The launching of HMAS COLLINS on Saturday, 28 August 1993, closed the first chapter of a book which was opened in April 1982 with the formation of a project team for the Royal Australian Navy’s New Construction Submarines. Now, halfway through a program that will result in six of the best diesel-electric submarines in the world, the proud boast is still “On time, on budget”.
One would think, however, in these days of reducing tensions and removal of the threat, that the launching of a new class of submarines is poorly timed and unjustified, yet the program retains widespread political and public support. This public support is based not only on the fact that the project, at a total cost in 1993 prices of nearly $A5B ($US3.5B) and with the local content of around 70 percent, is generating jobs and prompting a consider-able inflow of technology, but also that the need for submarines and, more importantly, self-reliance in defence matters is well accepted. This has not always been the case.
Australia procured its first submarines, AEl and AE2, at about the time the RAN was formed in 1913. AEl was lost without trace off New Guinea and AE2 performed with distinction in the Dardanelles, becoming the first Allied submarine to pierce that seemingly impenetrable strait in 1915 before being lost to Turkish shore-based gunfire. After the war, the submarines were replaced with six J-class submarines and they, in turn, by HMA Subma-rines OXLEY and OTWAY. Severe economic pressures in the Depression forced Australia to sell the submarines back to UK in 1932 and created a gap in submarine ownership that was to last until 1967 when the first of the RAN’s UK-built Oberon class submarines, HMAS OXLEY, arrived in Sydney.
OXLEY was joined at yearly intervals by OTWAY, OVENS and ONSLOW and the RAN began the process of re-learning how to operate submarines. By the mid-70s, it became apparent that these boats offered more than just the ASW training for which they were initially bought and moves were made to increase the size of the Submarine Arm to six. ORION and OTAMA made the voyage from Scotland to Australia in 1977 and 1978; OTAMA being the last Oberon class to be built. These submarines were. in their time. among the quietest and most capable conventional submarines in the world but by the mid-70s were feeling the effects of having to operate obsolete weapons and sonars.
The Submarine Weapons Update Program (SWUP) modernized the combat side of the submarines from 1980 onwards with a modem digital ftre control system and new attack and passive ranging sonars. Australia became the ftrst nation outside the U.S. to acquire the Mk48 torpedo and. later. also incorporated Encapsu-lated Harpoon into its now formidable inventory.
SWUP. however. was only ever a delaying tactic in the battle to keep the Oberons competitive and the requirement to replace them with a new construction design was raised in 1980. The weapons update program did. however. act as a stepping stone in jumping the four generations of computer technology which have passed in the intervening period between OXLEY and COLLINS and the lessons learnt from that program have been applied to COLLINS.
All of this was carried out in a benign strategic climare without the imperatives of countering a potentially hostile foreign navy’s increasingly quiet submarine fleet. Even after the end of the Cold War. with its attendant calls around the world for massive demilitarisation. the RAN has managed to retain acceptance of its requirement for a capable Submarine Arm. How has it managed to do so? Much hangs on an examination of the basic rationale for submarines in the Australian situation.
There can be few nations with better justification for a substantial naval capability than Australia. As an island continent with a coastline of approximately 12.000 nm and a substantial proportion of the nation’s trade being seaborne, the country endures long Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). To the north is Asia with its burgeoning economics and almost ceaseless conflict (Korean Confrontation. Vietnam, etc.), the Indian Ocean to the west and the developing and increasingly independent island nations of the Southwest Pacific to the east. The sea area in Australia’s Area of Direct Military Interest (ADMI) covers nearly 10 percent of the earth’s surface. [Ed. Note: Emphasis added.]
Submarines can provide covert surveillance in a manner unmatched by other platforms os well os causing a potential enemy to allocate a disproportionate amount of resources in countering the threat they pose, should the situation escalate.
[Ed. Note: Emphasis added.] If any were to question the truth of that statement, they need look no further than the effect that the possibility of Argentinean submarines being at sea had on the British commanders during the campaign for the Falldands. The existence of other submarines in the region, although few in number, also requires that the Australian Maritime Commander possesses the capability to counter them should the need arise. Submarines can do that job as well as, if not better, than other ASW forces.
Also important in the Australian context is the deterrent effect of a Maritime Strike capability and no platfonns can match the firepower and stealth of any submarine. The ADMI abounds with natural choke points as the USN submariners discovered during WW2-choke points that carry much of the world’s shipping traffic. While Australia’s defence posture remains unmistakably defensive, the option to strike offensively at an adversary is an essential element of her self-reliant defence capability.
Self-reliance is that catch-cry that has been around since President Nixon espoused the Guam Doctrine in 1969 where he made it clear that no longer could nations rely unthinkingly upon the United States for their own defence, but that self-reliance was necessary. Australia was either slow to pick up the none too subtle hint in that statement, or was not under any immediate need to embark on a defence policy that embraced it. It was another ten years before the equipment procurement side of defence took their eyes off foreign shores.
The original plan of the Submarine Project called for the lead boat to be built overseas and the remainder in-country in an attempt to reduce the risk, but it was the Government which decreed that all submarines were to be built in Australia. That decision, once taken, was traced with gusto and has resulted in the historically high level of local content referred to earlier. It has also meant that most of the money on the project has stayed in the local economy.
The question could also be put at the why nuclear propulsion is not being utilised . Given Australia’s re’noteness from any likely patrol areas and the vast area’i to be c.wered, the nuclear solution would seem to provide the greatest flexibility and to be the most logical. The reasons ft·r iLl non-adoption are many and are not just limited to political concerns.
Firstly, it was fundamental to the project that local content was maximised, not just from an economic perspective, but also for through-life support and battle damage repair. The RAN had suffered from dangling at the end of a 12,000 mile supply chain for too long and, however much goodwill was present, the fact remained that we were a customer of different priority to the home navy. Given that local construction was essential, it was consid-ered, probably rightly, that the learning curve from refitting relatively simple diesel submarines to building highly complicated nuclear ones would be too steep and would be adding unnecessary risk with no significant benefit.
Secondly, the RAN had developed considerable experience in the operation of diesel submarines, experience that will translate most readily into the Collins class. This meant that conversion training should be minimised.
Finally, the massive cost of the infrastructure that would be required if a sustainable nuclear program were to be embarked upon would be out of all proportion to the advantages of nuclear power. Especially with the advent of Air Independent Propulsion (AlP) with the fact that there is no loss in terms of noise signa-ture, the difference between the SSN and a good diesel submarine is reducing by the year. Combine this with the political, environ-mental and perceptual factors facing nuclear submarines, and the choice of diesel submarines for Australia is inescapable.
By any standards, COLLINS will be a most capable submarine. She will rarely be troubled by the need to refuel before she has to re-provision; will have greatly improved underwater performance compared with her predecessors; and a generating capacity that will permit covert transits at speeds unheard of until now. She will also be several orders of magnitude quieter than her predeces-sors. Through adoption of a high degree of automation and redundancy, the crew has been reduced from the Oberon’s 63 to 42, yet the combat system has many times the capacity of its predecessor.
Using concepts very similar to those being embarked on with AN/BSY-2, the Collins class combat system provides the Com-manding Officer not only with capabilities he would not have considered before, but also with the problem of managing the vastly increased amount of information now being presented. Accordingly, his role has subtly changed from one who has his team process the data so that he might make the decision to one who must manage his six or seven decision makers so as to achieve his objectives. This is probably one of the more fundamental challenges facing the commander who takes COLLINS on her first operational patrol.
The project which has overseen the establishment of a new industry and of a completely new way of doing defence business in Australia may have finished the first chapter, but the rest of the book promises to put War and Peace into the shade. It has the prospect of even greater excitement and challenge if HMAS COLLINS is to achieve the potential she so richly deserves.