- Periodical, Semaphore
- Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In the case of the submarine force, the Government takes the view that our strategic circumstances necessitate a substantially expanded submarine fleet of 12 boats … a larger force would significantly increase the military planning challenges faced by any adversaries, and increase the size and capabilities of the force they would have to be prepared to commit to attack us directly, or coerce, intimidate or otherwise employ military power against us.
Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030
The brevity of the above statement, taken from Australia’s latest Defence White Paper, understates somewhat its momentous impact on the shape of our future maritime force. The Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) Future Submarine fleet will eventually be double the size of the existing fleet, by which time it will also constitute just over 50 per cent of the major combatant force. But numbers alone do not define the substantial capability gain conferred by this decision. Nor do they readily convey the significant effort required by the Navy and the wider Defence Organisation to realise the goal of an expanded fleet of submarines likely incorporating even more capability than the existing Collins class.
What else does the Defence White Paper call for?
The submarine decision resonates with several other statements in the Defence White Paper. The Australian Defence Force’s (ADF’s) primary force structure determinant is identified as the ability to deter or defeat an armed attack on Australia. Furthermore, within the predominantly maritime strategy espoused, the capacity to establish sea control is a recurring theme. More particularly, the White Paper calls upon the ADF ‘to be prepared to undertake proactive combat operations against an adversary’s military bases and staging areas, and against its forces in transit, as far from Australia as possible’. Reference to the possible need for ‘Australia to selectively project military power or demonstrate strategic presence beyond our primary operational environment’ is also pertinent, as is the assertion that ‘Australia might need to be prepared to engage in conventional combat in the region … in order to counter coercion or aggression against our allies and partners’.
So, why submarines?
For as long as submarines have been operating, they have remained potent instruments of maritime power. They have contributed significantly to the preponderance of major naval powers and have lent credibility to smaller navies. Though not invulnerable – it would be foolish to suggest otherwise of any weapon system – submarines operate in what continues to be the most opaque of mediums, the undersea environment, from where they can generate effects under, on, and beyond the sea. Technology is yet to render the sea transparent. This physical fact, coupled with their increasing stealth, affords submarines tremendous tactical initiative that readily translates to operational flexibility across the spectrum of conflict.
First and foremost, the submarine is able to operate undetected and conduct its activities covertly, enabling it to operate in waters where it may not be desirable or even possible to position other maritime forces. In areas where sea control is yet to be secured, the submarine can strike a potential adversary’s maritime forces and, if necessary, land targets. Beyond denying the use of the sea to an adversary, the submarine has the capacity to contribute significantly to the achievement of sea control by destroying those enemy forces which might seek to dispute it. Indeed, inherent in this substantial offensive capacity is the deterrence offered by the possession of submarines, and their usefulness as force multipliers. While submarines might not offer a visible presence off troublesome shores in times of rising tension, their initial deployment signals national resolve and the promise of serious consequences should a potential adversary choose to open hostilities. The nexus between the tactical initiative, operational flexibility, and strategic value conferred by a capable submarine fleet is starkly evident.
What do submarines do?
Submarines excel in high-end warfighting tasks, such as anti-submarine warfare. A well-designed submarine equipped with superior acoustic sensors, processing systems, and torpedoes, and crewed by a highly trained team will succeed in anti-submarine missions, and may prove one of the few means by which an adversary’s submarine capability can be neutralised in the opening stages of hostilities.
Submarines are also lethal anti-surface warfare assets and can inflict serious losses on the naval combat and logistic support fleets of an adversary. Recent exercise and real-world experience continues to prove the advantages that rest with submarines when operating against surface units. A successful hit from a single Mk 48 torpedo of the type employed by the Collins class will generally sink large surface combatants and quickly disable bigger ships. The addition of anti-ship missiles to a submarine’s arsenal further increases their reach and lethality.