles says the proposal will need strong support and focus at the enterprise level to ensure it is not only funded, but all aspects of the undertaking are considered, including infrastructure;

Sustainment cost – Review Team investigations established there is currently no active enterprise cost model, leading to a conclusion this will limit the enterprise’s ability to maintain costs or find opportunities to reduce and/or reallocate costs to fund inventory, infrastructure, etc from savings made elsewhere;

Capability insertions – preferably, the submarine enterprise will need to be able to execute capability insertions to maintain regional superiority in tandem with reliability and obsolescence programmes during FCDs, mid-cycle dockings and intermediate dockings;

HMAS Waller’s own FCD – while this will be the third FCD under the 10+2 UUC and much will have been learnt from preceding FCDs, the Waller’s docking will proceed without the benefit of exchange equipment, seed rotables and a pre-FCD period. Care will need to be taken that slippages do not creep back into the maintenance system;

In-Service Support Contract – Coles believes the ISSC will have to be renegotiated for the next performance period, and probably undertaken within a more enlightened enterprise culture;

Introduction of the Future Submarines – introducing the next generation of submarine will impose considerable demands on Commonwealth resources to operate and maintain two classes concurrently. This last consideration, says Coles, “presents the greatest challenge for the submarine community.”

Responding to publication of the Review Team’s Beyond Benchmark report, Defence Industry Minister Pyne noted the final document’s inclusion of a number of observations and additional recommendations for sustaining and improving Collins class fleet operational performance into the future. The Minister in turn indicated some sympathy for taking up such recommendations, saying “Defence intends to adopt a tailored set of these observations and recommendations to assure the performance of the Collins class submarine capability”.

The Defence Integrated Investment Plan accordingly contains several initiatives running out to 2027 that are focused on maintaining (or increasing) Collins class submarine capabilities, and covering: initial (and full) sonar replacement; satellite communications; and sensor and communications enhancements.