Australia’s first submarines were acquired in 1914. Two were bought, the first of which sank off Rabaul later that year. The second was scuttled in Turkish waters the following year without loss of crew. While Australia did not have any submarines (apart from one for sonar training) during World War II, Fremantle and Brisbane were important bases for American, Dutch and British submarines. The American submarines came from Manilla as a consequence of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. A couple of days after they arrived in Darwin, the Japanese bombed the place and the American force made its way to Fremantle. They were joined by Dutch submarines from the Dutch East Indies and a couple of years later by British submarines transferred from the Atlantic.
The American submarines of the time were originally termed fleet submarines. Based on doctrine developed from analysis of Word War 1 engagements, their role was to scout ahead of the main fleet and report the position of enemy combatants. To fit that role, the submarines were large with a displacement of 2,400 tonnes and a range of 20,000 km.
The sinking of the US battle fleet at Pearl Harbour made fleet combatant role redundant, freeing them to become commerce raiders. After problems with malfunctioning torpedoes were rectified, their range and endurance made them quite successful. By comparison, the British and Dutch submarines based out of Fremantle sometimes had to come back from their patrols early because their crews had developed sores from working in the fetid air of un-air conditioned craft in the tropics. They also had barely enough range to get to their patrol areas before they had to return to base. The American submarines had air conditioning which, among other benefits, stopped condensation from affecting the electrics. Up to 170 American submarines were based in Fremantle during World War II. A fuelling station in Exmouth Gulf, 1,100 km north of Fremantle, extended the operating range by 2,200 km. Brisbane was the other major submarine base during that war with Cid Harbour in the Whitsunday Islands as a refuelling station.
From the 1960s, Australia operated six Oberon class submarines built in the UK. These were a direct descendant of the German Type 27 submarine with a submerged displacement of 2,400 tonnes and two diesel engines. Planning to replace the Oberons started in the 1970s. From the seven submitted proposals, two were selected for a funded study to determine the winning design which would become the Collins class – a German one from HDW and a Swedish one from Kockums. The German offer was made in early 1987. The problem with the German offering was that they fundamentally misunderstood the Australian requirement for operating range, especially the battery and engine requirement. The German design was based on their perception of what we needed instead of what we asked for.
While the Swedish design was an enlarged version of a submarine designed for the comparative puddle of the Baltic Sea, they delivered what we wanted with some shortcomings. For example, the initial refrigerator capacity was good for a two week deployment, not ten weeks. The Collins class programme had a troubled beginning on a number of fronts. The initial consortium included Chicago Bridge and Iron (CBI), Kockums and Wormald. CBI realised early on that the Swedes don’t do scheduling and that therefore the project would drift. CBI offered to buy out Kockums and take over the running of the project. Kockums bought out CBI instead, and then ran into financial difficulties due to the end of the Cold War and the resultant decline in defence spending. Kockums was subsumed into a Swedish consortium called Celcius, onsold to HDW which in turn was bought by ThyssenKrupp. The Russian invasion of Crimea prompted the Swedish Government to ensure it has a domestic submarine capacity again. It arranged for Saab Group to acquire Kockums from ThyssenKrupp.
When the problems of the Collins programme became public in the early 1990s, they were used politically against the then Defence Minister, Kim Beazley. In part, the current perceived problems of the Collins class are echoes of the politics around its inception. In reality, it is now a good submarine that has had its bugs ironed out. At the same time Australia started with the Collins class, the UK had a similar experience with its Upholder class, four of which were commissioned between 1990 and 1994. The first three built were unable to fire torpedoes, despite the UK’s long history of designing, building and operating submarines, and had to be refitted. Then with the end of the Cold War, the UK decided to go to an all-nuclear fleet and the four Upholder class submarines were sold to Canada at a bargain basement price.
Ideally in the design and construction of a new class of submarine, the first of the class is launched and operated for a while before laying the keel of the second one. This would remove most of the bugs early in the programme. Unfortunately the second hull in the Collins programme was well under construction when the first one was launched. In effect a number of vessels in the programme had to have costly refitting instead of mainly just the first one.
Stealth is the prime consideration in operation of conventional submarines. Each nation with domestic submarine making is jealously guards its stealth technology because knowledge of the technology means knowledge of effective countermeasures. That is why sales of the Japanese Soryu class submarines to Australia are most probably a non-starter. Apart from that, the Soryus are non-conforming to Australian requirements by not having enough range. They have a comparatively short transit from their home ports in Japan to patrol areas off China where they can use their air independent propulsion (AIP) to patrol with little chance of detection for a few weeks before heading home. Studies of AIP show that it would not be an enhancement for Australian submarines in that the volume and weight devoted to the AIP system would be at the sacrifice of fuel capacity and thus range.
So Australia has mastered conventional submarine technology and has the need to build our own submarines to maintain stealth in a design that satisfies our range requirement. The question that follows is how many submarines do we need? Given that American 170 submarines operated out of Fremantle during World War II and there is now a lot more shipping to the north of us that might need sinking in a conflict, it could be a big number. Then there is the problem of downtime for maintenance. The Collins submarines operate for eight years then spend two years in a major refit. Of the six in service, a minimum of four are therefore available. Of those four, one would be in short term maintenance, leaving three. Of those three, two are considered to be consistently deployable. Given the transit time to get to and from the patrol area in the South China Sea, say, that means that one submarine might be on station with its inventory of 22 Mark 48 torpedoes (range 50 km) and Harpoon missiles (range 120 km) with the other in transit or being resupplied. That is illustrated by this graphic from the 2014 Coles report on Collins Class Submarine Sustainment:
The Collins submarines are expected to last 28 years, made up of three eight year periods of operations and two major refits. The first one was launched in 1993 and thus is expected to retire in 2021, followed by all sister ships by 2029.
A few years ago the Australian Government of the day undertook to build 12 replacements for the Collins class submarines. That might increase the number of submarines in the patrol area to two or three, for the whole vastness of the western Pacific and the northern Indian Ocean. The number 12 was the pronouncement of the Prime Minister of the day who did not want to appear to be weak on defence, although he had no intention of funding any submarines in any number.
The number required by our needs is more like 24 which would give us at least six boats on station. If you think that 24 submarines are excessive, Singapore with a quarter of Australia’s population has four submarines. By that metric, we should have sixteen. But the real problem now is not the number of boats but how fast we can build them. The last of the Collins submarines, Rankin, took eight years from the keel being laid to commissioning. Supposing we could consistently build submarines in three years keel-laying to commissioning. At that rate and starting in 2015, the number of new submarines in the fleet would reach a maximum of nine in 2042. If we started building them at one per year, we would get to 12 by 2027 and the fleet would peak at 28 boats in 2042. Designing a new submarine from the ground up would take four years, putting all those dates back by four years.
All plans change after contact with the enemy and the enemy of our submarine planning is time. Our next war is likely to be “come as you are”. The frantic pace of Chinese base-building in the South China Sea suggests that the next contretemps in the region is likely by 2016 when they have their airfield on Fiery Cross Reef operational. This is the worst case situation but entirely possible. What we can do in the meantime is start two Collins class submarines right now. And step up recruiting and training now, as well as making sure that there is no deficiency in our stores and war stocks.
There are also some cheap things we can do to maximise the effectiveness of what we have now. One of the major benefits of having a submarine force is the effect of constraining the enemy’s freedom of action. If they don’t know where your submarines are, they have to plan for the possibility of their forces being interdicted. At the moment, Chinese satellites can count our submarines tied up to the wharf at Garden Island or in the ASC yard in Adelaide on a daily basis. To counter that, simply build a shed over some of the Garden Island wharf space. Secondly, use a cutter suction dredge to build pens in Exmouth Gulf and Shark Bay that are similarly covered. The RAAF uses the same principle with its bare bases at Learmonth and Curtin. Refuelling at Exmouth Gulf will increase our submarines’ range by 2,200 km.
Garden Island is now in range of Chinese H-6K Badger bombers operating from Chinese airfields in Myanmar, each carrying six CJ-10A anti-ship cruise missiles. The bombers have a range of 3,500 km and the missiles 2,500 km. Inflight refuelling would make the 5,700 km trip easily within the bomber’s capability. The cruise missiles might be detected by our Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) but there is no way of shooting them down in Western Australia. The nearest F/A-18 base is 2,700 km away in the Northern Territory. The Malaysian Airlines MH 370 incident showed that the JORN over-the-horizon radar isn’t switched on all the time anyway, to save on diesel cost. One bomber could wipe out our entire operational submarine fleet while they are tied up at Garden Island. The simple expedient of some overhead cover would increase their survivability in port dramatically.
Two CJ-10A missiles into the two distillation units of the BP refinery in Kwinana would cripple defence, industry and agriculture in Western Australia for months. There is no way of hiding the distillation units. That is a story for another day.
In the absence of sufficient submarines to keep our future enemies at bay, we can and should make sure we can interdict all vessels approaching the Australian mainland. The best way of doing that is with Super Hornets carrying the JASSM-ER cruise missile or the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile which is derived from it. We only have 24 Super Hornets and they are tasked with filling the anti-air role as well. The older and smaller Hornets don’t carry this weapon. They are supposed to be retired by 2020 anyway. The yawning capability gap in submarines in matched by one in our aircraft. We will have to scramble hard to make the best of the situation.
David Archibald, a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance (Regnery, 2014)