As a Two Ocean Navy, there is a growing recognition that Australia’s future submarine fleet will need to have a permanent presence on the east coast, and ASPI’s Strategist is calling for serious and renewed consideration for the development of a submarine facility on the east coast.
Silent and lethal, modern submarines, both conventional and nuclear-powered variants, serve as an incredible deterrent for any nation, and for an island nation like Australia they are a critical tactical and strategic force multiplier.
Australia’s Collins Class, despite their initial teething problems, have gone on to prove themselves as formidable adversaries in wargames with the surface and submarine forces of allies, including the might of the US Navy’s nuclear attack submarine fleet.
The conceptualisation and introduction of the Two Ocean policy in the 1970s and 1980s highlighted the need for growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean and, increasingly, a submarine presence to counter the rising number of Soviet submarines operating in the region.
This saw the development of HMAS Stirling as Fleet Base West (FBW) and the gradual relocation of Australia’s submarine forces to the west coast, beginning with HMAS Oxley in 1987.
Additionally, this shift was followed by the relocation of the headquarters of the Australian Submarine Squadron to FBW in 1994. While the nation’s new Collins Class submarines would rotate through HMAS Kuttabul (Fleet Base East), all six of the then-new Collins submarines would be based at FBW, limiting the ability of the vessels to operate in the Pacific at short notice.
Replacing the Collins Class, combined with growing regional trends, in particular the rise of China's own submarine fleet, which is expected to have 70 submarines in the Pacific by 2020, has forced a major strategic rethink and recalculation, culminating in the recently announced 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan.
Both the Strategic Update replaces the Strategic Defence Framework set out in the 2016 Defence White Paper with three new strategic objectives, of which Australia's future Attack Class submarines will play a critical role in supporting:
- Shape Australia’s strategic environment;
- Deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
- Respond with credible military force, when required.
Supporting this ambitious shift in Australia's strategic doctrine would also require a more permanent presence of Australia's future submarines on the east coast, something long advocated for by South Australian senator Rex Patrick, who told Defence Connect in 2018:
"It makes perfect strategic sense for Australia to have a two-ocean submarine force posture. There are good reasons for Australia to have submarines based on the east coast. In 2014, coinciding with the G20 meeting in Brisbane, a Russian Navy task group deployed to the Coral Sea.
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"China is expanding its naval capability and is utilising soft power in both Timor-Leste and Vanuatu. We can expect more foreign naval activity in the eastern Indonesian archipelago, the Coral Sea and south Pacific in the future."
Now, ASPI's Strategist has called for renewed consideration and planning for the permanent basing and infrastructure required to support a portion of Australia's submarine facilities on the east coast.
The available options
Relocating major fleet units to the east coast and particularly Sydney would require major redevelopments to the existing naval infrastructure of the city and would place the country’s largest city at the epicentre of the ADF’s ability to project force into the Pacific area of operations.
In the past, three Sydney-based locations have been firmed as favourites for the east coast relocation of part of Australia’s future submarine fleet, namely:
- HMAS Kuttabul, the existing naval facility at Woolloomooloo;
- HMAS Waterhen at Balls Head Bay, which is currently home to Australia’s Huon Class minehunter fleet; and
- Cockatoo Island, the formal naval shipyard at the confluence of Parramatta River and Sydney Harbour.
Further to these locations, both Port Kembla (south of Wollongong) and Newcastle have also been identified as potential ports to support the east coast relocation of the future submarine fleet. Additionally, alternative sites in Jervis Bay and Newcastle, along with Brisbane and Melbourne, have in the past been identified as basing locations, although they are not as competitive as the Sydney locations.
Darwin is also identified as a key forward operating and support base for Australia’s future submarines as part of the broader relocation plan.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is quoted as saying in 2018, "Defence is conducting studies and a range of operational and support modelling to identify the most effective and efficient options for positioning of the Attack Class submarine force. Defence studies and modelling include a two-ocean basing concept."
Any proposed relocation is in line with the Two Ocean policy, which identifies the need to split the Navy’s major resources between east and west coast operating bases to ensure that Navy and broader ADF operations can be conducted in an efficient and effective manner while also ensuring that any possible contingency in either area of operation can be responded to with speed.
Responding to the 2014 G20 embarrassment
A major driving force behind the proposed strategic repositioning of Australia’s future submarine force is the incident during the 2014 G20 summit hosted in Australia, during which a large Russian naval task group surprised many, showing up in Australia’s territorial waters off the coast of north Queensland and was unable to be shadowed by a Navy Collins Class submarine.
Beyond the broader strategic and operational rationale for relocating submarines to ensure immediate access to both the Indian and Pacific oceans, growing shortages in the nation’s submariners has been another focal point for relocating a portion of the nation’s future submarine fleet. According to information provided, 14 per cent of specialist Navy submariner (officer and sailor) billets were vacant, with vacancy numbers having been significantly higher.
It also identified that sole basing of submarines in WA is an impediment to sustainable recruiting and that 80.7 per cent of submarine recruits in FY2010-11 were from east coast states, while 39.6 per cent of submarine personnel across all ranks indicated they want to be somewhere other than the sole submarine base at FBW.
The shift is expected to improve crew retention and operational tempo rates.
For industry, the partial relocation of Australia’s submarine assets presents immense opportunity as each site identified in the information requires extensive modernisation and expansion of the existing infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the increased berthing and size requirements of Australia’s future submarines.
In particular, east coast facilities depending on the location would require a number of modernisation and expansion works, including:
- Newcastle and Cockatoo Island wharves would require at least some refurbishment;
- Fleet Base East will require the construction of a new wharf in order to act as both the future submarine docking facility and as a home port;
- An east coast home port will be required to provide undercover workshop environments for both uniformed and civilian contractors, as well as a substantial hardstand area with temporary power supplies in close proximity to the submarine berths;
- Naval stores buildings, motor vehicles and administration could all be located further afield;
- The creation of an industry support network similar to that of the CCSM will be required for the FSM. Each of the relevant companies will find it easier to recruit, train and retain key staff in the major cities of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne than in more remote places;
- Facilities to enable three submarines to be clear of the water concurrently for planned maintenance purposes will be required independent of any similar facilities that may be associated with the construction of submarines, with a docking cradle required for every four future submarines; and
- Upgraded command and control, training, medical and support infrastructure and services.
Each of these upgrades, and other facilities, combined with the complexity of building, operating and maintaining the future submarines, provides the naval services and defence industry within NSW the opportunity to radically develop and rally to support the development of a permanent east coast home port for Australia’s future submarines.
The rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional surface warship and submarine fleets, namely by Russia and China – combined with the increasing proliferation of surface vessels and submarines designed and built by the aforementioned nations by emerging peer competitors – serve to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.
Additionally, the increasing proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, combined with the growing prominence of naval aviation – again led by China but also pursued by Japan and India – is serving to raise questions about the size and the specialised area-air defence, ballistic missile defence, power projection and sea control capabilities of the RAN.
Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely, oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN. Is it time for an overhaul of the Two Ocean policy to better equip the Navy?