Submarine Essentials


Why Submarines?

  • Submarines are the only means of fully exploiting the complex underwater operational environment to secretly perform a wide range of national security and defence requirements.
  • In peacetime, tension and war they can collect intelligence and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, clandestinely and a long way from home — knowledge is power.
  • In support of international intervention missions or in war time, submarines can conduct surprise attacks on land targets with cruise missiles, secretly land special forces, create no-go maritime areas with mines, protect friendly maritime forces from surface and submarine attack and destroy an enemy’s naval vessels and especially submarines.
  • Submarines are long range, hidden offensive systems. They can be a deterrent in times of tension or war because they are lethal and defeating them is hard, requires massive amounts of resources and is therefore very costly.
  • Submarines perform vital tasks in times of peace, tension and war —there is no other platform that can do all that submarines can do.
  • Effective submarine operations depend on technological expertise and costly support, so used to be restricted to a few developed nations. Now, the rising wealth of Indo-Pacific nations is expanding the number of submarine operating nations – by 2030 50% of the world’s submarines will be in Australia’s broader strategic region.
  • Australia is a maritime trading nation and as such submarines are a key part of our capability for defending our ability to trade.
  • Why? Because deterring or winning a serious conflict in our region depends on ships – moving anything in large volumes in our region, whether sustaining normal trade or moving military forces, requires ships.
  • To win a serious fight in our vast region will mean that we must be able to control that part of the sea that our naval and transport shipping, and that of our allies, need to use.
  • In war a submarine’s obvious role is sinking an adversary’s ships but more importantly, often working with airpower, the main role is stopping an adversary’s submarines from sinking our ships.
  • Submarines are the RAN’s prime anti submarine warfare weapon at a time when growing regional numbers increase the need for this capability.

What's Needed In An Australian Submarine?

  • The Government is committed to replacing the existing Collins class submarines with conventional submarines that will meet Australia’s future strategic requirements.
  • Australia’s geography is the key to defining a submarine operational capability able to meet this defence policy. Australia’s security and maritime interests and those of its friends and allies are exposed in the archipelagic island chain to Australia’s north.
  • These areas of importance to Australia’s sea borne trade and historically central to its defence, involve operations at great distance from Australian bases and support facilities.
  • To support such operations, Australian submarines will need to deploy further forward and earlier than surface fleet units if they are to build strategic deterrence of an opponent’s plans, as was done by the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano by HMS Conqueror.
  • This means that Australia’s submarines will have to go a long way to carry out their missions and be able to stay for periods of weeks to attack the enemy in times of war, to inform on developments in times of tension and to provide intelligence to support national security objectives in times of peace.
  • Existing off-the-shelf submarine designs cannot perform effective operations that comply with these requirements. Even at very slow speed for best fuel consumption they can barely reach pivotal operational areas in the South China Sea and the interface between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and even then can then stay for only a day or two.
  • These existing submarine designs can travel to distant bases only with extensive pre-planned logistics support. The recent deployment of a German submarine over the 8,500 kilometers from its home base to the east coast of the US could only be undertaken with an accompanying logistic ship in support.
  • In contrast, the larger Australian Collins class submarines regularly deploy the 12,000 kilometers from Fremantle to Hawaii (the distance from Washington to Athens) as a routine training operation.  Last year, HMAS Sheean completed a 37,000 kilometer deployment that included high tempo multi-national exercises off Hawaii.
  • Optimum operational performance under these conditions can be provided only by a submarine design considerably larger than the off-the-shelf designs. Crew must be large to ensure performance over long, intensive missions. As a rule of thumb, each crew member represents one day of mission endurance – the Collins crew is around 60.
  • Unsurprisingly, the off-the-shelf designs, with crews of around 30, are usually sent by their operating navies on deployments of less than 30 days.
  • To sustain larger crews, Australian submarines need the ability to provide, without replenishment, larger outputs of power, food, water and fresh air over long periods. Cooling demands in warm tropical waters require increased electrical capacity. Performing roles such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requires equipment for which there is not enough space in the off-the-shelf designs.
  • For this reason, Australia’s new submarines must rely on a design that is larger and operationally more capable and versatile than any of the current off-the-shelf designs.

I Own A Number Of Submarines – How Many Can I Use?

  • There is an unfortunate misconception in the public arena that all submarines (or indeed some other military capability) we own, all, or most of them will be available at any one time.
  • This ignores the fact that submarines are very complex systems that require significant downtime for maintenance, repairs, refits, upgrades and trials, among other things.
  • Most navies use ‘working ratios’ to calculate how many submarines (or other capability) they need to ensure one is available when required.
  • For example, the US has about 53 nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) in service from which it aims to have about 10-12 deployed away from home at any one time—a working ratio of about 4.5:1 or 5:1.
  • Likewise in aviation sector, the RAN’s fleet of six Sea King helicopters gave the Navy 1.5 helicopters on ships each year—a working ratio of 4:1.
  • In all of these cases a ‘surge’ capacity exists but comes at the cost of budget and the life of the capability, so surge is normally only used in extreme circumstances.
  • In the case of Australia’s Collins Class submarines, the six submarines should consistently be able to provide two submarines for operational use at short notice and to surge to a maximum of four for a limited time.

The Role for Industry

The Australian Government is currently developing a new Defence Industry Policy. The Government has previously outlined four principles that will underpin the new Policy.

  • Firstly, Defence Industry must remain consistent with broader industry policy, which seeks to promote competitive, collaborative and innovative industry.
  • Secondly, it needs to recognize that Defence funding is designed to get and sustain the best capability for the ADF and Defence within the available funds.
  • Thirdly, there is a need to ensure Australian industry can sustain and integrate Australia’s capability over its life both within Australia and while deployed and
  • Fourthly, Australia needs to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in its industry and breakdown any barrier to domestic or international competitiveness.

The Government is also preparing a Defence White Paper and the Australian Naval Shipbuilding Plan, which will guide Australia’s shipbuilding requirements into the future.

The Australian Naval Shipbuilding Plan will examine both current and future naval requirements, taking account of critical approvals of major projects, such as SEA 1000.

The primary purpose of the Plan will be to set out the strategy for Australia to achieve a viable, enduring and internationally competitive shipbuilding industry.

Defence Science and Technology Organisation and the Future Submarines

The Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) has a lead role in supporting SEA 1000 through the execution of a comprehensive set of science and technology (S&T) studies to assist with the development of requirements and the reduction of technical risk. Areas currently being studied include:

  • capability analysis and modelling
  • combat system
  • human systems integration
  • hydrodynamics and propellers
  • platform systems analysis
  • propulsion and energy storage
  • signatures and stealth performance
  • submarine platform integrity.

The near term focus for the S&T program is to develop the necessary knowledge, tools and methodologies to support the assessment of the possible options.

The longer term focus is to create the S&T program required to maintain the capability edge through the life of the submarines. This will require national and international collaboration to ensure Australia has the required sovereign capabilities to understanding the current and future needs, particularly in the key area of stealth, and to evolve and mature the technology required throughout the life of the submarines.

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3D Render of a Team Simulation exercise taking place inside a Submarine