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Australia’s Submarine-Centric Fleet

May 11, 2009
HMAS Collins (SSG 73)

HMAS Collins (SSG 73)

Since the 1990s the Royal Australian Navy has seen the sign of the times concerning naval warfare, and has acted with the appropriate response. Perhaps in part because of the great cost of fielding a carrier-centric navy with expensive aircraft and missile escorts, the large island nation has built its fleet around a powerful fleet of conventional submarines, called the Collins class of 6 boats. While maintaining such capable and not-inexpensive submersibles has not been easy (I refer to numerous design defects and manning problems since the boats’ inception), still the tiny South Pacific democracy has created an economical yet serious force to be reckoned with in a future war at sea.

Despite the hurdles involved for even a technically advanced and wealthy Western nation, the Australian government is pushing ahead planes for a major renewal of its combat forces afloat. While a sizable number of these will be surface craft, from new destroyers to large amphibious ships, about half of the new construction, 12 vessels will be the Collins class submarine replacement. The latest Defence White Paper provides details:

The Government  has  decided  to  acquire 12  new  Future Submarines,  to  be  assembled  in  South  Australia.  This  will  be  a  major  design  and  construction program  spanning  three  decades, and will  be Australia’s  largest  ever  single  defence  project. The Future  Submarine will  have  greater  range,  longer  endurance  on  patrol, and  expanded  capabilities compared to the current Collins class submarine. It will also be equipped with very secure real-time communications  and  be  able  to  carry  different mission  payloads  such  as  uninhabited  underwater vehicles.

The Future Submarine will be capable of a range of  tasks such as anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare; strategic strike; mine detection and mine-laying operations; intelligence collection; supporting special forces  (including  infiltration and exiltration missions); and gathering battlespace data  in support of operations.

Long  transits  and  potentially  short-notice  contingencies  in  our  primary  operational  environment demand high levels of mobility and endurance in the Future Submarine. The boats need to be able to undertake prolonged covert patrols over the full distance of our strategic approaches and in operational areas. They require low signatures across all spectrums, including at higher speeds. The Government has ruled out nuclear propulsion for these submarines.

Now, as we have written before, we consider the submarine as the new capital ship. Thanks in part to its unmatched stealth and quietness, long-range cruise missiles, plus the relative simplicity in design allowing even Third World countries to possess them, they have long surpassed the aircraft carrier in affordablility, lethality, and practicality. While relativly few nations can afford advanced capabilities allowed by the advent of nuclear power at sea, notably unmatched range and high speeds, new air independent propulsion (AIP) which can let boats so equipped to remain submerged for a few weeks provides small navies with a like capability to the more advanced vessels.

Sweden's HMS Gotland passes US carrier Reagan

Sweden's HMS Gotland passes US carrier Reagan

While still handy ships to have around, the carrier has been forced into a secondary role of late in the support of troops on land. In this it is much like the battleship of World War 2, itself dethroned from its capital ship role by naval airpower, but still very useful in the titanic amphibious landings of the European and Pacific Theaters. The battleship was losing ground even earlier, as the massed fleets of Germany and the Royal Navy in the First World War were never able to come to decision at sea, and the Huns were forced to turn to their U-boat arm to destroy Britain’s essential trade fleet. While credit is often given to the Admiral Jellicoe for keeping his force intact and enforcing a crippling blockade of goods against the Germans, with the submarines this soon  became a question of “who was blockading who“?

Only a timely change in strategy, and the massive influx of American support saved Britain from becoming like Japan in the next war, who had no such faithful and heavily industrialized friend to call on for help. The US submariners war in the Pacific is credited, along with the Royal Navy’s smaller scale campaign against Rommel’s supply line in the Mediterranean up to 1943,  as the only successful submarine campaigns in history. Some might also add the Western Sub Forces of the Cold War to this list, absent as much bloodshed however.

Which brings us to the modern submarine, far more capable than the ‘pig boat’ of the war years, that spent most of its time on the surface and could only submerge for short periods, then sail at a woeful 10 knots or less. Often they were forced to cower in silence after enduring mind-numbing depth charge barrages for hours, which drove some crewmen to madness. Today, with the advent of advanced hull forms, missiles which often out-range the aircraft of surface ASW escorts, and speeds thanks to nuclear propulsion that matches or exceeds the best of their former surface hunters, the new U-boats have become the terror of the waves instead of than the terrified.

Earlier in the White Paper, the Government made its case for a renewed sub fleet, by explaining this new menace to the world navies:

In  the  case of  the  submarine  force, the Government  takes  the  view  that our  future  strategic  circumstances necessitate a substantially expanded submarine fleet of 12 boats  in order  to sustain a  force at sea large enough  in a crisis or conflict  to be able  to defend our approaches  (including at considerable distance  from Australia, if necessary), protect and support other ADF assets, and undertake certain strategic missions where the stealth and other operating characteristics of highly-capable advanced submarines would  be  crucial. Moreover , a  larger  submarine  force would  significantly  increase  the military planning challenges  faced by any adversaries, and  increase  the size and capabilities of  the force they would have to be prepared to commit to attack us directly, or coerce,  intimidate or otherwise employ military power against us.

This last sentence sums up the offensive threat the submarine force has become.  In the arsenals of even tiny Third World navies, a fairly capable submarine like a Russian Kilo or German type 212 is a major concern to even a superpower, and massive resources must then be diverted as countermeasures. Australia should reconsider this very lesson when stretching scarce shipbuilding funds to include large surface battleships in her renewed fleet plans. While intimidating at first glance, major surface warships now must consider a new threat at sea with the advanced submarines we have mentioned, as the hunter has now become the hunted.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 12, 2009 10:43 am

    Thanks Peter! I learn by reading and I will put your blog on my list!

  2. May 12, 2009 10:26 am

    Hi Mike

    You obviously have an excellent grasp of Australian submarine issues as well as wider technical and historical naval issues. I’ve put you on my blogroll.


    Peter Coates
    Submarines in Australia’s Region Blog

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