Collins class submarine (photo : Military Today)
FOR the first time in a generation, Australia does not have a single submarine available to defend the nation today.
The Australian understands the entire fleet of six Collins-class submarines cannot be put to sea despite the navy's claim that two of them remain officially "operational".
The situation is so dire the navy is believed to have deferred major scheduled maintenance work on its most seaworthy submarine, HMAS Waller, in the hope that at least one submarine will be available in the coming weeks.
Not having a single task-ready submarine is an embarrassment for the navy, whose attempts to improve the performance of the $10 billion fleet have been stymied by breakdowns, accidents and the growing unreliability of the ageing vessels.
The navy claims two of its submarines, HMAS Waller and HMAS Dechaineux, are available, but insiders say the reality is that neither vessel could be put to sea today if required because each is undergoing detailed inspections for mechanical problems.
HMAS Dechaineux is in dock at HMAS Stirling in Perth for an intrusive inspection of its main motor after limping home from Singapore, where defects were found in its propulsion system.
It is understood Dechaineux will be unable to sail for at least several weeks. HMAS Waller is also in dock at HMAS Stirling after engineers found signs of the same propulsion system problems that last month forced Dechaineux to withdraw from a five-nation defence exercise in the South China Sea.
It is understood that HMAS Waller will be unable to leave port until next week.
The other four subs are unavailable. HMAS Farncomb is out of the water at the submarine repair facility at Henderson near Perth as workers seek to replace a broken emergency propulsion unit.
HMAS Collins is undergoing scheduled maintenance at Henderson and is due out later this month, while HMAS Sheean and HMAS Rankin are both in long-term maintenance at the Australian Submarine Corporation in Adelaide.
The navy's plans to improve the reliability of the fleet are being undermined by the discovery of unexpected defects, especially with the propulsion system, as the submarines begin to age.
There is also a shortage of spare parts.
The navy has become increasingly evasive about the state of its submarine fleet and is restricting its public comments on the issue, citing national security.
However, critics say the navy has in the past been open about the availability of its submarines and that it is hiding behind claims of national security to avoid public scrutiny.
Defence declined to answer detailed questions from The Australian about submarine availability, saying only that two boats were in deep maintenance, two were in mid-level maintenance and two "are in the water in Western Australia".
The Australian understands HMAS Waller was originally scheduled to begin a mid-cycle docking maintenance for 12 months today, but that the navy has now deferred this plan for several months because so many other boats are out of action.
Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston criticised navy chiefs for being evasive about submarine availability during Senate estimates hearings in Canberra last week.(The Australian)