- A.N. Other
- Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Farncomb
- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Australia’s enduring strategic circumstances are unique and irrefutable. We are isolated at what is almost the geographic centre of the world’s largest ocean mass; we are an island nation totally dependent on seaborne trade and our sea lines of communication for economic survival; we have a huge landmass and coastline with a comparatively tiny population and limited financial resources. Coupled with this, as demonstrated by events over recent years, we live in a region of political instability and increasing uncertainty with flashpoints liable to erupt with very little warning. It is vital to Australia’s interests that we have full knowledge and understanding of what is happening throughout our region of strategic interest.
Submarines have evolved to become extremely effective in their demanding undersea environment in performing their key roles of covert surveillance and intelligence gathering, maritime strike, anti-submarine warfare, mining and clandestine operations. But, more importantly, it is from their unique ability to perform these roles, covertly and at vast distances from their base, that Australia’s Collins class submarines have made their greatest contribution to our national defence. That is, their value as a strategic deterrent. By virtue of their very existence they protect Australia and Australian interests through threat of retaliation. Further, they require a totally disproportionate response to counter even the possibility of their presence; a response that very few nations have the capability to mount or sustain. Any potential belligerent knows with absolute certainty that at any time, at almost any place, Collins has the capability to strike without warning and with devastating effect in response to any threat to Australia’s national interests. The fact that Australia is known to have this capability is our greatest insurance that it will never need to be used. Put simply, our Collins class submarines will achieve their greatest value if they are never used in anger.
As a previous Minister for Defence, Ian McLachlan, noted in his keynote address at the commissioning of HMAS Farncomb in Fremantle in January 1998; “We read and hear in the media and it is often claimed, that there is no foreseeable threat to Australia. My view is, that if HMAS Francomb and her sister submarines are even partially responsible for maintaining that state of affairs for the next 30 years, the investment in their construction, and the dedication and training and professionalism of the men and women who man and support our submarines, will have been very worth-while indeed.”
The reasons for choosing the Swedish designed Collins over other designs on offer at the time, and not choosing an “off-the-shelf” submarine already in service elsewhere, are quite simple. Firstly there was no existing conventionally powered submarine on offer that met Australia’s unique strategic requirements. The smaller, less capable submarines favored by many littoral states were totally unsuited to the vast distances and sparse support endemic in our own region of interest. The Swedish proposal was chosen over the other six designs offered because, based on work performed by 300 and more participants in the source evaluation process, covering individual assessments of the competing proposals for the submarine design, the combat system, Integrated Logistic Support, involvement by Australian industry, financial proposals and contractual arrangements, the Swedish offer was clearly preferred as more closely meeting Australia’s requirements.
The decision to construct the submarines in Australia, despite having never previously built submarines, was bold and masterful. It was in keeping with Government’s policy for industry and an essential element in ensuring a degree of self reliance in Defence, never previously possible. It also ensured that Australia developed and retained the technologies and skills to support these and future submarines, through life. It was part of our coming of age as an independent nation. The decision to build the submarines in Australia was enormously successful in terms of self reliance, economic benefit with 72 cents in every dollar spent here in Australia, the introduction of new and vastly improved skills and processes and the transfer of state-of-the-art technologies.
So where did it all go wrong? The fact is that it didn’t. Sure, with the wisdom of hindsight, mistakes were made and there are a number of things that might now be done differently. There were also the inevitable developmental problems, some of them serious, but these were blown out of all proportion and trumpeted through the media ad nauseum. It is simply not possible to push the bounds of technology, to achieve the capability edge we needed, and indeed achieved, without experiencing exactly the sort of problems that were encountered. Australia’s experience in this area compares more than favourably with the achievements of those countries much more experienced in submarine design and construction, including the USA, Britain, Germany, France and others. The difference is that these countries shook their heads in wonderment at the way we publicly degraded our achievements and our staggering, apparent willingness to openly discuss some of the most sensitive and protected technologies.