Learning from experience: the lessons of Collins
27 Jan 2015|

KockumsLate last year Benjamin Schreer speculated on what 2015 might hold for the Australia–Japan security relationship. One of the issues he identified as being important in its development was that of potential cooperation on Australia’s future submarine program, observing in passing that any negotiations at the working level were likely to be ‘cumbersome and frustrating for both sides’.

It should be neither surprising nor exceptional if he’s proved right. Acquisition of defence materiel is nearly always challenging and complex. The degree of complexity tends to increase with acquisition from foreign countries with which Australian government instrumentalities have had little ongoing interaction.

Acquiring a major defence platform from Japan would be unique in the experience of Australia as a purchaser and Japan as a supplier. If adopted, this option would mirror the selection of the Swedish-designed Collins class as the RAN’s submarine choice as, at the time, Sweden was considered an unlikely source of major ADF materiel.

Swedish participation in what was to become the Collins class was seen as problematic, in part because Sweden’s policy of armed neutrality placed that country outside the scope of Australia’s security arrangements. That raised questions about safeguarding technological data and how the program’s development might complicate relations with Australia’s security partners. A particular problem was thought to be the attitude of the US to the incorporation of American technology into a Swedish design.

In the event, those concerns had little substance. In the normal course of the Collins program, protocols were developed to isolate country-specific data to appropriate subcontractors. Furthermore, for decades before there had been extensive Soviet underwater naval incursions into Swedish waters. Mutual interest spurred the development of what became standing biannual meetings between the senior management of Kockums, the Swedish submarine designer and builder, and the USN submarine community. At times when the arrangements for managing the flow of technological data became stressed, the relationship between the submarine designer and the owner and/or sponsor of much of the technology, the US Navy, served to facilitate a solution.

Australia had imported Swedish defence materiel before the Collins program but it’d been a less than happy experience, after Sweden embargoed the delivery of ammunition for the Carl Gustav infantry assault weapon once Australian forces deployed it in Vietnam. Over subsequent years, Swedish politics had to grapple with a growing dilemma at the heart of its national security policy. The Swedish tradition of armed neutrality was becoming prohibitively expensive; some of its costs could be defrayed by selling Swedish designed military equipment but how far should the Swedish interpretation of ‘neutrality’ be relaxed to gain the confidence of potential purchasers?

Australia was an agent in this debate, seeking a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the supply of defence materiel as early as 1980. The matter was still in process when the RAN sought to establish a framework to allow investigation of a possible Swedish source for its next submarine capability. The result was an agreement in November 1981 to safeguard information exchanges between nations, with further talks on its extension to Kockums. The comprehensive agreement including Kockums was signed in November 1983.

Such procedures needed to be expanded through the various stages of the Collins program. With Kockums one of the two companies involved in the Project Definition Study, an agreement negotiated between it and the RAN to cover the specifics of engineering and technical data was ratified by the Swedish government in August 1985.

Again, after the Kockums proposal was selected for the submarine program, agreements had to be developed to cover its design and production phases. That was achieved with the signature of an MoU in March 1988, several months after contracts between the Commonwealth and other involved parties were signed in June 1987.

Unfortunately, no procedures for the orderly acquisition of defence materiel can be future-proofed. When technical issues emerged as the Collins class entered service there were some areas where the 1988 MoU was of little use. By the time that the Collins Hedemora diesels were exhibiting problems the Swedish Navy (and, as their design house, Kockums) had switched to MTU engines. The tiny Hedemora company was in no position to assist the RAN by itself. Even Kockums, with its wealth of design experience, was unable to correct the cavitation problems of the Collins propellers. The RAN found adequate technical solutions only with the US Navy.

Yet it was another unexpected development that impacted significantly on the program. In September 1999 Kockums was sold to its German rival HDW. Kockums was at the time a part-owner and management partner in the Australian Submarine Corporation, which prompted the Australian government to take full control of ASC the following year.

When the designer was part of the Australian shipbuilding team the Commonwealth had seen only a limited requirement for Australian ownership of Collins intellectual property. The change of ownership required the design authority for Collins to be transferred from Kockums to the Commonwealth. Substantial litigation, conferences and negotiations between the two from 2001 to 2003 saw the Commonwealth increasingly asserting its rights to intellectual property, leading to a settlement that gave Defence and ASC full access to the intellectual property involved in maintaining, supporting and upgrading the submarines for the remainder of their service lives.

The circumstances at the turn of the millennium were never envisaged when source acquisition decisions in the early days of the Collins program were made. Sustaining defence materiel programs sometimes requires a capability to adjust to real-world changes beyond the limits of agreed procedures. The history of the Collins class is a reminder that managing the unexpected may not be so unusual over the two- to three-decade span of a major acquisition program.

Derek Woolner is co-author, with Peter Yule, of The Collins Class Submarines Story: steel, spies and spin. Image courtesy of Flickr user Lars Lundqvist.