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Collins Class Crippled

October 20, 2009
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Australian submarine HMAS Rankin (SSG 78) sits pierside at Naval Base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Australian submarine HMAS Rankin (SSG 78) sits pierside at Naval Base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The story that won’t go away is the troubled Australian Collin’s class submarines, which seemed a good idea at the time. From the Australian, we learn:

THE navy’s $6 billion Collins-class submarines face serious operational restrictions after being hit by a run of crippling mechanical problems and troubling maintenance issues.

Some senior engineering experts now contend that the Swedish-supplied Hedemora diesel engines may have to be replaced – a major design and engineering job that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to complete…

The Australian understands that in recent times only a single Collins-class boat has been available for operational duties but it is unclear whether this involves more than extended training missions. Senior Defence leaders are also vitally concerned about the productivity and efficiency of ASC, the Adelaide-based wholly government-owned builder and maintainer of the Collins class.

One senior Defence source characterises the level of concern in senior government ranks about the availability of the Collins submarines as “extreme”. In the recent defence white paper, Kevin Rudd announced that the government would double the size of the RAN’s submarine fleet from six to 12 when it came to replacing the Collins-class boats from 2025.

“If you can’t do this right, how do you do the next one,” observed one senior Defence source last night.

This goes along with what we were saying this morning, of grandiose visions which go wrong. In the 1990’s Australia looked for a super-submarine, similar to American nukes boats but without the nukes. They took an existing Swedish designed craft, greatly enlarged it with their own specifications, and came up with this billion-dollar boondoggle. But the sub builders had already figured out how to enhanced the abilities of conventional boats, with the addition of Air Independent Propulsion, offering extended underwater deployment without the high price or risk.

Now the Aussies envision even a grander arms buildup, 12 such supersubs, plus new destroyers and air-capable amphibious ships. Though we wish them well, with even the mighty US Navy struggling with its future high tech plans, we can only imagine the outcome will be much worse than their RAN’s current troubles.

How can this be fixed, you ask? On this, Eric L Palmer and myself are of one mind:

Off the table due to arrogance is the only logical suggestion; buy off the shelf subs. Something like 12 low-crew 212 AIP boats would be lethal and capable. Yet, in order to preserve home industry graft in the form of dysfunctional ship building, this won’t happen.

Sad, but he’s probably right. Still, bankruptcy can take you places you never thought you’d go, including naval reform.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 21, 2009 9:59 pm

    Thinking that the innovative, and perhaps a little desperate for subs, Taiwanese might get some use out of them.

  2. October 21, 2009 8:13 pm

    Mike,
    Eric,

    Trying to sell them to the Taiwanese might appear to be insulting to their intelligence.

    Rather, offer three of them to Venezuela and the other three to Iran. All problems solved… ;-)

  3. October 21, 2009 8:02 pm

    Selling dock queens might not be very useful.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 21, 2009 2:23 pm

    Here’s a thought: The USN buys the 6 Collins, with the intent to sell them to Taiwan, unless the Aussies themselves would go this route though I doubt it.

  5. Tarl permalink
    October 21, 2009 1:41 pm

    Recall what happened to battle-cruisers during both WW-I and WW-II… sunk by naval air-power, destroyers, cruisers, and battleships.

    Most of the ones that got sunk were sunk because they were misused. Put anything in a tactical situation that it shouldn’t be in, and it will get sunk, but that does not mean the design is inherently unsound.

    The big German BCs were excellent warships, as were BBs Bismarck & Tirpitz…but not for Germany. The tactical benefits they offered simply don’t make sense logistically, strategically or economically

    The British were tearing their hair out trying to contain the German surface ships. The amount of time, effort, and resources the British spent trying to contain and kill German BCs and BBs does not support the view that the German decision to build them was strategically senseless.

  6. Heretic permalink
    October 21, 2009 11:21 am

    If RAN were really serious about this, they’d be looking to retire the Collins class boats early and replace them with either a mix of 6 Type-212 and 6 Type-214 (giving them a green/blue optimized force) or they’d be wanting to get in on the ground floor of development of the A26 by Kockums and be ordering 12 of those with work share final construction in Oz.

  7. Distiller permalink
    October 21, 2009 10:54 am

    What is Australia’s idea about the tasks of its submarines? If one sees the yellow fleet as the main enemy, then the hunting grounds are roughly 1500 to 2000nm to the north-west, and mostly shallow waters. Good for 212 boats, and being non-magnetic might come real handy in case one wants to go closer to the Chinese coast.

    But if RAN wants to venture into the Indian Ocean and Pacific things look different. There they would be better off with lend/lease U.S. SSNs. But then I don’t really see the point in duplicating a capability that the USN already has in the theatre. So I say better go for 212 and take over the shallow water jobs the USN is unwilling/unable to do.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 21, 2009 6:31 am

    Nick, all fixed. My stupid spell checker has a mind all its own.

    Nathan may be referring to the exploits of HMAS Waller, which we have reported on many times on this blog. Here is more on this story:

    http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rp/2001-02/02RP03.htm#impressing

  9. Nick permalink
    October 21, 2009 5:45 am

    Is there any chance that the naming of the subs in this post could be fixed? (they don’t belong to some guy called Collin – they’re named after Vice Admiral John Collins).

  10. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 21, 2009 2:19 am

    Scharnhorst & Gneisenau would have made short work of the TF w/ County class cruisers. ROF for the 280 mm German guns was about 3 RPM. The Germans had poor shells but excellent fire control. Any event, that’s a double broadside of 54 11.1″ per minute. It would still have been ugly for the Brits.

    The big German BCs were excellent warships, as were BBs Bismarck & Tirpitz…but not for Germany. The tactical benefits they offered simply don’t make sense logistically, strategically or economically. Doenitz was right. Those resources should have been poured into U-boats.

    The pocket battleships were actually decent investments & they were already paid for. Actually, some of the most effective German surface raiders were the inverse Q-ships Germany deployed. They slapped together 9 of these raiders, A-Team style & although 8 of them were sunk, they sank 870,000 tons of allied shipping. Basically the concept was to take a merchant ship, equip it with salvaged secondary guns from pre-drednaughts (usually 150 mm for the main battery), CONCEAL the guns, add modern torpedos, a float plane or two & sucker punch Allied shipping.

    It was a pretty effective undertaking. Australia even lost a full-sized cruiser to one of these converted merchantmen. They were cheap & effective & with clever captains, exceedingly lethal.

    In retrospect, if Germany had split BB/BC assets between U-Boats & A-Team Boats, they might have won the North Atlantic. And we’d all be drinking daklagers today & wearing long socks.

  11. October 21, 2009 12:16 am

    Off the shelf engine put into a cobbled together mess managed by a dysfunctional Defence procurement and management system.

  12. Nathan permalink
    October 20, 2009 8:23 pm

    You do have the give the Collins some credit though; when they stay on top of the maintenance issues, they are very capable and dangerous subs, as a number of ‘sunk’ US amphibs in wargames can attest.

    And I’m not sure exactly what we mean by off-the-shelf solutions would have been better. It was an off-the-shelf engine, after all…

  13. October 20, 2009 8:02 pm

    Graham,

    Whether you consider Scharnhorst to have been a battle-cruiser or a -small- fast battleship, she was ill-used at the Battle of North Cape in December of 1943. Operating alone (Konteradmiral Erich Bey separated her screen of destroyers) she encountered three RN cruisers and lost her radar to a hit by heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk. After that, she was prey to the battleship HMS Duke of York and accompanying cruisers & destroyers. Scharnhorst was well-designed, but most WW-II German capital ships suffered from engineering faults and operational limitations. Scharnhorst first encountered a force of well-employed cruisers and then encountered the weaponry of a true battleship. That was the end for one compromised warship.

    I wonder how things would have turned out for the sisters Scharnhorst & Gneisenau during their June, 1940 encounter with the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and destroyers HMS Acasta & HMS Ardent if there had been a couple of County class heavy cruisers accompanying the carrier. WW-II German capital ships were shy (they avoided exposure to damage due to operational orders) when encountering reasonably well-armed opponents. I suspect Glorious might have survived the encounter / engagement if her escort had been properly constituted with cruisers and destroyers.

    The WW-I German battle-cruisers were built more like battleships than their Royal Navy counterparts. That showed at Jutland – scratch three RN battle-cruisers.

    So, back to these ‘flying-fish’ boats of the Collins class. What would easily scratch them out?

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 20, 2009 7:58 pm

    Yeah, every vessel of war has a place and purpose, and large warships should avoid the littorals in threat areas until the way has been paved by the small boys.

  15. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 20, 2009 7:37 pm

    Mike,

    Thanks for pointing out the danger of pitting big SSNs against small SSKs in the littorals. I meant to do that but I forgot. Quiet as the American nukes are, they’re still awful noise compared to a half-decent SSK & the torpedo tubes in the SSKs are just as big as the tubes in the SSNs.

    Slight tangent: imagine a quality-built AIP SSK with decent range that has been equipped with German or Russian super-cavitation torpedos. Now imagine that same carrier stalking a US carrier group in brown or green waters off the coast of Iran. Or heck, Southern California. Chavez seems to like SSKs, after all.

    Can you say USS Artificial Reef boys and girls? I knew you could…

  16. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 20, 2009 7:26 pm

    Couldn’t have said it any better, Mr. Reddick. In fairness to the battle-cruisers, though, I few designs actually worked out pretty well. Most of the German BCs in both wars were actually pretty well thought out: They sacrificed weight of broadside for armor & speed instead of trading armor for speed & BB caliber guns. And the smaller caliber German guns did have one advantage over the bigger British guns–increased volume of fire. The Germans were also more disciplined then the British when it came to deploying their BCs in the roles they were designed for–scouting, cruiser hunting & commerce raiding. Course, all that money which went into the BCs could have paid for a hella lot of U-boats…

    One British BC that had a pretty impressive war career was career was HMS Renown–but then, she’d had a much more extensive refit then either Repulse or Hood & the British deployed her rather more wisely.

    Regardless, the the original analogy remains accurate, IMHO.

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 20, 2009 7:13 pm

    “…the battle-cruisers of the submarine world.”

    Or perhaps the undersea version of the LCS? They are so big, they lose some of their advantage I think in stealth and maneuverability, and as we see, maintainability. Nuclear boats have their uses, but this hasn’t stopped the rest of the world from deploying very potent, silent, and deadly new U-boats.

    The one disadvantage of mostly controlling the Blue Water, is you have to go to the shallow seas now to get at the enemy. It’s craft like these which will be waiting for us there. Every sub commander is a Günther Prien wannabe, I imagine.

  18. October 20, 2009 6:48 pm

    Graham,

    “…the battle-cruisers of the submarine world.” That seems a fitting description for an over-reaching attempt to make the Collins into something that no one else employs. The Los Angeles, Seawolf, and Virginia classes of SSN are like the fast battleships of yore (WW-II). The 209 & 212 SSK classes (and like boats) are similar to the fast and reasonably well armed light & heavy cruisers successfully utilized in multiple roles during WW-II.

    Recall what happened to battle-cruisers during both WW-I and WW-II… sunk by naval air-power, destroyers, cruisers, and battleships. Compromise designs just don’t seem to work too well when you’re trying to build a capital type ship on the basis of features usually found in less richly featured classes.

    The Collins class perhaps are neither fish or fowl – rather, they are an attempt at creating a flying fish analog (and I’m unsure whether that’s a reasonably good or truly bad analogy).

  19. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 20, 2009 6:05 pm

    I find it somewhat entertaining that German U-boats have become such a high-demand export item–not because they’re bad ships: they’re, but because, well, you know, it’s Germany. ;)

    I’m not anti-nuke sub. For a country concerned with power projection, it’s hard to beat a Los Angelas, Virginia, Seawolf or converted Ohio-class SSGN. But if your concern is area denial, SSKs are the way to go. I will say that all-nuke sub guys sometimes forget that old Harvard Business School adage: “What Business Are We In?”

    Submarines, basically, are stealthy underwater platforms whose business is to fire torpedos and/or missiles and sink surface ships. SSKs can do that quite nicely. They’re cheaper, safer, easier to build, maintain & operate & even though they can’t compete with a nuke boat when it comes to range, the newer SSKs DO have decent range & loitering ability, are quiter then nuke boats, can prowl the shallows more safely and in some cases (notably the Israeli-German modified 209 & 212 Dolphin class) actually have strategic as well as tactical value. This assumes that the widely believed rumor that the four extra 650 mm tubes are intended to launch Popeye cruise missiles.

    (I tend to believe that is is true. The Israelis do not screw around. Keeping a few 200 kiloton cruise missiles prowling around under the waves is the sort of thing they would do. With the kind of neighbors they have, this isn’t paranoia; it’s prudence.)

    But back to the Collins class. In some ways I kind of think of them as the battle-cruisers of the submarine world. They’re almost as big as nuke boats, just as expensive, haqrd to maintain & lack most of the operational advantages of the smaller, cheaper, more modern SSKs. They’re a compromise that seemed like a good idea at the time but hasn’t worked out in practice.

    If I was Australia, I’d be thinking that buying a dozen 212 type boats would like a pretty good investment right about now. And they could have das boots well before 2025 to boott. Ahem.

    (Of course, if I was Australia, I would be a land mass, not an unemployed journalist. But that’s neither here nor there…)

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