Could a submarine tender enhance the ADF’s offensive power?
15 Sep 2022|

A significant proportion of defence commentary these days is focused on quickly and cost-effectively enhancing the Australian Defence Force’s lethality in the context of China’s growing power and assertiveness. Much of this discussion is concerned with defence in the literal sense—that is, the protection of Australian territory, life and property. A favourite notion of notable pundit Greg Sheridan, for example, is stationing thousands of missiles in northern Australia. Other suggestions include laying smart sea mines to block the choke points on Australia’s approaches.

These commentators are concerned with a scenario reminiscent of 1942 when we’re faced with an enemy on our doorstep and our allies are on the back foot. Considering such a scenario is all well and good, but are we there yet? I suggest that the best way to deter a revisionist power from initiating conflict or, failing that, to win a war is to maximise the forces that can neutralise the adversary’s ability to wage war.

Here, history teaches important lessons in Australian strategy that the government’s strategic review should consider. Since the late colonial era of the 1870s–1890s, Australia has had two broad defence objectives. The first was obviously to defend Australia (even if it was not yet a unified country). The second was less self-evident. It derived from Australia’s position as a small dominion of the British Empire, dependent on maritime links for trade and access to British capital for its economic development. The problem was that Australia was dependent on a stable and friendly world order but didn’t have the capacity to maintain such an order on its own. Historically, few countries ever do. Australia did, however, have the capacity to add substantial forces to those maintained by Britain and could assist it to defeat a revisionist power. The same conditions prevail today in our alliance with the United States.

It’s important to consider both of these historical objectives because it’s hardly adequate to establish ‘fortress Australia’ if our strategic environment becomes hostile and impinges on the country’s prosperity. As former minister and governor-general Paul Hasluck wrote, ‘[To keep oneself from being overrun is not exactly the same as winning the war.’

So, the ADF needs to operate on two tiers. It needs the capability to defend Australia and expeditionary forces to assist its allies. That means the object of enhancing the ADF’s lethality quickly and cost-effectively should also be applied to its offensive expeditionary capability. Some might argue that the nuclear submarines being acquired under AUKUS, the Hobart-class air warfare destroyers and the Canberra-class landing helicopter docks, along with associated ground forces, have the expeditionary side of the equation well in hand. However, the AUKUS submarines in particular will only materialise in the long term. While the idea of additional destroyers has been floated, if approved, they will also take years to deliver.

There are a multitude of options, but the one I want to focus on involves augmenting an existing platform: the stalwart Collins-class submarine. The Collins will be Australia’s primary manned submarine capability for at least a decade. Analysts are still discussing the potential need for another conventional submarine to plug a capability gap in the transition to nuclear submarines. So, relatively small investments into the conventional submarine fleet are not ill-advised.

My argument is twofold. First, the government should equip the Royal Australian Navy with a dedicated submarine tender similar to USS Frank Cable. Second, it should equip the Collins with Tomahawk missiles, something the navy has said it is looking into the feasibility of. Both of these moves could be made quickly and cost-effectively. The RAN’s new replenishment ship, HMAS Supply, was laid down and commissioned in less than three years.

A tender would be a powerful force multiplier because it would permit the Collins to be forward-deployed to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Christmas Island or Manus Island. Currently, the offensive utility of the Collins is limited by its slow transit speed and relatively short range. Forward-basing them at these locations would shave almost 2,000 nautical miles off the transit to the South China Sea, thus reducing the transit time to patrol areas and increasing the time the submarines can spend on mission. If this were done on a regular basis, it would save considerable wear and tear on the ageing submarines. Such a move would certainly require some diplomatic smoothing with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, however.

Arming the Collins with Tomahawks is possible and would drastically enhance the submarines’ offensive firepower. The Collins is equipped with 21-inch torpedo tubes for the Mk48 torpedo, similar to those that could launch earlier versions of the Tomahawk. Reports suggest there would be few complications in equipping the Collins with Tomahawks. The Block V would be the best option since it has a range of more than 900 nautical miles—likely around triple that of the planned long-range anti-ship missiles, or LRASMs—and has an anti-ship capability. Coupled with forward basing, Tomahawks will give the Collins the ability to project power into the South China Sea, providing a deterrent effect and the ability to add to allied offensive forces in a conflict.