'ABOVE - MAYBE AN IRAQI WMD?? + AUSTRALIA COMES WITHIN - 'A WHISKER' - OF LOSING COLLINS CLASS SUB - 25 FEB 2003'
World Events of Significance
ARE LEAKY COLLINS CLASS SUBS ALL WASHED UP?
Reporter: Andrew Fowler
KERRY O'BRIEN: Welcome to the program. As the Federal Government maintains the momentum towards war with Iraq, nearer to home its hunt for terrorist networks has suffered a setback.
Two weeks ago there were red faces in the navy when one of the Collins class submarines, HMAS 'Dechaineaux', sprang a leak off the Western Australian coast.
The navy played down the mishap.
It's not new that the Collins class subs, whose major role is gathering intelligence, have had problems.
But there are concerns the 'Dechaineaux' could have been in much deeper trouble than the navy has admitted.
The rest of the Collins fleet has been grounded while the 'Dechaineaux' was examined, but the navy says the problem has now been fixed and the fleet will be back in operation within a week.
But even Australia's former defence minister, John Moore, has expressed concerns that another problem with welding on the submarines remains.
This special report from Andrew Fowler of the ABC's investigative unit.
ANDREW FOWLER: The Collins class submarine is portrayed by the navy as a boat full of fire power. But its real asset has little to do with firing off torpedoes and missiles in a hot war. The Collins class submarine has an armoury for eavesdropping which is even more formidable than its weaponry.
PROFESSOR DES BALL, STRATEGIC STUDIES, ANU: The Collins class is supposed to come in as close and as quiet as possible to coastlines, to port areas, to areas down coastlines where you get microwave relay stations, as well as satellite down links. Many of the major cities in Asia are near coastlines.
ANDREW FOWLER: The submarine's primary role is to gather intelligence by spying on our Asian neighbours. Getting in close, they sit within sight of a cell phone relay tower or under the footprint of a satellite phone, only the antenna showing above the waves, intercepting conversations and data transmissions.
PROFESSOR DES BALL: You might want to be following particular computer to computer communications that the terrorists might be involved in, and for that purpose, again, you need to get very close to the microwave circuits.
ANDREW FOWLER: Special forces troops are also dropped over the side to carry out bugging operations on foreign soil.
PROFESSOR DES BALL: That's one of their major roles in peace time to basically be the conveyor of special forces into areas where you want to implant sensors or where you want to put some equipment.
ANDREW FOWLER: So important is the role of the Collins class submarines that three years ago the Government forked out hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fix them up after it was revealed they were noisier than a rock band and were a sitting target for anyone trying to find them. As the submarines rolled off the assembly line in Adelaide, even the navy band joined in what was becoming a national farce. BAND: (Sings) It's got to be-e-e Perfect
ANDREW FOWLER: In 1999, then defence minister John Moore commissioned a report which revealed more than 200 faults in the subs.
JOHN MOORE, DEFENCE MINISTER 1998-2001: All governments respond to political pressure and we were getting a lot of pressure at that stage on the perception that we had spent $6 billion and we had dud subs.
ANDREW FOWLER: The Australian Defence Department and the Swedish designers of the subs, Kockums, didn't agree about much, but they did agree that some welding on the original Collins submarine was faulty. The Swedes had carried it out in Sweden and they would put it right. But last March, the Swedish Defence Attache was summoned to an emergency meeting in Canberra. The Defence Department had begun investigating whether the 'Collins' was a one-off or whether all the subs had suspect welding. Concerned that the welds might not hold to the maximum dive depth, Defence imposed a limit of 200m. It was a major blow to the submarine's clandestine operations. Bill Owen is a former commander of the Australian submarine squadron.
CAPTAIN BILL OWEN (RET), FORMER SUBMARINE COMMANDER: Any such restrictions would be a handicap to you if you were in an operation, or it could be, particularly if you were in deep water and you were wanting to get away from somebody and you want to use speed and you want to be sure you can go deep enough to mask or suppress any propeller cavitation, you know, the noise made by the propeller.
ANDREW FOWLER: So the deeper you go, the quieter the submarine comes?
CAPTAIN BILL OWEN (RET): The deeper you go, the higher the speed at which this so-called cavitation begins.
ANDREW FOWLER: So you can go faster and be quiet?
CAPTAIN BILL OWEN (RET): That's right.
ANDREW FOWLER: Just before Christmas last year, all the Collins boats were given the all-clear to resume normal diving operations, except the 'Collins'. We've established that the welding problems on that boat are much worse than was first thought. There's a strong possibility that this $1 billion submarine may never be used in active service. Is it your understanding that the welding is fixable?
JOHN MOORE: My understanding is they have made substantial improvement on the welding, but they've got to go to the core of it and the question is how much welding needs to be done?
ANDREW FOWLER: Is it your understanding that it isn't possible to guarantee that that boat will be able to go into harm's way, from what you've been told?
JOHN MOORE: From what I've been told there are problems without a doubt with the welding, but if you spent enough money on it and replace enough of the welding, I think it will be probably wholly serviceable. But in the current state and the projected state, that would be doubtful.
ANDREW FOWLER: The second submarine, which, like the rest, was built in Australia, contained welding carried out by the Swedes. Do you know in any detail what is specifically wrong with the welding in the second boat?
JOHN MOORE: No, I don't. Not the detail.
ANDREW FOWLER: But you can tell me where it is in the boat?
JOHN MOORE: It's in the nose. It's in the nose section.
ANDREW FOWLER: Which is rather, I'm told it's maybe a foot thick, a third of a metre thick plate of steel?
JOHN MOORE: Very thick piece of steel.
ANDREW FOWLER: According to Bill Owen, the bull nose joined to the submarine's hull is a potential weak spot. It can be particularly vulnerable when the submarine is fully submerged with sea pressure placing maximum weight on the hull.
CAPTAIN BILL OWEN (RET): At that forward end you might have the potential, I would have thought, for tendency for fatigue cracking to occur at the joint between the pressure hull and this flat end.
ANDREW FOWLER: It was sea pressure at maximum depth which sprung a major leak in the submarine HMAS 'Dechaineaux' off the coast of Western Australia two weeks ago.
CAPTAIN BILL OWEN (RET): It seems that there was a failure in what we call one of the hard systems. Those are the internal pipe systems which contain water which is at the external sea pressure. In other words, if the submarine is very deep, as this submarine apparently was when this happened, there is an enormously high sea pressure inside that pipe. So if there is a fracture or a leak, the water comes in extremely fast because of the very high pressure that's acting on it.
ANDREW FOWLER: Tonnes of water gushed into the engine room before a safety system activated and sealed the submarine.
CAPTAIN BILL OWEN (RET): If that flooding had continued at the rate apparently the water was coming in -- it came in several times over a period of nine seconds before they got it shut off from the external sea pressure.
It wouldn't have taken many more seconds or minutes before the submarine would have been so heavy that she would have been in a situation from which she could not recover.
There is a level of extra weight in the stern of that submarine which would have resulted in the submarine going down stern first and either grounding on the bottom if it was shallow enough or else, in the worst possible case, if the water was very deep, the whole submarine could have collapsed under the sea pressure before it reached the bottom.
ANDREW FOWLER: Now the 'Dechaineaux' is in dry dock at its base in WA as the navy tries to discover what went wrong.
We've been told that one person was knocked unconscious by the force of the water bursting into the engine room.
We've also been told that it took 1.5 hours to bring the 'Dechaineaux' back to the surface as the engines fought to haul the vessel up with tonnes of extra water on board.
All six Collins class submarines are now in port waiting for the outcome of the inquiry.
JOHN MOORE: The submarines are a very big and important part of intelligence gathering and to have them tied up is a negative. There's no getting away from it.
ANDREW FOWLER: It couldn't have come at a worse time for Australia and the intelligence organisations on the home front trying to second guess where organised terrorism will strike next.
Transcripts on this website are created by an independent transcription service. The ABC does not warrant the accuracy of the transcripts.
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