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Infrastructure improvements needed for east coast future subs base

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Australia's future submarines will be built in Adelaide as part of SEA 1000 (Image provided)

Following the news that the future submarines will call Sydney home, there are now questions about the nature and scale of the modernisation and expansion works that will be required for each potential site.

Following the news that the future submarines will call Sydney home, there are now questions about the nature and scale of the modernisation and expansion works that will be required for each potential site.

Silent and lethal submarines serve as an incredible deterrent for any nation. Australia's Collins Class, despite their initial teething problems, have gone on to prove themselves as formidable adversaries in war games with the surface and submarine forces of allies, including the might of the US Navy's nuclear attack submarine fleet. 

The introduction of the 'Two Ocean' policy in the 1970s 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.


This 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 [FBE]), 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.

As South Australian senator Rex Patrick told Defence Connect: "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.

“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."

Key to operational efficacy and strategic deterence, is transit time, submarines based on West coast have significantly shorter travel times to patrol areas off the coast of Northern Australia and into south-east Asia, while vessels based on the east coast have significantly shorter transit times when travelling into the Pacific Ocean and to major allied bases in Guam and Hawaii. 

The Future Submarine (FSM) Basing Study information obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) and provided by Senator Patrick identifies in detail a number of basing arrangements for Australia's future submarine force as part of implementing the 'Two Ocean' policy, and highlights in detail the infrastructure and services that will be required to support the redeployment of Australia's future submarine assets. 

As briefly outlined by Defence Connect, the information provided by Senator Patrick identifies various locations along the east coast as potential base locations, with Sydney firming as the favourite, in particular: 

  • HMAS Kuttabul (Fleet Base East), the existing naval facility at Woolloomooloo
  • HMAS Waterhen at Balls Head Bay, which is currently home to Australia's Huon Class minehunter fleet
  • Cockatoo Island, the formal naval shipyard at the confluence of Parramatta River and Sydney Harbour

Additionally, the information identifies alternate sites in Jervis Bay and Newcastle, along with Brisbane and Melbourne as alternate basing locations, although they are not as competitive as the Sydney locations.

Darwin is also identified as key forward operating and support base for Australia's future submarines as part of the broader relocation plan. 

It is also identified that the increased number and size of the future submarines also presents berthing difficulties for the existing facilities at FBW, further supporting the redeployment of such assets to the east coast. The question around infrastructure suitability also extends to the maintenance facilities on site and the transit times to maintenance facilities proposed for relocation to Western Australia from the existing facilities in Adelaide. 

Senator Patrick is quick to respond to these concerns: "It makes little sense to shift full-cycle dockings (FCD) to WA in circumstances where the Navy is clearly planning a two ocean submarine force posture.

"In March, I obtained documents from the Defence Department that revealed there was secret planning going on to shift submarine full-cycle docking to WA because of purported concerns over the ability of Osborne to handle the work. Those concerns are poppycock. In the context of what we have learned today about a two ocean submarine force posture policy, I’m calling on the government to conduct a study on how any or all barriers to retaining full-cycle dockings here in Adelaide can be overcome."

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 identifies 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 homeport
  • An east coast homeport 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
  • 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 homeport for Australia's future submarines. 

The SEA 1000 Future Submarine Program will be the largest Defence acquisition project in Australia's history, with a projected cost of $89 billion, which will provide Australia with 12 locally-built next-generation submarines, designed by French warship and submarine builder Naval Group. 

Stephen Kuper

Stephen Kuper

Steve has an extensive career across government, defence industry and advocacy, having previously worked for cabinet ministers at both Federal and State levels.