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Why do so many Australians think the Collins Class submarines were a waste of money?

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Before I address this question, I will declare my interest in the subject.

For the last decade of my working life, I was responsible for establishing and maintaining a factory capable of manufacturing electronic equipment for the Collins Class submarines.

The Submarine Project had been set up by the Australian Government to provide a maximum of Australian content. While Kockums was responsible for the design of the vessels and made the first hull in their shipyard in Sweden, all the rest of the shipbuilding was done in the shipyard of the Australian Submarine Corporation in Adelaide. ASC was a consortium of four organisations including AIDC, an Australian Government agency, Kockums, Wormald, an Australian owned international fire protection company, and an American project management company.

Saab Instruments, a Swedish electronics manufacturer with relevant experience on submarines for the Swedish navy, was contracted by Kockums to design and manufacture the computer equipment needed to manage all the non-weapon systems of the submarines. Saab subcontracted one third of the hardware design work, two thirds of the software design work, and five sixths of the manufacturing work to Wormald. Wormald established a division called Wormald Technology to carry out this work and I was the Manufacturing Manager of Wormald Technology.

Our work in manufacturing was recognised by the navy and by Saab Instruments as being world class. The MacIntosh report which was commissioned late in the life of the project to investigate deficiencies in the submarines reported that three Australian sub-contracts were carried out in exemplary fashion with results equal to the best available anywhere in the world. One of those sub-contracts was ours. I take great pride in that recognition and have no hesitation in relating these facts despite the risk of being accused of self-promotion.

There were two significant performance deficiencies identified by the MacIntosh report. Firstly, the noise level of the submarines, which is the key performance parameter of an attack submarine which must penetrate the sonar defences of its targets, was greater than that required by the specification. Secondly, the combat system software, which is used to integrate the data from all the sensors and control the deployment of all the weapon systems, did not meet all of its specification requirements.

The noise performance of the submarines, while not meeting the specification, is such that, in war games with the US Navy, the submarines penetrate the defences of the enemy ships and "sink" them.

The combat system software is not, apparently, up to scratch but the crew have demonstrated that they can use both the sensors and the weapon systems very effectively in simulated combat.

While the submarines are deficient against the specification, they are considered by all the cognoscenti, including the Americans, to be the best attack submarines in the world.

Perhaps the specification was a just bit ambitious and asked for more than was possible with the current technology.

In the light of this, it is strange that most Australians think that the submarine project was a complete failure and a total waste of money.

Of course most Australians don't have access to all the information. They only get to know what is published in the newspapers and on television. The only information most people have received about the submarine project was the statement by the then Minister for Defence, John Moore, that the project was a failure. It wasn't reported at the time that the same Minister for Defence was in a personal battle with the CEO of the Australian Submarine Corporation over the rights to the intellectual property in the project.

This disagreement has since been settled out of court with the Australian Government agreeing that the intellectual property rights were as set out in the contract and that Kockums were to be involved in all decisions concerning the use of the intellectual property. Perhaps John Moore was wrong about both the intellectual property rights and the performance of the submarines. Sadly, the only thing most Australians remember is that they heard him say that the project was a failure.

As a contributor in a small but significant way to the success of the submarine project, I was justifiably incensed that our work was denigrated by the Minister for Defence who used of his public position to make mean and unworthy efforts to score personal points against someone with whom he a business disagreement.

Nobody in authority has every said "Sorry guys" but why would I expect that!

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Created: 28.08.2004 and last revised 05.11.2004
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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