- 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)
The passive sensors of the Oberons were extremely unsophisticated and limited in range and target discrimination. Their fire control equipment was no better, while the ASW homing torpedoes for which they were designed were soon recognised as being ineffective and withdrawn from service. The primary weapon system was and remained for a decade the Mark VIII straight running torpedo, a weapon which had been in service for three decades before the commissioning of the first Australian Oberon. The reality was that in order to achieve a successful attack, a submarine so equipped had to approach very close to its target (certainly within the protective screen around a defended unit) and rely very largely upon the capacity of its commanding officer to calculate the correct firing solution within his head.
The problem with this situation was not the lethality of the Mark VIII on impact. This would be confirmed anew in 1982 when the British submarine Conqueror sank the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano. It was that the short range at which the submarine had to engage not only exposed it to anti-submarine units when making its approach, but left it vulnerable once its presence had been confirmed by its attack, successful or not, and it was attempting to withdraw.
Phase Six: The Submarine Weapons Update Programme
The need to address these deficiencies under strategic guidance that continued to emphasise the need for independent Australian maritime capabilities initiated the next phase of Australian submarine development. The package of sensor and weapon improvements that came to be designated the Submarine Weapons Update Program (SWUP) was one of the most successful modernisation efforts in the history of the RAN. There was an element of serendipity about the way in which, over a decade, a number of key technological advances were brought together to provide what became an extremely effective package, but some points are notable. The first was that the small team of submariners who championed the modernisation effort succeeded in obtaining and maintaining the support of the Navy’s non-submariner leadership. Even at the height of the battle to acquire a replacement carrier, finally lost in 1983, funding was provided and staff effort directed at securing the new systems for all six Oberons. In this case, the bet hedging was in favour of the Submarine Arm. It was to prove well judged.
Detailed work began in 1971 with the project to acquire a long range, hull mounted passive sonar, designated MICROPUFFS, which would, through the use of sensors along the hull as a baseline, not only allow for much longer range detections, but provide estimates of their range. This was first fitted to HMAS Ovens in 1975 and extended to the remainder of the class as they came in for their next major docking and refit. The next step was a Singer Librascope digital fire control system which was able to fire the much more sophisticated American Mark 48 heavyweight homing torpedo. Oxley received this system in 1977-79. Finally, a Krupp Atlas active/passive attack sonar replaced the earlier British unit. The full program of modernization was complete by 1985. In November that year, the final piece of the jigsaw was put in place with the successful firing from submerged of a Harpoon anti-ship missile by the Ovens.
The weapon/sensor/fire control system combination that resulted from SWUP provided the RAN Oberons with a stand off capability that would allow them to engage surface targets at much longer ranges than ever before possible and certainly at distances that created significant challenges for the most sophisticated of ASW defences. Furthermore, they themselves also possessed an extremely effective ASW capability that, allied to their low noise signatures, made them formidable opponents for other submarines, no matter how sophisticated.
The timing of the program proved fortunate, since the total capability now provided by the submarine force went some way to substituting for the lost offensive power of the fixed wing aircraft carrier in an era in which the Australian Government was seeking to achieve ‘self reliance’ in national defence. What the RAN did have by 1985 was a powerful force of submarines capable of use in a wide variety of roles from surveillance and reconnaissance and support of special forces to anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. It was one that was being progressively more integrated into Australian concepts of operations and which was recognised as a key fighting element within the Australian Defence Force. The successful completion of SWUP also set the scene for the development work that was now in hand for a follow-on submarine. But that is a different story and a new phase of Australia’s submarine history.