The Australia Submarine Force
By Commodore Gregory J. Sammut, CSC, RAN
Director General Submarine Capability
Six years after becoming established as a nation in 1901, Australia’s Government of the day considered plans for a navy based on a flotilla of submarines and destroyers. Unsurprisingly, much debate followed, and plans were adjusted. By 1909, it was agreed that Australia’s first Fleet Unit would include three submarines. Although Australia’s senior naval officer at the time, Captain William Creswell, thought submarines would be expensive to maintain and difficult to crew, eventually two submarines were acquired.1
So began Australia’s consideration of its submarine capability, which also gave birth to recurrent themes that arose in subsequent debates at various stages throughout the history of our nation’s submarine force.
Notwithstanding, as we approach the centenary of Australia’s submarine force in 2014, our submariners and submarines have long become firmly established as a vitally important arm of the Australian Defence Force. Moreover, they are destined to remain so with the strongest support of Navy’s highest leadership.
HMAS AE 2 Photo © Commonwealth of Australia
Following deliberations as to whether Australia should build or assemble its first submarines in country, they were ordered from Britain in late 1910. The E-class submarines AE1 and AE2 (‘A’ for Australian) arrived in Sydney in May 1914, having completed what was the longest submarine transit of the times.
At the outbreak of the First World War, AE1 and AE2 were sent to German New Guinea as part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. On 14 September 1914, a day after the official German surrender of the colony, AE1 failed to return from patrol in the area; its fate and that of the entire crew is still undiscovered.2
AE2, commanded by Lieutenant Commander H.S. Stoker, achieved fame after successfully penetrating the Dardanelles — the first allied submarine to do so — on 25 April 1915. AE2 remained at large in the Sea of Marmara for five days, until the ship sustained irreparable damage in action and Captain Stoker was forced to scuttle her. He and his crew remained in Turkish captivity for the rest of the war.3
Although there were efforts to replace AE1 and AE2 during the war, it was not until 1919 that new submarines arrived in the form of six surplus British J-class submarines. However, amid increasingly tight fiscal circumstances and Navy’s priority to keep its surface ships, the J-class submarines were laid up in 1921. Deemed obsolete and expensive, they were sold for scrap the following year.4
Soon afterwards, the Australian Government ordered two new O-class submarines from Britain. The first of these, Oxley and Otway, were plagued by delays and mechanical failures. When they were eventually ready in mid-1929, the consequences of the emerging world depression resulted in their return to the Royal Navy.5
Australia did not possess submarines throughout the Second World War, although many allied submarines, predominantly those of the U.S. Navy, operated from bases in Fremantle and Albany on the west coast and Brisbane on the east coast. In fact, Fremantle was the largest submarine base in the southern hemisphere and submarines operating from Australia played a crucial role in achieving victory in the Pacific. While we did not have submarines, we did have many Submariners. Among the most notable were Vice Admiral Sir Ian Macintosh DSO, DSC, our most successful Australian-born WWII submarine commander, and Lieutenant Commander Max Shean DSO and bar, who operated X-craft midget submarines of the Royal Navy.
After the Second World War, a flotilla of Royal Navy submarines was based in Australia for a period of time. It was not until the late 1950s that Australia considered re-establishing its submarine force. The then-Minister for the Navy, John Gorton, led the debate. Overcoming the reluctance of the Minister for Defence and some members of the Naval Board, he announced in 1963 that Cabinet had approved the acquisition of four Oberon-class submarines from Britain to be delivered between 1966 and 1968. In 1971, another two Oberon submarines were ordered, which were delivered in 1977 and 1978.6
HMAS Onslow S60 Photo courtesy of Michael W. Pocock
The Oberon fleet marked a turning point in the nation’s understanding of the importance of a submarine force. Although initially acquired to support anti-submarine warfare training for the Royal Australian Navy, they proved very capable submarines and reversed the standing opposition of many, which had been shaped by experiences with previous classes.7
The increasing proficiency of Oberon operations at sea was matched by growth in the sophistication of submarine support arrangements ashore. Cockatoo Island Dockyard developed the foundations and skills to competently refit the submarines. The Submarine Warfare Systems Centre was also established, and led an ambitious submarine weapon update program. This achieved a substantial upgrade of the Oberon sonar, tactical, and weapon control systems, as well as the replacement of old straight-running Mk 8 torpedoes with the US Mk 48 Mod 4 torpedo and the incorporation of sub-launched Harpoon missiles. Largely indigenous, this program was highly successful, and along with the quality of refit work undertaken at Cockatoo Island Dockyard, demonstrated the capacity within Australia to support its own submarine capability. The improved capabilities of the Oberon class also emphasized the valuable role our submarines could fulfill as strategic defense assets, with the capacity to deter as well as respond to aggression—a role that endures.
Apart from the J-class—originally acquired as surplus British submarines—the acquisition of all other submarines in Australia had been attended by debate as to whether they could have been constructed in country. As the debate continued when contemplating replacements for the Oberon class, a new reality emerged: modern military-off-the-shelf conventional submarines were not designed to meet the requirements of Australia’s submarine force, which call for a submarine with reach, endurance, and commensurate payload capacity. Such requirements are borne of the dominance of the maritime environment in Australia’s geo-strategic circumstances, characterised by an ever-growing dependence on the sea and expansive maritime domain that connect our country to the world.
Following the success of efforts in maintaining the Oberons, and with growing confidence in national industrial capacity, the six Collins-class submarines of today’s fleet were built in Australia and commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy over the period 1996 to 2003.
Though derived from existing Swedish designs, the Collins class is essentially a unique submarine. At the time of construction, it was the largest conventional submarine in the world. It also became the first complex capability solely owned and operated by Australia, providing us with many salutary lessons on our new role as the parent nation of our submarine force. Along with this came a growing and increasingly strong relationship between the submarine forces of the United States and Australia, exemplified today by ongoing joint development of a shared tactical and weapon control system and heavyweight torpedo, as well as a broad and highly valuable range of combined exercise opportunities.
HMAS Collins arrives in Sydney Harbour Photo © Commonwealth of Australia
In testament to the vital role submarines will continue to hold, Australia’s Government announced in 2009 its intention to commence planning for the replacement of the Collins class with 12 highly capable future submarines. This is destined to be the largest defense program ever undertaken in Australia. Work has begun on assessing options that will again have to meet the requirements imposed by Australia’s unique geo-strategic circumstances while contributing ongoing weight to the inevitably maritime strategy for the defense of our interests and nation.
1 P. Yule, D. Woolner, The Collins Class Submarine Story—Steel, Spies and Spin,
(Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2007), 4.
4 Yule and Woolner, The Collins Class Submarine Story, 7
5 ibid, pg 8
6 ibid, pg 11-18
7 ibid, pg 18