In the February edition of APDR we outlined the generic roles that submarines perform in peacetime. These roles were broken down into four different categories; prevention of war, preparation for war, naval diplomacy and constabulary tasks. In March’s issue we outlined the generic roles that submarines perform in wartime. These roles were broken down into those associated with battle space preparation and those conducted after commencement of war. It is now time to map those roles into the Australian context.

6th Apr 2011

 SEA 1000




In the February edition of APDR we outlined the generic roles that submarines perform in peacetime. These roles were broken down into four different categories; prevention of war, preparation for war, naval diplomacy and constabulary tasks. In March’s issue we outlined the generic roles that submarines perform in wartime. These roles were broken down into those associated with battle space preparation and those conducted after commencement of war. It is now time to map those roles into the Australian context.
The roles for a future submarine in the peacetime Australian context are well understood, because we have been fortunate enough to avoid naval conflict for a considerable period of time. The roles for a future submarine in wartime are much harder to map into the Australian context because to do so requires one to hypothesise likely future scenarios. Unfortunately the strategists that supply the scenarios are to Defence as economists are to Treasury; professional, well intentioned but none the less, best guessers! In an environment of fiscal responsibility, Robert Gates has advised the US Department of Defense that capabilities that target undefined hypothetical future wars must be avoided. This advice should be heeded here too and with that in mind, a set of probable scenarios are put forward to assist us in a discussion on the wartime roles for our future submarines.

Peacetime Tasks for Australian Submarines

Submarines are generally considered machines of war. For this reason it is tempting to dismiss their peacetime roles. However, there would be folly in doing so. Whilst some peacetime roles would be considered discretionary, others are nothing short of essential. The discretionary roles should not influence Defence greatly in their acquisition analysis, but some consideration should definitely be given to the essential tasks.
It is absolutely critical that all ADF assets, present and future, contribute to an ongoing whole of Government effort associated with the prevention of war and preparation for war. This requires well-respected and technologically capable ADF force elements.
In the case of submarines, prevention of war requires the possession of a number of modern submarines operated by well-trained crews that regularly hone their skills through exercises - both locally and internationally. It also demands submarines that, at the very least, hold their own in comparisons with regional anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and also ones that are viewed by others as able to perform fundamental defence of Australia tasks. For submarine deterrence to work effectively, potential adversaries must have a real sense that having to deal with them will require a disproportionate attacking force. This is an area where the Collins Class submarine program has not met expectations. Rightly or wrongly the Collins Class submarines are not perceived internationally as we might have hoped and consequently the deterrent value of them has been undermined. It must be a lesson carried forward in the selection of a future submarine.

Preparation for war through realistic training programs to fine tune the skills of submarine/ASW crews, the ongoing development of a range of submarine/ASW tactics and the support for equipment trials are also critical submarine peace time activities.
Moving to Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) - and whilst officials neither confirm nor deny that Australia submarines participate in peacetime covert ISR operations - there is sufficient open source information available to suggest that it is an important peacetime task. Australian submarines are likely to operate in forward operating areas collecting intelligence and monitoring matters in areas of strategic interest to Australia, including the operations of potential adversaries to establish doctrine and counter tactics to be used in time of war. As well as their direct benefit to the Australian Defence Organisation (ADO), intelligence exchanges that stem from these operations helps to build standing, trust and influence with our allies and other regional partners.

Less critical, but none the less still important, is the ability of submarines to contribute to naval diplomacy; port visits, navy to navy exercises and other activities designed to show interest in another nation and to exert influence. Even without visits and the like, a “force in being”, of which the submarines form a part, is an important element of foreign policy. Attempts to influence a regional power diplomatically would not be as effective if the ADF was not in a position to project military force.
Finally, future Australian submarines could conduct constabulary operations such as protection of natural resources and infrastructure, covert ISR operations in people smuggler launching areas and counter narcotics operations, cueing other more suitable assets to intervene where appropriate. Counter terrorism operations are another possibility; an Australian submarine secretly inserting and/or extracting Special Forces teams onto the northern archipelago to deal with “undesirables” is not beyond the realms of possibility.


The 2009 Defence White Paper (DWP) clearly enunciates Australia’s strategic interests in priority order. It is appropriate therefore to discuss Australian submarines wartime roles within the context of each strategic interest.

Deterring and Defeating Attacks on Australia

The DWP paper stipulates the principal task for the ADF is to deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia by conducting independent military operations without relying on the combat or combat support forces of other countries. This means the ADF has to be able to control our air and sea approaches against credible adversaries in the defence of Australia, to the extent required to safeguard our territory, critical sea lanes, population and infrastructure.
The reality is that there are very few nations in our region in a position to mount a sustained armed attack on Australia. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Low level contingencies, perhaps where an adversary places a lodging force on Australia soil for political purposes, are a possibility but only the likes of a China, India, Japan, Russia or US could realistically attempt an invasion. Some of those are unlikely candidates.

Should any attack on Australia’s sovereign interests occur, the navy’s future submarines would play a significant role. Interdiction is a primary operational strategy for the ADF in the Defence of Australia – that is, stopping an enemy’s advance or the crucial resupply of belligerent lodgers. To affect this, Australian submarines would almost certainly conduct anti-shipping operations in areas where the ADF did not have complete air or sea control, perhaps around Indonesian, Timorese and Papua New Guinean straits and territorial seas. They may also attempt to operate as ASW guards in these same areas.
It is likely that our submarine would also be deployed into forward Areas of Operations (AOs) close to naval ports and enemy logistic hubs to conduct reconnaissance, anti-shipping strikes, ASW and offensive mine laying. They could also be used for surgical land strike or to covertly insert Special Forces to attack critical enemy infrastructure.

Contributing to Stability and Security in the South Pacific and East Timor

The second ADF strategic interest is the security, stability and cohesion of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, New Zealand and the South Pacific Island States. It involves ensuring they are not a source of threat to Australia and that no major power could challenge Australia’s control of the air and sea approaches to the continent by projecting force against us from bases in our neighbourhood; a modified Munroe doctrine.
Many of the likely ADF tasks and functions in this strategic interest category are unsuitable for submarines - protecting our nationals, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and so on. However, submarines may be able to assist in stabilisation interventions by covertly inserting and supporting Special Forces who can secretly conduct land based ISR and other tasks. The use of submarines for surgical land strike in intervention operations is also a possibility.
A regional war might involve similar operations to those found in the deterring and defeating attacks on Australia strategic interest category.

Contributing to Military Contingencies in the Asia-Pacific Region

The next strategic interest, contributing to military contingencies in the Asia-Pacific region, involves ensuring stability and meeting alliance obligations in an area ranging from North Asia to the Eastern Indian Ocean. In many respects, even though it ranks third in priority in the DWP, this strategic interest is important because history has shown most of the conflicts Australia has been involved in have been where we followed our globally engaged security alliance partners to war; hence we find ourselves currently engaged in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The DWP suggests, and few would argue, that strategic transformation in the Asia Pacific region is highly likely. This has the potential to create all manner of tension. There are a number of possibilities such as conflict over the Spratly islands (see separate story about China’s defence budget), conflict on the Korean Peninsula, a conflict over Taiwan or perhaps conflict between any of China, Japan, India, Russia and the US. The DWP explicitly says it would be premature to judge that war among the major powers has been eliminated as a feature of the international system.
China is a rising economic and military powerhouse in the region with growing assertiveness across political, diplomatic, economic and military fronts. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) China gets special mention in the DWP as one possible strategic consideration and therefore a discussion on Australia’s future submarines roles in the context of a war between China and the US seems appropriate.

Before doing so, however, the strategic picture must be painted. As China grows, the US will and arguably is seeking to balance the awakening giant’s power by strengthening or forming alliances and partnerships with other countries in the region. These countries include India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam.
As tension rises in north Asia, and noting there is a declining trend in submarine numbers as financial pressure takes its toll on the USN’s order of battle, there may be a strong need for Australia to supplement their undersea order of battle to help counterbalance Chinese force developments. As part of this ISR activity Australian submarines on a regular basis could carry patrols, perhaps to the extent that Australian submarines might end up being forward based out of places like Guam, Kure or Singapore for long periods.

As the situation moved from tension to conflict our future submarines would - subject to Australian Government agreement - likely participate in a number of significant ways.
A couple of Australian submarines may continue to operate in the heart of the South East Asian AO. These submarines could be employed under alliance control conducting reconnaissance and offensive operations such as mine laying, land strike and anti-shipping/ASW in and around the South and/or East China Sea. ASW protection for important allied bases might also be a relevant task.

Australian submarines are even more likely to be employed, along with other RAN and RAAF assets, to exercise control over the three major Straits through which Middle Eastern and African oil and resource trade flows to China, namely Malacca, Lombok and Sunda. Noting the likely reach of Chinese submarine forces in a future conflict, preventing Chinese submarines from breaking out into the Indian Ocean and Timor Sea may also be an Australian submarine role. Staging for these operations could occur out of Diego Garcia, Cocos Keeling (supported by a submarine tender), northern Australian ports and HMAS Stirling; all, apart from Diego Garcia, fall within the independent logistic support capacity of the ADO.

Some argue that the emphasis for our futures submarines in a US and China stoush should be in the Asian AO. This notion is contested for a number of reasons. Firstly, the strategic value of starving China of seaborne supplies in the context of a prolonged conflict is significant and should not be understated. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Secondly, there are other navies within or closer to the Asian AO that the US would call on to lend undersea capability to the battle; countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea and - not beyond the realm of possibility - Russia. These countries all have capable navies with modern, competent submarine forces that have a home advantage with respect to understanding the AO and localised logistics support. Finally, the commitment of too many Australian submarines into the Asian AO may indeed compromise Defence of Australia operations at a later stage.

Contributing to Military Contingencies in Support of Global Security

The final strategic interest Australia has is preserving an international order that restrains aggression by states against each other, and managing other risks and threats, such as the proliferation of WMD, terrorism, state fragility and failure, intra-state conflict, and the security impacts of mooted climate change and resource scarcity.
The ADF has contributed in the past to operations that would be mainly considered non- regional. It is still contributing in this regard. The role that submarines in such operations would likely be limited on account of the distances likely to be involved. Other assets that can be air deployed are more likely to be utilised.

Australian Submarine Requirements

Having a general understanding of a future Australian submarine force’s peace and wartime roles it is possible to identify unique requirements that might prevent the RAN from using a standard Military-Off-the-Shelf (MOTS) “bang for buck” submarine solution. Caution is warranted here. “Unique Requirements” are two words that drive risk, which in turn can drive cost, delay programs, reduce performance outcomes and ultimately lead to limited operational availability, as occurred with the Collins Class submarines.

Unique Peacetime Requirements


Very few of the peacetime tasks described in this article require special capabilities beyond those found on modern MOTS submarines. Peacetime activities are normally conducted under relatively benign operational conditions; mostly against friendlies or non-state players with little or no ASW capability. Reliability is perhaps a standout requirement, but this is a key attribute of MOTS submarines.
One exception might be drawn from the ISR role. ISR is one of the most demanding of all submarine missions. They are essentially treated as warlike operations, and complex ones at that. ISR requires a tactically stealthy submarine with a wide range of high-end sonar, ESM, communications and optronic sensors and associated recording systems. War shot torpedos will be carried, but in such mission it is not necessary to carry large payloads. None the less, there are some examples of superb modern MOTS submarines that are optimised for littoral operations such as ISR.

Unique Wartime Requirements

In the wartime case, again, few of the tasks outlined here require special capabilities. It is acknowledged that the potential AO for Australia’s future submarines is either large, distant or both. Although large AOs and long distances are often cited as reasons to support a unique Australian requirement, the reality is that modern conventional submarines embody design flexibility to assist customer navies in meeting their operating needs, including extended range and endurance needs. None the less, range and endurance do require further examination and will be looked at in detail in the next issue.
Tactical land strike is another task described in this article that current conventional MOTS submarines do not possess. However, the Navantia S-80, due for delivery to the Spanish Armada in 2013, is fitted for such a capability and both the French and Germans have designs for integrating this capability into their current MOTS designs. Modifications to existing MOTS submarine combat systems and tube discharge systems probably involve minimal risk; the inclusion of US Multiple All Up Round Canisters or the German Vertical Payload Tube probably entails more risk. Land strike will be discussed in detail the June edition of APDR.
Some also argue that alliance considerations place certain equipment requirements on our future submarines. Alliance issues will be considered in July.

Requirement Scuttlebutt

It is worth squashing a couple of claims often put forward to justify Australia acquiring a unique submarine.
The first of these claims is that European submarines are not designed for Australia’s unique environmental conditions. However, limitations with respect to worldwide operation of European submarines are historical. German, French, Spanish and Swedish submarine manufacturers now all design their new submarines for worldwide export. European submarines have been exported to countries at similar latitudes to Australia, in equatorial regions and in the very cold northern latitudes. These submarines also operate in both coastal waters and the open ocean.
The second relates to the suggestion that in order to win against regional adversaries, we must have submarines that are “different” to those procured by them. This suggestion is flawed. Would Australia be happy for its submarines to be less capable provided that they are “different”? No! “Different” inherently comes at additional cost, greater project risk and without guarantee that the outcome will be better. We should simply acquire the best submarine to meet our wartime and peacetime requirements based on measurable and proven technological performance criteria.


Submarines have significant roles to contribute to the ADF in both peace and war. They are an important component of our future maritime order of battle. There are many things submarines can’t do, however, so we must always be mindful of the need for our future submarines to be a part of a balanced force. This demands that we avoid costly nationally specific projects unless it can be shown that they make a corresponding contribution to the ADF’s primary strategic objective.
The submarine roles identified in this article are, in almost all cases, not unique and the platform and combat system requirements are generally not unique either. There probably is a case for a modified MOTS submarine to address some shortfalls, but the case for a totally unique design of submarine in the Australian strategic context cannot be sustained.
Careful technical analysis is required to find the right balance between acquiring a highly capable and reliable submarine design with a proven pedigree that meets Australia’s general needs at an affordable price and the risk and unknown performance associated with building a unique Australian submarine or evolving a Collins Class submarine.
Adopting a program which offers us a high end capability with modest cost and risk will serve us well. Such an approach, and the successful outcome likely to flow from it, is also an essential precursor to any future need to procure even more submarines should the strategic outlook worsen.


APDR at a glance