- 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)
(Naval Historical Society of Australia Prize Winner 1991)
`Our submarine fleet will remain fundamental to Australia’s independent capacity to deter – or defeat – any substantial attempt to land foreign forces on our shores’ – Kim Beazley, 1985
The submarine is primarily an offensive weapon. In this mode, they are used to enforce blockades, attack enemy shipping, lay mines, conduct surveillance and, ultimately, deter the enemy. The Royal Australian Navy has certainly recognised the importance and strategic value of the submarine, and has sought to operate them during periods of war and peace. This essay is aimed at describing the development of the Australian Submarine Forces – spanning from the commissioning of AE 1 and AE2 in 1914 to the complex Collins Class submarine project. Included in the discussion of the various stages of development are: the reasons behind introduced changes; the intended role of each submarine force; and, how the submarines have fitted into the overall picture of the defence of Australia.
The stages of development leading to our present submarine force are quite distinct. Discussed are: the submarines of World War I; ‘J’ Class submarines; ‘O’ Class boats of the depression era; K9; the post war Royal Navy Squadron; the present day Oberon Class submarine force; and, the Collins Class submarine project presently underway. The support facilities for Australia’s submarines will also be described. Before beginning a description of each of the above stages, some background information is provided, outlining the history of the submarine and the various roles it has fulfilled since its inception.
The concept of an underwater craft is as old as the line-of-battle ship. However, technological limitations prevented its parallel development. During the 1800s, submersibles represented the first practical underwater designs. Such craft were powered by humans and only capable of submerging for short periods of time. Combined with this were inherent instability problems. In 1864, the American submersible, David, made the first successful dived attack on a surface ship. Indeed, the underwater craft was already regarded as a deterrent to war, capable of destroying surface ships economically.
The Holland designs of the late 1800s were the first to incorporate reliable propulsion and trimming systems. The Holland VIII was capable of five knots dived and eight knots surfaced, possessing a single torpedo tube. The submarine was bought by the USN in 1900, illustrating that governments were beginning to recognise the value of the submarine as a feasible instrument of war. By the First World War, submarines had developed to the point of being able to transit across the Atlantic, however, their strategic usefulness was limited by the unreliability of torpedoes, and they were generally assigned to operate in support of large fleets. Some early success in the war was enough to convince the British government to design submersible destroyers and cruisers (the ‘K’ class). These were supposed to be capable of forcing the enemy battle-fleet to engage in a gunfire exchange. Improved torpedo technology and the ability of submarines to ‘snort’ saw them used in a different role during World War Two. Indeed, between the wars, the German U-Boat had developed into a powerful ship-killing machine. They continued their tactic of inflicting maximum damage on allied merchant shipping and almost succeeded in achieving a complete maritime blockade of Britain in early 1945. At the same time in the Pacific, Japan was initially seen as the superior naval power, and the United States sought to use their submarines in a similar fashion to the Germans – imposing a blockade. By the end of the Second World War, submarines were seen to most successfully operate as a force distinct from the main fleet, hence focussing design towards fast, independent boats with the capability to remain underwater for longer periods of time.
During the 1950s, the diesel-electric submarine had developed into a deadly, yet economical weapon. This was through improvements in speed, diving depth, batteries, sonar, and homing torpedoes. However, the main design thrust was towards the nuclear-powered submarine. Such submarines can operate at great depths for long periods of time and were developed into two distinct types having entirely different roles. The ballistic missile-firing submarine (SSBN) was built as a strategic deterrent while the hunter-killer submarine (SSN) was designed to find and destroy other submarines and ships. However, nations such as Australia do not subscribe to the possession of nuclear powered or nuclear armed weapons, and as such have had to operate within the limitations of the conventional submarine (SSK). It must be noted that the conventional boat is in many ways more suited to the Royal Australian Navy, due to its lower cost, better operation in shallow water, and quietness. One must also consider the role of a submarine in a regional navy such as the RAN, where the integration of many types of warfare determine the effectiveness of local defence and deterrence. This essentially states that our submarines must be multifunctional and flexible assets. Our submarines must provide important training in anti-submarine warfare, and be an integral component in or of the defence policy and strategy of Australia. Part of this involves the Australian submarine’s important surveillance role, a job well suited to conventional submarines.