Lack of hands strands navy subs
February 27, 2007
THE navy's $6 billion submarine fleet is in crisis, with commanders being forced to slash the number of sailing days because there are not enough crew members.
The shortage of skilled submariners is the most acute on record, with crew numbers having slumped to just two-thirds of that required to properly operate the six-submarine fleet.
The result is that the Collins Class submarines - the navy's most expensive and potent weapon - are often lying idle in the dock.
The recruitment crisis has forced the navy to consider another round of lucrative financial incentives for submariners, less than three months after the last package was announced.
"The navy is currently experiencing a shortfall of submariners of about 30 per cent of requirement," a Defence Department spokesman said in response to questions from The Australian yesterday. "The shortage of submariners has meant there has been a reduction in sailing days."
The navy insists that despite the shortage, it has "continued to meet all of its operational tasks and requirements".
But it does not say if those operational tasks have been slashed to fit the reduced sailing schedule. And it will not say how many sailing days have been cut.
But defence expert Hugh White said yesterday that fewer sailing days because of the crew shortages would inevitably undermine Australia's military capability.
"This is a very significant failure of capability management - there are implications for submarine operations and also for our overall capability," said Professor White, from the Australian National University.
"Less time spent at sea means less time training and honing skills. You can't learn how to drive a submarine underwater without taking a lot of time practising.
"If this situation persists, it will reduce the quality of our very substantial investment in the submarines. You will have a whole generation of submariners who don't have exposure to operational experience."
The navy requires about 45 crew members to operate each of its six submarines.
Their missions require them to cruise silently beneath the surface, often for months at a time, eavesdropping and collecting intelligence on key targets. They sail according to schedules so secret that only a handful of people knows where they are. Their periscopes can bob up anywhere from the Indian and Pacific oceans to the waters of southeast and northeast Asia.
But these missions are now threatened by a critical shortage of mechanical and electrical technicians, as well as electronic and acoustic warfare specialists.
"All categories require increased recruitment to meet regrowth and natural attrition demands," the spokesman said.
The navy said it was considering a range of initiatives to improve the pay and conditions of submariners and entice more sailors to join.
The navy last year allowed civilians to join the submarine arm directly without first serving on surface navy ships, as had been previously required.
It has also increased the size of the special submariner allowances, which traditionally mean pay of up to 20per cent more than sailors on ships.
The shortage of submariners is the most extreme example of the skills crisis being felt across many arms of the Australian Defence Force.
In December, the Government unveiled a $1 billion package to boost recruitment across the navy, army and air force.
The package includes retention bonuses to keep individuals from being head-hunted by private firms - a key problem in the strong economic climate.
The navy has repackaged its publicity pitch for submariners, extolling the virtues of being based at the fleet headquarters in HMAS Stirling in Perth.
"Nearby you can enjoy a round of golf, or take a peaceful walk deep into jarrah forests," the Defence website says, while spruiking local fishing, nightclubs, markets and water sports.
When discussing the submariner's training course at HMAS Cerberus in Victoria, the navy promises that "despite the Hollywood stereotypes, there won't be gruff drill instructors screaming in your face".
"The type of people we are looking for are what we call extroverted introverts - people who get along with others but at the same time are mentally able to occupy their 'own space', even though others surround them," the navy says.
As revealed in The Australian yesterday, the navy hopes that a new type of seawater hose will allow the submarine fleet to operate at greater depths next year. Depth restrictions were placed on all submarines after an on-board flood almost sank HMAS Dechaineux in 2003.