Veteran diver: Rescue contract dispute puts Australian submariners at risk
11 Nov 2020|

Last week Defence announced that the Royal Australian Navy’s contract for a new submarine rescue system is on the department’s ‘project of interest’ list. US company Phoenix International may receive millions of dollars in compensation after a report recommended that the contract it was awarded be terminated. Defence has assured the public that the delays ‘do not impact our ability to provide an ongoing submarine rescue capability for our submarine fleet’. That’s wrong.

For starters, Australia has a responsibility to ensure the safety of its submarine crews.

As the material quality of submarines has improved, accidents have become less frequent. When they do occur, though, they attract a lot of attention. Almost exactly three years ago, the Argentinian submarine ARA San Juan disappeared with all hands and the global submarine rescue community mobilised on a scale not seen since the loss of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000.

Many navies can operate collaboratively to meet their rescue responsibilities. But Australia’s geographic isolation creates an obligation for a sovereign capability, since the amount of time it would take for any other country’s system to react, transport and mobilise exceeds the ‘time to first rescue’, which is usually 72 hours from the time of an accident.

If a submarine sinks and can’t surface, it’s because it has taken in more water than its buoyancy can address. Submariners are trained to escape individually through an escape tower (similar to an airlock), but beyond a depth of 180 metres (approximately equivalent to the continental shelf), a submarine rescue vehicle is necessary.

The rescue vehicle, fitted with a skirt that resembles an inverted teacup, is positioned on the flat surface (or seat) surrounding the escape tower. Pumps are used to reduce the pressure inside the skirt so that the vehicle is ‘stuck’ to the seat by hydrostatic pressure. Once the water is pumped out, the hatches are opened and survivors transferred into the rescue vehicle. The vehicle then returns to the surface and those rescued are transferred to a support vessel.

Australia established its submarine escape and rescue project in 1994. In just 13 months, the project delivered a complete capability centred around a tethered remotely operated rescue vehicle, known as Remora, and a comprehensive hyperbaric transfer and treatment system. Remora could be used to rescue survivors down to the collapse depth of the Collins-class submarines and could operate in all the environmental conditions that prevail in Australia’s submarine operating areas.

Sadly, Remora suffered a severe mishap in 2006 and, after its two crewmen were rescued, sank to the seabed. Although recovered and restored, it was refused certification.

In its place, the government acquired the services, based in Australia, of the UK’s LR5 piloted submersible, which had just been superseded by the NATO submarine rescue system. LR5 can accommodate 16 distressed submariners at a time and can make up to eight trips to the target submarine before it needs to recharge its battery, meaning a rescue capability of 120 personnel.

Since 2009, submarine rescue firm JFD has maintained, operated and upgraded the system. It is now approaching the end of its lifecycle. As a result, in 2015, the government approved project SEA 1354 Phase 1 to deliver a submarine escape rescue and abandonment system, or SERAS, capability that will be compatible with the new Attack-class submarines before LR5 reaches its end of life in 2024.

LR5 is not the solution for SEA 1354 but, in the absence of a workable arrangement to deliver the new SERAS, it may become the gap-filler. There are several areas where its operating limitations give cause for concern.

The most serious of these is that the LR5’s maximum operating depth of 425 metres is about 25% less than the crush depth of the Collins-class submarine. While the area between 425 metres and crush depth could be small in some places because of the slope of the seabed beyond the continental shelf, such a situation would be unacceptable to the offshore oil industry, for example.

If a submarine sinks in water too deep for the rescue vehicle but too shallow to be crushed, a nation should possess the capability to rescue the survivors.

Should a submarine accident occur, this capability gap would require mobilisation of the US Navy’s submarine rescue system. It would be a struggle to mobilise that system to Australia within four to five days of an accident.

The system proposed for SEA 1354 by Phoenix International is a follow-on capability—essentially a third-generation Remora controlled remotely from the surface. The proposed design would comfortably exceed the depth requirement for the Collins and Attack classes and feature a launch and recovery capability in all expected sea states. It would also be able to ‘mate’ at any angle up to 60° in all prevailing currents where Australia’s submarines regularly operate.

The cancellation of the contract will delay the introduction of a new rescue capability for five or six years. The LR5, which is unsuitable anyway, will be out of service in 2024 and Australia will be dependent on other countries’ submarine rescue systems with little prospect of achieving an acceptable time to first rescue of 72 hours in the event of an accident.

Defence needs to work towards a solution with the current contractor and rationalise some of the features of the contract described as ‘inappropriate’ in the report written for Defence. Negotiations between the government and the contractor must progress more quickly for such a serious capability requirement.

A more radical approach, akin to that taken with the Remora project, is needed. There will be solutions to the engineering requirements that seem to be at the heart of the problem and Defence may need to call for more internal assistance to help the navy achieve this. A traditional approach to procuring a new submarine rescue system would not only cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but also take time, a commodity that is in short supply.