The following article comprises the 2011 Creswell Oration address delivered by Rear Admiral James Goldrick, AM, CSC, RAN to the Navy League of Australia at Melbourne in March of this year. James Goldrick is a well known author and his views on naval history and naval affairs are respected both a home and internationally.
“…Australia will have to be pretty careful before it goes into the submarine arm again and will have to take every precaution and examine the position very thoroughly, because three times this country has been involved in submarines and three times it has been pleased to get out of this arm of the Navy.”
The history of submarines and the Royal Australian Navy is not well understood within Australia. Apart from the heroics of AE-2’s successful penetration of the Dardanelles, the popular image has been one of great ambitions largely unrealised, particularly before the entry into service of the Oberon class of the 1960s. This national attitude is precisely reflected in Athol Townley’s remarks as Minister of Defence in 1962 quoted above.
There are, however, good reasons for the repeated appearance of submarines in Australian defence and strategic thought and in its maritime force structure. Ironically, the submarine and the Commonwealth of Australia are near contemporaries. The first really efficient submersibles were entering service just as federation was achieved and their potential to contribute to Australia’s defences was soon the subject of debate, both professional and public.
Three key characteristics of submarines made them particularly attractive in the Australian context – their stealth, their striking power and, with the benefit of diesel engines after 1909, their endurance. Two other characteristics have created significant, sometimes insuperable challenges – their cost and complexity. But, just as these latter characteristics have manifested themselves at each stage of Australian submarine development, sometimes to the point of arresting it, the potential offered by striking power, stealth and endurance has also been apparent at important points in Australia’s strategic history. In particular the expectation, or rather hope, that submarines would, despite their cost, provide a level of offensive warfighting capability not otherwise possible for the resources available has brought them back onto the agenda again and again.
The Phases of Australian Submarine History
The history of the submarine arm of the Royal Australian Navy falls inevitably into eight phases, each associated with a particular capability and an associated concept of operations. Not all relate to an actual class in service and several phases were only a few years in duration as events combined to halt the particular effort.
They are, in chronological order, firstly, the initial post-Federation period and the early schemes to make use of the new type of warship to meet Australian defence needs. Second was the Fleet Unit concept implemented in the wake of the 1909 Imperial Defence Conference, in which submarines were an integral element of the various force packages to be distributed around the British Empire. The third phase was the revival of the Australian submarine arm through the transfer of surplus units immediately after the end of the Great War. This was done with an eye not only to maintain a larger fleet than the United Kingdom itself could afford after 1918, but to begin building up strength in the Pacific to counter the Japanese. The fourth phase came only a few years later with new construction units also conceived as part of a force structure which would provide for local and regional defence until the arrival in theatre of the main British fleet from the Mediterranean. This did not survive the retrenchment of the Great Depression.
The fifth phase, more than three decades after, was the re-creation of a submarine arm, initially with the purpose of being an opposition force for national anti-submarine units but also as the core of a future anti-shipping and anti-submarine capability in its own right. The sixth phase, and the first to flow smoothly from its predecessor, was the evolution of the Oberon design into a total system in which the weapons and sensors were of a capability that fully exploited the potential of what had proved to be a highly effective platform. Seventh was the acquisition of the Collins class and eighth, and the phase which we are just now entering, will be the provision of a follow on submarine in much larger numbers than ever before.