Collins submarine maintenance: What’s best for the navy and its people?
6 Nov 2019|

The public debate about moving full-cycle dockings of the Collins-class submarines to Western Australia has been overwhelmingly political. The vital point has so far been ignored: industry is engaged to support the navy, not the other way around.

A navy that repairs and maintains its ships and submarines close to their operating bases (not half a continent away, as we do with the Collins) generates capability more reliably and cost-effectively. John Coles pointed that out in 2012, although he also noted Australia’s challenges.

The Royal Australian Navy was originally set up that way. Complex warships were built at Williamstown near Melbourne and Cockatoo Island in Sydney, or overseas. Repair and maintenance were generally carried out at Sydney’s Garden Island, the navy’s main fleet base. Submarine refits before the Collins were done at Cockatoo Island, close to the submarine base, which was in Sydney at the time. Simpler ships were built and repaired elsewhere.

The dockyards at Williamstown and Garden Island specialised in shipbuilding and refit, respectively. The two activities are quite different. There’s overlap in the trade skills required, but each task requires specialised management, design and engineering skills. This difference is as significant as that between the anaesthetist and surgeon in an operating theatre; they have much in common, but each is a specialist.

With the Collins submarines, a new company, shipyard and workforce were set up to build them. They turned to maintenance when the build program ended, by which time Cockatoo Island had been closed for over a decade. Early results were not so good, for many reasons.

One factor was that skills had been developed to build the submarines, not to maintain them. It took over a decade and the Coles review before an acceptable outcome was reliably achieved. When Australia started building the air warfare destroyers, after a break of almost 10 years, everybody had to relearn the craft, including Defence, which took time. The fact is, building ships and submarines requires different skills from repairing and maintaining them, even when you built them in the first place.

The current debate is mostly about the jobs for industry that Collins maintenance would provide in Western Australia or South Australia, rather than what would achieve the best outcome for the RAN. The tradespeople that industry has are vital, as are skilled and experienced professional managers, planners, designers and engineers.

What about the navy’s submariners? There are fewer than a thousand of them, with diverse specialist skills. The fact that the RAN must expand this workforce substantially for the new submarines is barely mentioned. But that makes debating the right question even more important.

As the Collins class entered service, the submarine base was moved from New South Wales to Western Australia, causing enormous disruption for the submariners. Being based so far away from most of the population made the capability recovery a long and difficult struggle. Relocating Collins full-cycle dockings to where the submarines are based, restoring one of the fundamentals for a successful capability outcome, is a logical step. It’s also timely, coming ahead of the commencement of the construction of the new submarines.

Other submarine repair and maintenance has been done in WA for a few years. While less complex than full-cycle dockings, this work is still vital, and building up the skilled tradespeople and specialist managers has steadily progressed. There is more to do, especially in providing the Collins engineering design capability needed in WA. This won’t be easy, as the existing specialists are in SA and probably won’t want to move westward, given the exciting new frigate and submarine work on offer in Adelaide.

Why should repair and maintenance be close to the navy’s home ports? RAN recruits are generally younger people who accept and often relish mobility when they sign up. But as they progress through life and acquire families, mortgages and the other trappings of normality, moving around the country becomes less attractive, just as it does for other Australians.

The navy must provide these people with more stability and more time at home with their families or risk losing them from the service. By this time of their lives, those looking to leave are generally the ones whose experience and deep specialist skills will take many years to replace. The RAN can least afford to lose these people.

If submarine maintenance is done in SA, the submariners who must be there are also separated from their families in WA—often for long periods and in significant numbers.

If it’s done in WA (that is, near the submarine base), the navy’s people can go home after their shifts like normal workers. They can also be more easily involved in the work in greater numbers, so more of them can learn the submarine’s complex systems more deeply.

The result is more highly skilled, experienced, knowledgeable and professionally satisfied submariners who will deliver better capability. Industry can perform better too, through closer interaction with the crews. Paradoxically perhaps, better-skilled navy people are also likely to stay in the navy longer. Experience shows that when they feel that their skills are falling behind those of their civilian counterparts, navy people fear for their long-term employment prospects and will leave earlier.

Concentrating the construction of complex new frigates and submarines in Adelaide will stress the local labour market. Keeping Collins maintenance there too would increase the risks for all of those activities and create a serious strategic vulnerability.

Co-locating all Collins maintenance in WA will best serve the RAN in the longer term.