As Australia progresses its plan to double the size of its submarine force, it’s easy for commentators to make solemn pronouncements about what sort of submarine Australia should have, often basing their arguments on half-truths that seem to pass the ‘pub test’.

Defence (and the submariners within it) are generally reluctant to challenge these half-truths because of the fear that some of the actual truths – the ones that hold risks for operational submariners should they become public – would be discussed too openly.

It’s timely, therefore, to explain why submarines hold a particular relevance for Australia’s strategic environment and what technologies should and shouldn’t be considered for the 12 new Attack class submarines. This is a function the Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) is uniquely equipped to deliver.

Australia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and presents a low-risk profile for the customers of those resources. Being geographically remote and occupying its own continent, Australia also enjoys enviable political stability. Its high living standard is the result of its attraction as a reliable and stable supplier and the resources from which that income is derived are carried almost exclusively in ships.

To Australia’s north lies the South China Sea, part of the relatively newly-termed Indo-Pacific, a region through which around 65 per cent of Australia’s exports and imports are carried. It’s also an area where multiple nations are jockeying for position in the struggle to exploit the resources that lay beneath it. It is not a coincidence that those nations who hold claims to those areas are also the ones who are contributing to the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as ‘home’ to more than 50 per cent of the world’s submarines.

It is possession of a submarine capability (better still, a credible one) that grants a nation a ‘place at the table’. A frigate or fighter jet capability has its merits but, when push comes to shove, the only platform capable of independent operation in an area where its own nation does not control the sea or air is a submarine. It is that capability which provides a Government options for response and it is a capability generally recognised first by politicians and later, once the tribalism of platforms is worn away, by the Navy itself.

It doesn’t mean that any submarine operating in such an area is going to be hell-bent on throwing the first punch or even taking on the entire might of a nation that does control the sea and air, but the presence of a submarine in the area gives the Government some choices in how it can influence activities in the area and, in so doing, contribute to an environment through which Australia’s trade can freely pass. This particularly relevant given the recent deterioration of the strategic environment in the region.

Strategic priorities
In 2008, the SIA made a submission to what became the 2009 Defence White Paper arguing that, in an environment beset by stress between large nation-states amid a background of the tensions created by radicalised Islam, Australia should have the ability to deploy two submarines continuously on patrol. While maintaining its peacetime sustainment capabilities, those two submarines should be able to occupy patrol areas well to the north of Australia; essentially in areas through which Australia’s ship-borne trade passes. The maths underpinning those requirements led to a conclusion that the number of submarines needed was 12.

This was an argument the Government accepted: a submarine force of 12 submarines was the centrepiece of the 2009 White Paper and it remains the key difference in the force structure currently being implemented by the Government compared with that of the previous 50 years.

Does this mean that a magic wand has been waved and that the challenges Australia has faced in maintaining a force level of just six submarines will suddenly disappear? Or that the inherent jealousies that exist between the various ‘tribes’ of the Navy (and indeed the rest of the ADF) will magically vaporise? Or that the distribution of population and industrial capability between each side of the nation will instantly equalise? Not at all.

Defence has only recently taken control of the issues underpinning submarine availability; resolution of matters like spare parts management and continuity of shipyard loading in both WA and SA have brought the availability (and operational capability) of these world-leading Collins class submarines to a state even the best of their fans could only dreamt of less than 10 years ago.

The challenge faced by the Chief of Navy (CN) is how to maintain the growth in numbers of qualified submariners, how to retain those people, how maintain the availability of the Collins class and how to avoid a gap in this capability in the transition period between the Collins and Attack class submarines. CN has already said that at least five of the Collins class will be extended beyond their planned end of life and, in a deteriorating strategic environment, it could well be the Collins class on whose shoulders the weight of a nation will rest.

Submarines are complicated and finely-tuned machines and changes to their design principles are not matters considered on a whim. Fuel, transit duration and endurance on station are but some of the factors to be considered in a submarine design and, with different requirements, come different solutions.

The solutions that are reached are the result of a careful balancing act between all of the technical options. What is suitable for a small, short-range submarine that will use its battery as the last option is not necessarily right for a large, ocean-going submarine that needs to use its battery throughout a 15-20-day transit.

The SIA is satisfied that Australia’s submarine plans are, generally, on the right track. Those who agree and disagree will be among the presenters at our next annual conference – the 5th Submarine, Science, Technology and Engineering Conference 2019 (SubSTEC5) – which is taking place in Fremantle from 18-21 November. 

This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of ADM. 

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