The Collins Class

The Collins class

It was disappointing to see negative publicity from Canberra, especially around 1999-2000 about our new submarines and other RAN ships, such as “rust bucket Manoora“. Certainly there have been problems. Every undertaking generates problems. However, other than dealing with overly optimistic contingency factors (only 2.3 per cent or $115 million was allowed initially for the entire Collins class), no “problem” seems too difficult. Furthermore, the “rust buckets” have certainly proven themselves money well spent as we look at their brilliant record in The Gulf and islands closer to home.

Waller SSG75 at speed. (RAN photo)

What has not been discussed recently by practically anyone other than RADM Briggs, is the massive and marked achievement of building a highly successful submarine design and construction industry from bare earth in Australia. Compared with contemporary Royal Navy frigates and some US Navy submarines, the Collins class is going like a dream.

Peter Wallner, a defence procurement expert, said in The Advertiser, 12 May 2008,

  • From its inception in 1978 the project was seldom far from controversy and it was mercilessly attacked by the media and the Howard government for a myriad of technical failings – real, exaggerated and imagined. With problems overcome through some remarkable defence science and assistance from the U.S., the submarines were delivered close to budget and an average of 26 months behind schedule.
  • This is one of the shortest delays with any military purchase and remarkable for the largest systems integration project in Australian history.
  • The persisting failure has been the combat system, a testament to both the inadequacies of some of the world’s major arms corporations and the unchecked ambition of Australian submariners.

Even this disaster was salvaged by the expertise and ingenuity of Australia’s project engineers and defence scientists, cobbling together a system to provide an acceptable performance. Highly regarded defence commentator Norman Friedman visited the Australian Submarine Corporation in 1999 and wrote a very positive article. “The Collins class seems well on the road to recovery, with a real operational capacity already in place,” he says. He shows how Australia built, through a defence procurement and building arrangement largely insulated from uniformed RAN influence, a viable state-of-the-art machine. “Despite this reality, the public and, apparently, the political leadership have associated the Collins-class problems with the Royal Australian Navy,” he adds. (Norman Friedman, Fixing the Collins class, United States Naval Institute Proceedings, 126/5 May 2000, pp 98-102.)

Problems and solutions

The problems, Friedman reports, lay chiefly in hull and machinery noise, a combat direction system prone to data overload, and a “double dove” error with periscope vision. Other minor problems, such as salt water fuel contamination, seem easily fixed.

Noise problems are relative. First, the old Oberons were remarkably quiet at any speed, therefore the follow-on type had a difficult standard to better. Second, while the Collins class was quiet enough at slow speeds, they were noisy at full power, especially on the surface. This was due primarily to vibrations from the diesels, other machinery, hull, snort mast and propeller. All these have been corrected or permanent fixes identified.

LCDR Andrew Keogh, CO of HMAS Waller, who successfully “torpedoed” an American carrier in a big RIMPAC 2000 exercise, reportedly said of his submarine, “My periscopes are better, my diesels are better, the Collins class has got streamlining and new propellors, all within the space of 12 months,” according to a Weekend Australian, September 9-10, 2000, p5, article.

Combat direction system

The computerised combat direction system, based on the RAN-designed Oberon Submarine Weapons Update System (SWUP), looked good on paper back in the 1980s, but fell prone to data processing overload during multi-tasking, which in turn slowed the entire system.

The $266 million interim Fast Track modification, initially to Dechaineux and Sheean, looks like correcting this. Conversely, the computer-aided submarine control systems and the sonar system are working as intended. Instead of eight to ten in the Oberons, only two people are required to operate the Collins machinery control panel.

three subs
Collins, Rankin and Waller head seawards. (RAN photo from

 A “double dove” gray band effect plus focus loss when changing periscope power was due perhaps to the RAN wanting more electronics than usual in the head. “As of February 2000, a solution was under test in the manufacturer’s plant in Glasgow,” said Friedman.

Importantly, Friedman praises our links with the Australian DSTO and overseas laboratories. He sees this ease of access as “the major lesson for other navies”. The Collins class has problems, but none seem insurmountable or intractable.

Manning the submarines is another matter, with major problems identified across the board ranging from recruiting to retention. Extra submariners’ pay has ameliorated but not solved the problem.