HANS-J. OHFF. Acquiring an orphan submarine. A REPOST from January 2017

If the RAN holds firm to the concept offered by DCNS it will acquire an orphan no other Navy will contemplate commissioning into service. It will own a submarines that will be expensive to build, expensive to maintain and expensive to operate. It will be a class that has no equals — sadly for all the wrong reasons.  

The emphasis on the $20 billion vs. $50 billion price tag for 12 future submarines for the RAN is distracting attention from the debate on the government’s hasty decision to acquire 12 Barracuda Shortfin Block 1A from France, and from the logistical realities of building that class in Australia.

The TKMS ballpark figure of $20 billion is in 2015 money; it does not make allowances for labour, material and currency escalations effected during an estimated 30-year design and construction period. The publicised $50 billion is not a DCNS estimate; this largely unsubstantiated figure is the government’s forward cost estimate for the delivery in 2050 of 12 diesel-electric submarines.

The award of the Future Submarine Program (FSP) to France in itself should not be the issue. The inexcusable blunder by our defence planners is the determination to procure a >5100t (submerged displacement) diesel-electric submarine class that does not have air-independent-propulsion (AIP), is based on lead-acid battery technology, and will feature a propulsion system that may prove to be too power-hungry for a diesel-electric submarine.

The maxim: as small as possible and as big as is necessary holds firm for all naval submarine designs, but particularly for diesel-electric boats. DCNS as well as TKMS know this, with the former introducing a new blue-water submarine concept – SMX®3.0 – at Euronaval 2016. With 3000 tons displacement the ‘Z-Generation’ submarine class will be nearly 50% smaller than the Barracuda Shortfin Block 1A. It will have a propeller drive train and hydrogen-oxide fuel-cell AIP. The SMX®3.0 indiscretion ratio (the time taken to run the diesel engines to re-charge the batteries compared with the time spent submerged) will compare favourably with the Shortfin Block 1A, and this smaller submarine class will also have less drag, thus greater underwater speed, endurance, and lower signature. The replacement of lead-acid with lithium-ion batteries will eliminate cooling and hydrogen venting…., and the list goes on.

If the RAN holds firm to the concept offered by DCNS it will acquire an orphan no other Navy will contemplate commissioning into service. It will own a submarines that will be expensive to build, expensive to maintain and expensive to operate. It will be a class that has no equals — sadly for all the wrong reasons.

In the government’s words, retired USN submarine program managers evaluated the proposals for the future Australian submarine class; their recommendation may prove to be neither fish-nor-fowl, neither an effective diesel electric nor a nuclear-powered submarine.

Australia has learnt much about operating modern diesel-electric submarines and in particular its design strengths and weaknesses and how the next generation should be improved. In the early stages of the SEA1000 program the government funded ASC to investigate different options ranging from procurement of an off-the-shelf submarine to an Australian ab initio and an evolved Collins design. The investigations by ASC- Deep-Blue Tech invested significant effort over 5 years with a team of some 60 national and international experts to explore the different submarine design options. These efforts were terminated once the government redirected attention to a Japanese solution and subsequently to a competitive evaluation process (CEP) to select a strategic partner to design, build and sustain the future submarine fleet.

While there should be no doubt that the USN can and should assist in the future Australian submarine program, we should question whether any members on the recently announced Pyne Advisory Board have much – if any – experience in the design of diesel-electric submarines. Categorically they have NO experience in the construction of warships in Australia. Many former and current managers and engineers at ASC, BAE Systems Australia, Thales Australia, and, of course, former RAN submarine COs and Engineering Officers can provide government with equal or better experience/counsel on the FSP and FFP industry and industrial requirements than this congregation of eminent persons.

Not least of the deficiencies in the government’s advisory panel is the lack of depth in labour relations and productivity – one of the major risks for the project. To set up a >5000 workforce strong shipyard in Australia will be a monumental high-risk task. To manage such a site from a labour-relations standpoint over a 30 year plus timeline has to my knowledge only been done in this country during a period of war, ending in failure in peacetime. The last government shipyard, before the Howard government nationalised ASC, Williamstown Dock Yard, was managed by navy personnel and so-called overseas experts, including managers from the US. When EGLO Engineering – a specialist Australian company in the hydrocarbon and mining engineering and construction industry together with International Combustion Australia (ICAL) and Australian Shipbuilding Industries (ASI) formed AMEC to acquire the dysfunctional Williamstown Dock Yard in 1987 it had the option to retain some 2000 government employees. AMEC declined. Instead some 200 of EGLO’s most capable and reliable trades people, were transferred to the new enterprise to form the nucleus workforce for the completion of the FFG-7 frigates, ‘Melbourne’ and ‘Newcastle’ and start on the 10-ship ANZAC build program for the Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand Navies.

AMEC, renamed Amecon in 1989 — later Transfield Shipbuilding — employed some 1500 people at Williamstown, about the same number ASC employed to build the 6 Collins-class submarines in Adelaide.

To assemble and manage a large‎ construction workforce takes a lot of experience anywhere, but especially in Australia. Management needs to understand and work with both the Australian trade unions and a complex and dysfunctional labour relations frame work. The workforce needs to be kept as small and as efficient as possible, and labour productivity management must be extended to the procurement of third party components and systems. These are not capacities or track records generally found in government enterprises.

Advice on diesel-electric submarine design and construction should be sourced in Australia and Europe. Industrial advice, however, is clearly the domain of experienced Australian labour-relations strategists that have managed similar complexity and comparable risk.

We can only hope the debate on these vital issues improves in 2017.

Hans J. Ohff was Managing Director ASC from 1993 to 2002. His major responsibility was the delivery of the six Collins Class submarines. Since 2002 he has accepted appointments on several company and government boards. Dr. Ohff is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia and a Visiting Research Fellow at Adelaide University.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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2 Responses to HANS-J. OHFF. Acquiring an orphan submarine. A REPOST from January 2017

  1. Brendan Mackey says:

    Thanks for this helpful article. It makes me wonder more generally about the feasibility and desirability- purely from a national security perspective – of spending any money on new submarines. Am I correct in assuming that their defence advantage is based on their ability to be undiscoverable? If so, I find it hard to believe that even in 10 years time there will not be the technology to find submarines where ever they are – given that anything that moves or communicates is transmitting potentially trackable information. Or, do submarines have some other defence advantage I am unaware of?

  2. Jon Stanford Jon Stanford says:

    Dr Hans Ohff probably knows more about building submarines than anybody in Australia. While there were many problems with the Collins Class submarines, these related almost entirely to design issues (diesel engines; combat system; propeller; cavitation), unacceptable welding from Sweden and inadequate provision for sustainment, with Defence underestimating the cost and difficulty of assuming parent navy responsibilities. The shipbuilding task, particularly in light of the fact that Australia had never built a submarine before, was carried out extremely well. This success was largely due to the drive and expertise of Dr Ohff as Managing Director of ASC.
    His comments on the future build of the submarines should be taken very seriously. The government’s decision to build the FSM in Australia adds very significantly to the overall risks of the project. ASC’s record in building a basically off-the-shelf air warfare destroyer is not encouraging. The ships each cost nearly three times as much as acquiring a bigger and better Arleigh Burke class destroyer from the US, with delivery ten years later.
    We have very little idea how Defence intends to build these submarines competitively and efficiently in Australia. Are we looking to privatise part of ASC? Are we considering the benefits of a fixed price contract? If we are creating a naval shipbuilding monopoly in Adelaide, are we evaluating ways to regulate it so as to keep it honest? Have we worked out how to mobilise Australia’s dwindling heavy engineering capability? Are we making plans to create a digital shipyard in Adelaide, along the latest European lines?
    On all these and other issues, the government is sphinx-like in its silence. One thing is for sure. Nobody on the advisory panel it has established can match Dr Ohff in terms of their experience of building submarines in Australia.

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