10 April 2009

Managing the submarine workforce

On Wednesday 8 April the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Russ Crane, released a sanitised (public) version of the Navy’s response to a Submarine Workforce Sustainability Review which was completed late last year by Rear Admiral Rowan Moffitt. The Review was established in mid-2008 to review the issues impacting and likely to impact on submarine workforce sustainability. The Review was to propose actions which will provide Navy with the assurance that it will have the ability in future to deliver and sustain the optimum submarine capability required of the Australian Defence Force.

There is currently a critical shortage of submariners in the Royal Australian Navy, so much so that the Navy can operate only three of the six Collins Class submarines that should be in service. At around $1 billion per unit, three inoperative submarines represents a very expensive inventory of ironmongery, as well as a lot of foregone capability and capacity to train submariners for future capability.

The Review’s report is a valuable document, all the more so because Rear Admiral Moffitt has since been appointed Head, Future Submarine Program and accordingly is the person who is charged with leading all aspects of the development of future submarine capability.

The Review makes 29 recommendations, all of which the Chief of Navy has agreed to implement. These address a variety of issues including respite from sea service, workloads and respite while at sea, training, career paths and a variety of conditions of service issues. It also addresses recruitment and retention issues.

Sadly, the report demonstrates just how difficult it is for the Navy to recover from a critical shortfall of personnel:

- Stabilisation of the submarine workforce so that we have three sustainable crews of 58 (compared to today’s 46) is to occur in the timeframe 2009-2011.

- Establishment of a fourth sustainable crew for the three operating submarines is to occur in 2011-2012.

- A consolidation phase from 2012-2015 will evaluate alternative crewing options such as three crews for two boats.

- Beyond 2015 it is proposed that there be workforce growth to the extent required by the Government, and preparation for transitioning from the Collins Class to the future submarine class to be delivered by SEA 1000.

In other words, six years from now crew limitations mean we will still be operating three submarines, of which we could expect to put a maximum of two to sea at any one time. We will have to learn to do better at matching manpower to platforms than that.

My own feeling is that, while all 29 of the Review’s recommendations are important, the overarching one is the matching of work-life balance – the capacity to spend time at home which is not only significant but predictable, so that plans can be made, and submariners can enjoy a life outside the pressure hull. That is (rightly) such a make or break issue for so many people that if we cannot deliver that we cannot deliver a credible submarine capability.

The Review acknowledges the importance of the issue:

The biggest single issue that causes submariners to leave the profession is their consistent inability to get assured, predictable respite from sea service so that they can achieve a more normal balance in their lives. A common view was that being a submariner is to surrender control over your life. Submariners, especially junior ranking submariners, generally feel they cannot plan their lives in the short, medium and long terms.

In my view we will not come close to resolving this issue unless we can offer people a regime something like six months on deployment, six months at home base, and six months working up for the next deployment. This means three crews per boat, not the three crews per two boats which is the Review’s end-point. This is not a criticism of the Review: RADM Moffitt is endeavouring to find a solution which could conceivably be delivered within the parameters of the current Defence budget framework. The problem is that the Defence budget is far too small for what we try to do, which is essentially to try to exercise control over about 10 per cent of the earth’s surface, and play away games as well, with 50,000 people in uniform and a budget that is about 1.9% of GDP. The result is that we purchase more equipment than we are prepared to man or sustain (c.f. the three mothballed submarines) and our capability is much less than our equipment inventory would suggest. We burn people out and have unserviceable equipment scattered all over the country.

If as I expect the Defence White Paper recommends a future submarine fleet of 12 boats, that will mean 36 crews. That represents a lot of money, for both remuneration and training. But 12 boats is the appropriate fleet size; with that number we can keep eight at sea, potential adversaries will not know where they are but they would have to assume that there will be one not too far away. The current situation where we might have one boat in the Indian Ocean, one in northern waters somewhere and none on the east coast is barely a capability at all, it is only a means of keeping alive (as we must) the very complex skills of managing, deploying and manoeuvring submarines.

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