It is a privilege to contribute to this edition of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine. This Australian contribution follows one by Commodore (now Rear Admiral) Gregory Sammut, CSC, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the spring 2013 issue. At that time, we in the RAN were about to celebrate our Centenary of Submarines. The admiral’s contribution focused on the history of submarines in the Australian context and outlined where the Australian submarine capability may be heading in the future. The RAN Submarine Arm is now in its 101st year, and much of what we are doing now and plan to do in the future leverages on our rich history.
Centenary events are a natural point to pause for reflection. As the commander of the RAN Submarine Force for the latter half of our centenary year, it occurred to me—as we were joined by allies and friends for celebrations—that our history and our future is intrinsically intertwined with those of other submarine-operating nations. My intention is to highlight the importance to the RAN Submarine Force of our relationships with other submarine-operating nations, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Submarine Force has a long history of operating its submarines throughout, and occasionally beyond, the Indo-Pacific region. The RAN’s first two submarines, AE1 and AE2, were acquired from the British Royal Navy on February 28, 1914 at Portsmouth, England.1 On September 14, 1914, a day after German reservists surrendered German New Guinea to Australian forces, AE1 left Rabaul to patrol in the Bismarck Sea and never returned. AE2’s claim to fame was penetrating the impenetrable Turkish defences in the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915, torpedoing a Turkish destroyer. Five days later, AE2 was scuttled in the Sea of Marmora after taking heavy fire.2
The RAN Submarine Force has come some way since our humble beginnings of two AE-class submarines of only 726 tons dived displacement with a range of around 3,000 NM.3 Today the force comprises six Collins-class submarines of 3,400 tons dived displacement with a range of over 11,000 NM and a submerged endurance of several months.4 The force, based at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia (WA), also includes the fully deployable Australian Submarine Rescue System and the Submarine Escape Training Facility. The force is supported by a fleet headquarters in Sydney, a Strategic Submarine Capability Branch and Submarine Operations Centre in Canberra, a Submarine School at HMAS Stirling, and a robust submarine sustainment industry.
RAN Submarine Rescue Ship MV Besant at Fleet West base.
The Collins-class is now around halfway through its planned life and has undergone significant modernization programs. A key element in the class’ continuous improvement is the joint U.S. Navy / RAN AN-BYG-1 Combat Control System and ADCAP Heavyweight Torpedos. These programs have provided significant and ongoing development of the capability and interoperability with the U.S. Navy. Another key element to the continuation of a potent and enduring submarine capability is Australia’s enterprise approach to sustainment and upgrade. The RAN’s Submarine Enterprise involves navy and wider defence and industry working as a unified body to achieve agreed targets for the availability and utility of the force.
As an island nation that intersects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it is important that RAN submarines be able to be out and about in the region. Perhaps not surprisingly from an Australian perspective, this is usually referred to as going “up top,” and for all Australian Submariners it is the fundamental and most exciting part of submarine service. Every time RAN submarines deploy up top, RAN Submariners experience the wonderful breadth of cultures that exist across the region and, more important, engage with the navies, and especially submarine forces, of other nations.
Australian Submariners gain valuable experiences while on deployment, most often with the submarine forces of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and most recently, Vietnam.
Many RAN Submariners have also been privileged to work closely with the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force through joint exercises, port visits, and courses. The relationships and professional experiences gained through working with the U.S. Submarine Force and other submarine-operating nations such as Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands to name but a few, have reinforced the view that, through engagement, the RAN submarine force can become safer and more effective Submariners.
In the Indo-Pacific region, an important RAN focus is to continue to advance ties between fellow submarine-operating nations. The Asia-Pacific Submarine Conference, which Australia will host in 2016, and the PACIFIC REACH series of exercises are excellent platforms for building these relationships. Similarly, observer programs within the RAN’s BLACK CARILLON Submarine Escape and Rescue Exercises provide an opportunity to advance understanding of the Australian Submarine Rescue System (ASRS) and improve international cooperation.
HMAS Sheean (SSG 77) makes her way into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii,
during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2014.
The ASRS is a fully deployable fly-away capability for assisting disabled submarines across the breadth of the Indo-Pacific region. This capability was proven in 2013 when the system was deployed 2,000 NM across the continent for BLACK CARILLON 13. In 2015 and 2016, the key objectives of BLACK CARILLON were to integrate the ASRS with the newly acquired Escape Gear Ship MV Besant and Rescue Gear Ship MV Stoker. At 83 metres and 93 metres respectively, these purpose-built vessels will enhance the RAN’s existing Submarine Escape and Rescue System.
CO of HMAS Waller briefs fellow EX PAC REACH 2013 participants on Collins class escape tower.
Seeing the success of forums such as the Asia-Pacific Submarine Conference, in 2014 the RAN hosted a Submarine Operational Safety Conference that comprised senior delegates from a variety of navies including Indo-Pacific submarine operators such as the United States, Japan, and Pakistan. The conference focused on sharing ideas on submarine safety beyond escape and rescue to include elements such as exercise safety, submarine licensing, damage control training, and the prevention of mutual interference. Opportunities such as these are an important mechanism for advancing mutual understanding and creating a safer environment for submarine operations.
One of the best ways for the RAN submarine force to engage in the region is by getting its submarines deployed up top. With a small force of six conventional submarines, this requires an integrated effort in sustainment and support. This effort is complemented by the cooperation of allies and friends in the region. Being able to conduct port visits to neighboring countries, especially those that operate submarines, is a vital part of building and maintaining collaborative networks among colleagues. Over the course of the last three years, RAN submarines have deployed and visited ports in the USA, Japan, India, Malaysia, and Singapore. This is a cycle that will continue in coming years as existing relationships with long-term allies and friends are affirmed and new relationships are forged.
Like many of the submarine forces in the Indo-Pacific region, the RAN submarine capability has a bright future. The intent is to grow our workforce of highly skilled Submariners and support personnel. It is these people who are the foundation of any effective submarine capability and, as the RAN submarine force expands, will be even more vital to assuring our future. The RAN will continue to upgrade the Collins class to ensure that it remains a contemporary and highly potent platform and will do likewise with our Escape and Rescue Systems. Successive Australian governments have committed to an expanded submarine force and the acquisition of the next platform in the mid-2020s. This new platform will be like the Collins class in size, range, and endurance and will likely share the Joint U.S./Australian combat system and torpedo. Moreover, the RAN submarine force will continue to deploy frequently into the region, all the while building on existing relationships and developing some new ones.