World News

Cashed-up miners poach Australian submarine crews

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s navy is facing a recruitment crisis, with only enough qualified submariners to operate half its six-boat submarine fleet, as the nation’s mining boom draws seamen away to higher paying jobs in outback mines.

Only three of Australia’s Collins-class submarines can set sail at any one time as the navy has a 37 percent shortfall in submarine crews, The Australian newspaper reported on Monday.

The newspaper said the crew shortfall had forced the navy to slash sailing days for submarines, but the defence department said it had enough crew to meet operational requirements.

One or two submarines are usually in dry dock for maintenance, but the navy needs five full crews to give it the flexibility to respond to a military crisis, said the newspaper.

About 45 sailors are required for a Collins-class submarine, but of these 50 percent must be qualified technicians with the same skills as those required in the mining sector, it said.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said mining companies had contributed to the recruitment problem by poaching navy technicians.

“Our people and skills shortage is probably the single biggest challenge facing the Australian Defence Force and of course the service suffering most is the navy, where retention and recruitment has become a real crisis,” Fitzgibbon said.

“The navy just happens to share many of the same skills bases as the mining industry and of course the mining industry is booming,” Fitzgibbon told Australian Radio.

“We know that the mining companies in WA (Western Australia state) hover around HMAS Stirling (naval base) on payday seeking and hoping to pick up technicians to use in their own industry, with some success,” he said.

Fitzgibbon would not detail the submarine crew shortfall, but said “it is true to say that we are struggling on the manning front in term of submarines and we need to do a lot better and again it’s one of the biggest challenges facing the navy”.

The Australian newspaper said salaries of higher than A$80,000 (US$74,000) had failed to lure new submarine recruits.

“Bonuses can be important, but we will never compete successfully with the mining industry on the remuneration front alone,” said Fitzgibbon.

Fitzgibbon said the navy had to also deal with “some of the challenges” of being in the navy if it was to attract new recruits, referring to the unusual conditions of a submariner.

The Collins-class submarine can cruise silently beneath the surface, often for months at a time, eavesdropping and collecting intelligence on key targets.

Sailing schedules are top secret and life onboard is six hours on, six hours off, seven days a week.

“We need to put additional incentives in, things that make the navy, or any service, more interesting for people, things that help families,” said Fitzgibbon.