HMAS Canberra in Sydney

Multi-billion dollar Australian warships under investigation for possible design flaws

Image credit: Dreamstime

Australia is beginning an investigation into the cause of problems with the propulsion systems of two enormous European-built warships, with a senior naval figure refusing to rule out whether the issues could be due to fundamental design faults.

HMAS Canberra - the current flagship of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) fleet - and HMAS Adelaide were commissioned in 2014 and 2015 to form a new, more powerful generation of Australian naval ships.

The 27,000-tonne ships are the largest vessels ever used by the RAN and each cost $1.5 billion. Their designs were based on that of Juan Carlos I, an amphibious warship of the Spanish Navy built as an aircraft carrier, and to support the marines and ground forces.

HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide are Landing Helicopter Deck ships built by a collaboration of European manufacturers. They were constructed by a Spanish company, Navantia, using propulsion pods from Siemens and were fitted with combat and communications systems designed by BAE Systems.

During army and navy helicopter flight trials off the coat of Queensland in March this year, the RAN discovered propulsion issues and the vessels were quickly removed from service and taken to Garden Island, New South Wales, for examination. Senior RAN figures announced in a briefing that oil had leaked into the ships’ propulsion systems.

Samples taken from the HMAS Adelaide’s propulsion pods have identified metal fragments in lubricants, while faulty engine seals on HMAS Canberra are believed to be potential culprits for the leaking of oils into engine areas.

“Am I disappointed? Yes. We were not expecting to find this,” said Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, chief of the Royal Australian Navy. He refused to rule out the possibility that the propulsion issues could be due to a design fault.

“I would not speculate on any of these outcomes, but clearly in a root-cause analysis you have to consider all of those options.”

Rear Admiral Adam Grunsell, head of maritime systems in the defence force’s capability acquisition and sustainment group, said the problem could be a design issue, but added that it was too early to hypothesise about the source of the issue. Navantia, Siemens and BAE Systems are working with the RAN to help identify the problems and restore the ships’ full capabilities.

Due to the investigation, the HMAS Adelaide will miss the biennial Talisman Sabre joint military training exercise with the US in June, the RAN has confirmed.

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