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Sub fleet faces 'extreme' problems
October 21, 2009 - 7:09AM
The $6 billion Collins class submarine fleet could face serious operational restrictions after a series of mechanical problems and maintenance issues.
The Swedish-supplied diesel engines may have to be replaced according to some senior engineering experts.
Replacing the engines could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to complete, The Australian newspaper reports on Wednesday.
The Defence Material Organisation has put the Navy's Collins boats at the top of its list of "projects of concern".
The newspaper reports that in recent times only a single Collins Class submarine has been available for operational duties.
However, it is unclear whether this involves more than extended training missions.
A senior Defence source said the level of concern about the availability of the Collins submarines was "extreme".
Defence leaders are also concerned about the productivity and efficiency of ASC, the government-owned builder, based in Adelaide, and maintainer of the Collins Class submarines.
Other mechanical issues include the performance of the electric motors, batteries and generators.
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Engine problems cripple Collins-class submarines
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EXCLUSIVE: Patrick Walters, National security editor | October 21, 2009
Article from: The Australian
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.
So serious are the problems that the Defence Materiel Organisation has put the Collins boats at the top of its list of "projects of concern" - the key equipment issues troubling Australia's Defence leaders.
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.
"We spend a lot of money on this core defence capability and they aren't working properly."
Defence Minister John Faulkner and Defence Materiel Minister Greg Combet have now demanded monthly updates from the navy and Defence about the operational state of the Collins-class vessels.
ASC, the Adelaide-based builder and maintainer of the Collins class, is now working through a range of mechanical issues affecting the performance of the six submarines with the state of the diesel engines a fundamental concern.
The trouble-plagued diesel engines are expected to last at least another 15 to 20 years before they are progressively replaced by the planned next-generation submarine from 2025.
While ASC believes they can still last the expected life-of-type and has called in a Swiss consultant to advise on a long-term remediation plan, other external experts believe there may be no option but to start planning for their eventual replacement.
The Hedemora diesel engines have never functioned well from the start and there are now real doubts that they are robust enough to see out the life of the Collins boats.
Other mechanical issues include the performance of the electric motors, batteries and generators but ASC sources are confident that these glitches are being satisfactorily resolved.
HMAS Collins is undergoing repairs on its diesel engines and there are temporary restrictions on two other boats while the bands on their electric motors are fixed.
But ASC remains confident that four "operational" boats will be available to the navy early in 2010 while HMAS Rankin and HMAS Sheean enter ASC's Adelaide yard to undergo a "full-cycle docking" - a major refit and overhaul.
ASC has the maintenance contract for the Collins boats worth nearly $200 million and this year is budgeted to spend $330m on maintaining and upgrading the submarines, including the combat system.
But Defence leaders are concerned about the company's ability to efficiently manage the regular full-cycle dockings (FCD) and other lengthy maintenance periods that the Collins boats require. Defence wants to cut the average time taken for a FCD from three to two years, saving at least $60-70m a year, which would be ploughed back into supporting the Collins capability.
ASC has a $3bn long-term through-life support contract for the Collins boats with the DMO which is due to be renegotiated by next March.
Senior Defence sources say there will be three key performance indicators that they expect from the new contract with ASC including an increased availability of boats for operations and a reduced cost of ownership to the commonwealth. "We are concerned with the amount of availability of the boats and the cost of doing the maintenance as well as some of the technical outcomes being achieved," DMO chief Stephen Gumley told The Australian.
"We are working with the company to improve in each of those areas. We hope to have a new through-life support contract for the Collins by Easter next year, which would commence in the financial year starting on July 1, 2010," Dr Gumley said.
"Like any complex asset, there is a series of technical challenges.
"We are working with ASC and external consultants to evaluate some of the challenges that wehave."
A recent external consultant's study of workforce productivity on the Collins boats at ASC's Adelaide yard suggests room for significant improvement.
According to documents obtained by The Australian, the study showed that some mechanical tradesmen working on the Collins boats were idle for much of their time on the shop floor.
One electrical tradesman was present for the entire day but his only role was to insert and remove the fuses for a pressure test. This test took 10 minutes and was held mid-afternoon.
Another electrical tradesman was clocked to have spent three hours and 12 minutes of productive work in a day. "The average efficiency observed (using generous definitions of productive work) was 30 per cent. Over 15 days of tradesperson time across multiple disciplines was observed, and nobody has suggested that theperiod of time we studied was not representative," the consultant report found.
"We believe that an efficiency of 80 per cent should be considered world-class in this environment. This would be a 167 per cent increase in the work output of the current workforce or opportunity for a dramatic cost reduction," the report said.
Ever since they were launched, the Collins boats have been plagued by mechanical problems.
As early as June 1999, a report to the Howard government found a range of serious technical defects in the Collins boats, three of which had been delivered to the navy by that time. These included problems with the diesel engines as well as noise propagation and the performance of propellers, periscopes, masts and the combat system. By far the most expensive fix was the the combat system. The original system never worked and was eventually replaced at a cost of close to $1 billion.