Persistence eventually pays: the Australian submarine force before the Collins Class
13 Apr 2016|

Image courtesy of the Department of Defence

The first phase of Australian submarine activity began immediately after Federation, when there was considerable interest in the brand new technology of submersibles. Various schemes were discussed to make use of the new type for Australian port and coastal defence. That early interest reflected vision about submarines’ potential, but the technology wasn’t yet mature enough to be sustained from Australia’s limited industrial and financial base or, arguably, be operationally effective even in such purely defensive roles.

The second phase began with the implementation of the ‘fleet unit’ concept in the wake of the 1909 Imperial Defence Conference. Rapidly developing submarines were an integral element of the force packages to be distributed around the British Empire for local defence and the protection of global sea communications. Australia bought two of the most modern and capable submarines in existence as the nucleus for a larger flotilla, but the outbreak of World War I prevented such expansion. However, the boats soon demonstrated their potential in the RAN’s initial Southwest Pacific operations. Later, the AE2 was the first naval unit to penetrate the Dardanelles, on the same day that the Anzacs went ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula. The early loss of both boats brought this phase to an end.

The third phase began with the transfer of surplus units from the Royal Navy immediately after World War I. That was done not only to maintain a larger operational Empire fleet than the UK could afford after 1918, but to begin building up strength in the Pacific against the threat of the Japanese Navy. A combination of stringent post-war economies and the challenges in maintaining the six war-worn J-class submarines saw them taken out of service within a few years.

The fourth phase began very soon after as a result of the 1923 Imperial Defence Conference. New construction units were conceived as part of a force that would provide for regional defence in Southeast Asia until the arrival in theatre of the main British fleet from the Mediterranean in the event of war with Japan. Australia and, initially, New Zealand planned to develop a submarine capability under this scheme. Australian submarines, intended to be forward-based in Darwin, were to block the major straits of the archipelago against Japanese surface forces entering the Indian Ocean, where they might interfere with the reinforcement of Singapore. A much larger British submarine force operated in the East and South China seas. The initial Australian plan was for two boats, with a proposed steady build program in the United Kingdom to form a flotilla of six.

The two units acquired were prototypes that suffered from mechanical problems. Although their defects were eventually resolved, the Great Depression forced the RAN to shrink into a core force based on cruisers for trade protection. The submarines were given to the Royal Navy and saw service in World War II, one being lost by accident. During World War II, the RAN briefly operated an ex-Dutch boat, K9, purely for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) training.

The fifth phase, more than three decades later, involved a submarine arm to provide for Australian ASW and anti-surface warfare capability in ‘limited war’ in Asia. The acquisition of modern submarines would also allow better ASW training for Australia’s other forces. The initial buy of four Oberon-class submarines from the UK was originally intended to be followed by four more, but the second batch was reduced to two and the funds used to buy extra fighters for the RAN’s aircraft carrier. In addition to training, the peacetime use of the submarines for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance became increasingly important. The Oberons, which were commissioned from 1967 onwards, rapidly proved themselves capable, reliable and quiet, but they had significant sensor and weapon limitations, which became increasingly apparent in exercise encounters with surface and air ASW forces.

A sixth phase, the first to flow smoothly from its predecessor, followed. The Oberon Submarine Weapons Upgrade Program evolved the Oberon design into a total system in which the weapons and sensors fully exploited the potential of what had proved to be a highly effective platform. That extremely successful effort matched a vastly more capable combat data system with advanced sensors, new US-developed Mark 48 torpedoes and the Sub-Harpoon anti-ship missile. The first submarine completed conversion in 1980, and the program reached maturity with the first Harpoon firing in 1985.

Notably, the upgrade of the Oberon submarines with significant new capabilities was achieved in Australia, despite Australia never having built a submarine before. The Oberon class conducted many extended deployments over their service life, ranging as far afield as Hawaii (for RIMPAC exercises), Japan and the Mediterranean. They were a frequent presence in Southeast Asia, including in the early 1970s, as a contribution to the ANZUK force that supported the Five Power Defence Arrangements. Their operational role included surveillance work. They were progressively removed from service between 1992 and 2000.