- Staal, A.J., BE (Hons), Sub-Lieutenant, RAN
- Ship design and development, Naval technology
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Although Australia did not operate any of its own submarines during the Second World War, many Australians served in the Royal Navy Submarine Service, some gaining distinction in midget craft. The value of submarines in the defence of Australia was shown through the successful deployment of British, American, and Dutch submarines out of Brisbane and Cockburn Sound (WA). This period also provided serving Australians with knowledge of the logistic requirement for a submarine force.
THE ROYAL NAVY 4TH SUBMARINE SQUADRON
In 1949, three submarines of the Royal Navy operated out of HMAS PENGUIN, continuing with the Anti-Submarine training that started with K9. These boats (the HMS Telemachus, Thorough and Tactician) were replaced by the ‘A’ Class submarines Aurochs, Andrew, and Anchorite in 1957. In 1960, the boats Tabard, Tapir, Trump and Taciturn were utilised. This programme continued until the return of HMAS Trump to the United Kingdom in 1969. These latter ships were refitted and modified at Cockatoo Island, again highlighting this dockyard as one capable of implementing involved engineering projects.
In accordance with its policy of global withdrawal, Britain informed Australia in the early 1960s that the 4th RN Submarine Squadron would disband. Australia made plans for an independent RAN submarine force, believing it now had the knowledge and resources to operate and support such a force.
The Oberon Class of submarine was designed as a postwar anti-surface and anti-submarine vessel capable of silent running. They have the “snort” system incorporated into their design, permitting batteries to be recharged while the submarine is still submerged. In short, these British submarines represented the most capable conventional design then available in the world.
Australia ordered four of these craft in 1963 at a cost of $9 million per submarine. Some 320 Australian men then served in British submarines gaining valuable experience. In 1967, the first submarine to be completed, HMAS Oxley, arrived in Sydney. This coincided with the commissioning of HMAS Platypus at Neutral Bay. This base was built as the operational home for the four submarines – to support the new Australian Submarine Squadron. The next three RAN Oberons, Otway, Ovens, and Onslow, arrived in 1968, 1969 and 1970 respectively.
Initially, the role of our four newly acquired submarines was the continuation of Anti-Submarine warfare training. This is largely due to the thought that the RAN’s prime responsibility during any “Cold War” hostilities was to afford ASW protection for convoys transiting to or from Australia. This essentially meant that Australian ships acted in a supporting function to the Pacific, US and UK fleets. However, those Australian submariners who worked in British submarines during the “Cold War” tensions immediately saw their operational capabilities, and sought to move the Australian submarine arm away from its training role and towards one of covert deterrence. Covert deterrence involves the enemy being deterred by the combined threat of maritime strike, surveillance and intelligence gathering, anti-submarine and anti-shipping warfare, mining and special operations. With respect to the layered strategic defence of Australia, as outlined by Dibb in 1985, the Australian Submarine Squadron is part of the tier one defensive layer, providing intelligence of enemy movements and the ability to strike.
In 1971, two additional Oberons were ordered, as the submarines had proven themselves capable and the updated primary role required a larger submarine force. The new submarines, Orion and Otama, arrived in 1977 and 1978 respectively. In accordance with this role, the Oberons were fitted with the improved sonar “Micropuff”. Between 1979 and 1985, all six submarines underwent a modernisation programme known as SWUP – or Submarines Weapons Update Programme. This refit incorporated an improved attack sonar, new fire control system, fitting of the Mk 48 torpedo, and instalment of the encapsulated Harpoon missile. These are regarded as major improvements, making today’s RAN Oberon a formidable weapons platform.
In addition to the development of the actual submarines and their role, RAN training and support facilities have notably progressed. The RAN Submarine School (RANSS) was established in 1981, removing the need for all submariners to train in the United Kingdom. Although potential submariner commanders must still complete the famous ‘Perisher’ course. In 1989, the Submarine Escape Training Facility (SETF) became operational at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. This facility is one of five in the world, indicating the level of commitment towards the best training possible for Australian submariners. Another submarine support facility is the Submarine Warfare Systems Centre (SWSC) at HMAS Watson. This is a partial submarine simulator for operational and tactical crew training. SWSC will be discussed later with regard to the new submarines.