29 April 2009

Submarines: the management consultants' review

It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the thought of $4.3 million of taxpayer’s money being spent on a management consultant’s audit of the Australian Submarine Corporation’s delivery of through-life support to the Collins class submarines, as reported in yesterday’s Australian Financial Review.

No-one without deep domain knowledge and systems safety expertise could opine on whether or not the Defence Materiel Organisation is getting timely and cost-effective performance from ASC Pty Ltd, or whether improvements could be made without compromising safety and military effectiveness.

To explain why, it is necessary to make some observations about what we are dealing with here:

(1) The Collins class submarine is a warfighting platform. In order to be an effective warfighting platform it must be safe to operate, it must provide a reliable mobile platform for its warfighting systems, its self-protection systems must operate reliably, and its warfighting systems must operate reliably. Effectiveness and reliability are everything – raise a doubt about any of the items I have mentioned and the submarine ceases to be a military capability. It becomes instead a lump of metal that you would not put in harm’s way:

- Submarines operate in an extremely hostile environment – the depths of the sea. There is a high risk that a safety “incident” on a submarine will result in the loss of all hands, not to mention the loss of the defence capability embodied in the platform.

- They are also intended to venture as required into environments that are hostile because some very unpleasant but highly capable people do not want them there. No avoidable risk to the survival of the submarine in carrying out its missions is to be tolerated. We must be sure that it can avoid detection, evade counter-attack, and escape from the area of operations without breaking down.

- An accident or breakdown en route to the area of operations means that the mission must be aborted, which is unacceptable.

(2) Because it moves in three dimensions a submarine is much more like an underwater aeroplane than it is like a surface ship. There are a great many circumstances in which a disabled surface ship will stay afloat until the crew can be rescued and the ship can be repaired, or recovered for repair elsewhere. A disabled submarine which is not fortunate enough to be able to make it to the surface will sink to the bottom, from where a rescue is feasible only when the submarine is in shallow water. If it sinks in deep water it will reach what is known as the “crush depth”, the point at which the water pressure is too much for the pressure hull, at which point the only possible outcome is a twisted mass of metal and bodies settling on the deep ocean floor.

(3) There are however important differences between the world of submarines and the world of aviation:

- There are thousands upon thousands of aircraft flying throughout the world. For every aircraft type a huge amount of operating experience is being gained every hour of every day. In the safety conscious and very public world of aviation there is a huge sharing of all of the accumulated knowledge, and rapid dissemination of new information arising from maintenance experience, incidents, accidents and inquiries.

- There is nothing similar in the world of submarines. By contrast with the number of operating aircraft of any one type, there are very few submarines in operation and no opportunity to build up anything like the same body of data concerning operational and maintenance experience. In addition, the world of submarines is for good reason about as secretive as the military world gets, so there is very limited sharing of technical information, even between trusted allies.

- If you have ever seen maintenance engineers working on an aircraft you will have seen a lot of people at work, mounted on jackable platforms and working from the outside in. Parts that need to be serviced or tested can be accessed relatively easily by removing external panels. In a submarine, by contrast, most of the onboard systems are inside the pressure hull which separates personnel, machines and systems from the crushing pressures of the sea. This pressure hull is welded to the highest standards and should never be breached. Within the pressure hull space is at a premium, and optimised for the warfighting role, not necessarily for ease of maintenance. Instead of many people working together from the outside in, there is often one person working alone in a very confined space. This adds to time and cost.

(4) ASC shoulders all the responsibilities that flow from the fact that the Royal Australian Navy is the “parent Navy” for the Collins class. All of the maintenance regimes have to be developed and kept up to date within Australia. While we can obtain technical data from manufacturers of the individual sub-systems, we have nowhere to turn regarding management and maintenance of the submarine as a total operating system. That is up to us, and it is a new experience for the Australian Defence Force. This is a very heavy responsibility and one would expect that those who bear it would proceed cautiously and conservatively.

There is a generic problem with this kind of management consultant’s review, no matter how highly esteemed might be the management consultant(s) concerned. Management consultants are profit making entities which make their profits by delivering to their clients in accordance with their brief. If they are given a brief to find savings they will find them, but these are “all care and no responsibility” jobs – the management consultant identifies options and/or makes recommendations, but it is up to the client whether or not to implement them. Many a corporate tear has been shed post-implementation as the consequences of the recommended cost-saving program become manifest. I have seen one or two of these exercises in the process of “reforming” government agencies and have found the results unconvincing to say the least.

Note also that the client in this case is not the company (ASC) but the company’s dissatisfied customer (DMO). ASC has not sought this advice and in light of the fact that the company chairman John Prescott has written to the Prime Minister (see Submarines: Chairman ASC to Prime Minister) about the matter we may safely assume that ASC neither welcomes nor agrees with the outcome of the audit.

The problem for DMO is that all roads lead back to ASC. As well as being the Government’s submarine builder and maintainer, it is the design authority for the Collins class submarines – it has the last word on configuration management, maintenance regimes etc. Every change in the configuration of the submarine or the way it is maintained must be signed off by ASC. And ASC is where the buck stops – if there is a significant incident leading to injury, death or damage to the submarine, the people who sign off on the way the work is done can take no refuge in saying to the Board of Inquiry that the management consultants said it would be alright.

For anyone who is sceptical about the validity of the above comments, try conducting the following thought experiment: how happy would you be about a management consultant being given a brief to review Qantas’s safety systems with a view to finding substantial savings?

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