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Reports to cabinet didn't show sub concern

AAP logoAAP 31/12/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

With Australia embarking on construction of 12 new submarines in the nation's biggest defence acquisition project ever, the Collins experience offers some useful lessons.

Between 1990 and 2001, six Collins submarines were constructed in Adelaide but only now have all the technical problems and shortcomings in maintenance and support been solved.

Cabinet documents for 1992 and 1993, released by the National Archives of Australia, show the Labor government of the time was sufficiently concerned about the many challenges of building advanced submarines in Australia to require six-monthly progress reports.

The same applied to a program to construct 10 new Anzac frigates in Melbourne, eight for Australia and two for New Zealand. That started in March 1992 with the last vessel launched in March 2004, on time and within budget.

The four submarine progress reports for 1992 and 1993 were generally upbeat, reporting the project was proceeding well enough and only hinting at the significant problems which became most apparent as the first boats started sea trials.

Those problems eventually included excessive hull noise, unreliable diesel engines and generators, propellers which needed to be redesigned, vibrating periscopes but above all, the computer combat system.

That never worked properly and was only fixed with installation of a different system as used aboard the US Navy's Virginia-class nuclear subs.

The report to cabinet made reassuring noises about "solid progress" with further improvement expected on the combat system. As at March 1992, the combat system was deemed to be running just two months late.

In October 1992, it noted that combat system design and development were generally progressing satisfactorily and the first boat, to be named HMAS Collins, was on track for launch in August 1993.

It acknowledged that the major risks for delivery of Collins to the navy, planned for January 1995, lay in software and hardware integration.

"Based on progress achieved to date a serious delay or cost overrun to the project appears unlikely," it said.

In May 1993, the confidence was slipping a little, with the report declaring development and integration of software had experienced some difficulties and was subject to an increasingly tight schedule.

An internal defence review conducted in November 1992 concluded there was no evidence to indicate significant cost overrun or schedule delay would be encountered during the life of the project.

"Nonetheless, while many problems have been overcome in achieving progress to date, substantial risks remain, in particular the development of software for the combat system and the ship control system," it said.

The progress report, covering the six months to June 30, 1993 and considered by cabinet in late September after Collins had been launched, said production of the combat system was complete.

But development and integration of software remained critical to the overall project schedule although Collins delivery to the navy, set for January 1995, wasn't expected to be affected.

Collins experienced numerous issues during trials and she wasn't commissioned into the navy until July 1996, by which time the Navy and Defence were well aware of the need for extensive remediation.

So was the rest of Australia in 1998 when the Sydney Daily Telegraph published its infamous "Dud Subs" story, outlining the many problems and shortcomings of the Collins subs and tainting them in the public mind ever since.

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