The navy is investigating new options to rescue stricken submariners from the ocean floor after its submarine rescue system failed to regain its safety certification.
This means there is no deep-sea rescue available for submariners in Australia, 13 years after the federal government promised it would develop an effective local rescue system.
Any stricken Collins class submarine would have to wait until a rescue vehicle was brought out from Britain, raising serious doubts about whether it could be deployed in time.
The revelation comes as the navy orders sweeping new emergency procedures to avoid a Kursk-style disaster, following the near-loss of the HMAS Dechaineux and its 55 crew.
The move, which was revealed in The Australian yesterday, is aimed at stemming an on-board flood within seconds, before it overwhelms the crew.
The failure to establish a deep-sea rescue capability for submarines in Australia comes after a series of disasters that have befallen the navy's submarine rescue vehicle, the Remora.
In December 2006, two men were trapped in Remora for 12 hours at a depth of 140m off the coast of Perth when a steel cable connecting it to the mother ship snapped.
It took a further four months for the navy to recover the Remora, which was sent back to the manufacturer in Canada for an overhaul, which the navy said would take six to eight months. However, 20 months later, the navy admits that it has still not obtained the full certification for the system to be used again.
It is now exploring options for a new submarine rescue system.
The 16.5 tonne Remora, named after sucker fish that attach themselves to sharks, attaches to the sunken submarine and allows six survivors at a time to be brought back to the surface.
The vehicle, which can operate in depths of more than 500m, has to be loaded on to a mother ship and transported to the scene of the accident. It is in storage in Henderson, Western Australia, awaiting sea trials before it can achieve full certification.
A key component of the Remora – its launch and recovery system – has been unable to gain a safety certificate because of new requirements imposed on the global safety assessor, Det Norske Veritas.
DNV has told the navy it needs to strengthen the structure and include automatic controls on its existing LARS before it will grant a safety certification. However, such alterations will cost many millions of dollars, forcing the navy to consider alternative options for a rescue system.
"The commonwealth will use the UK-based LR5 submarine rescue system as a contingency whilst addressing cost effective and robust systems as future options," a defence spokesperson said. "The commonwealth is committed to an indigenous submarine rescue capability and is considering all future options."
Defence claims the air-transportable British rescue capsule is capable of reaching Australia "in an appropriate time frame" but refuses to specify what this is.
"The time to mobilise LR5 to the disabled submarine from the UK will be dependent on the availability of all forms of transport at the time of the incident and the location of the disabled submarine," a spokesperson said. "This system was in-service with the Royal Navy until last month and is a well proven system."
The navy's Collins class submarines carry five days of emergency reserves on top of their regular stores.
However, seabed rescues have to be conducted quickly because of the rapid loss of clean air and bitterly cold conditions.
A navy-commissioned report in 2005 found the submarine rescue system suffered from "a significant number of high risks", including "failure of critical equipment during testing and operation, competence or submarine rescue personnel and the integration of submarine emergency procedures."
© 2008 - The Australian