- Goldrick, James, Commodore, RAN
- Early warships, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE2
- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Phase Five: The Restoration of an Australian Submarine Arm
It was to take nearly thirty years for submarines to return as a factor in Australian force strategic and force structure planning. The recreation of an Australian submarine arm in the 1960s came about through the confluence of a number of issues. The first was the fact that the British, who had provided a division of submarines at Sydney from 1949 to support anti-submarine training, could no longer afford to do so. The RN’s war built submarines were rapidly approaching obsolescence and could not be replaced by the British one-for-one, particularly as the RN was concentrating on a nuclear propulsion program as the core of its future submarine capability. Since ASW remained a key role of the RAN, as its primary contribution to the Western alliance, the deterioration which would follow the absence of live targets was not acceptable.
But a more significant factor for the long term was the emergence for the first time since the Second World War of a potential surface threat to Australia. Initially, the Soviet Sverdlov class cruisers and their potential as long ranged commerce raiders were the primary concern. No Australian surface unit had the armament to stand up to a heavily armed Sverdlov while the sole aircraft carrier could not generate a large enough strike force to be sure of overwhelming the cruiser’s defences. The Australian naval staff toyed with the idea of tactical nuclear weapons, but these were never really a practical (or acceptable) option. The problem acquired a new urgency in the late 1950s with the expansion, with Soviet support, of the Indonesian fleet. The Indonesians first acquired large destroyers in 1958, then a cruiser (with the possibility of further hulls) in 1962 and even some of the first missile armed fast attack craft. Furthermore, the USSR, China and Indonesia all possessed expanding submarine fleets and the potential to deploy units into Australia’s area of interest and against its shipping. The fact that submarines were one of the most effective weapons against other submarines was becoming increasingly apparent as Western nations contemplated the ASW challenge.
In these circumstances a submarine force could restore a measure of offensive capability to the RAN, a requirement implicit in the 1959 Strategic Basis of Defence Policy’s statement that, in a limited war, Australian forces ‘must also be able to act independently against aggression in the North Western approaches’. With the formidable support of Senator John Gorton as Minister for the Navy, the RAN was able to make the case for the creation of a submarine arm as a necessary addition to its force structure.
The problem was the more critical because of the increasing difficulty which the RAN faced in maintaining a fixed wing capability and even the limited measure of offensive power possessed by the small air group operated from the light fleet carrier Melbourne. The Sea Venom jet fighters would soon be at the end of their effective lives, while the Gannets were optimised only for ASW. The new generation of fighter and strike aircraft demanded a bigger platform than the Melbourne and there were no such vessels available to the RAN at a price that the government was willing to pay. If the Fleet Air Arm could not continue to exist, then the RAN had to expand into other capabilities if it were not to decline into a small ship Service.
The Porpoise class, on which the Oberon was based, had, as was already clear to the RN, proved an extremely successful design and, despite habitability that had not evolved significantly from previous generations of submarines, possessed excellent range and endurance as well as reasonable underwater speed and manoeuvrability. Above all, they were very quiet. The Oberon’s inherent quality would be demonstrated by their export success, boats being built for Brazil and Chile as well as Canada and Australia.
The original force structure for the RAN was based on a program of two batches of four boats, with the possibility of nuclear submarines to follow. The latter never eventuated, while the second batch was cut down to two boats, ordered in 1971 shortly after the final unit of the first quartet arrived in Australian waters. The money saved went instead to the purchase of ten additional Skyhawk jet fighter-bombers for the aircraft carrier Melbourne. While the decision to strengthen the Fleet Air Arm partly at the expense of the Submarine Arm reflected the priorities of an aviator Chief of Naval Staff, there was some justification for the hedging of bets which this represented. Apart from the fact that the RAN was still determined to maintain a fixed wing capability at sea and also determined to improve its striking power by exploiting the success of the Skyhawk-Melbourne combination, the Oberon class suffered from significant limitations.