Better Than Ever?

Collins Class submarines HMAS Collins, HMAS Farncomb, HMAS Dechaineux and HMAS Sheean in formation while transiting through Cockburn Sound, Western Australia.

The Royal Australian Navy’s six Collins-class diesel-electric submarines are delivering improved operational output, just as Australia’s requirement for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) appears to be increasing.

Collins-class submarines

In August 2019, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Collins-class diesel-electric submarine (SSK) HMAS Farncomb completed a five-month deployment across the Indo-Pacific region. The deployment included participation in several high-profile exercises. These included the Australia-United States bilateral Talisman Sabre exercise, which took place off Australia’s east coast between June and August, and the US-led Pacific Vanguard exercise in May-June where, alongside the US, Japanese, and South Korean navies, the boat worked through various maritime task group scenarios.

In 2019, another Collins-class submarine HMAS Collins was engaged in another high-profile deployment, as part of the task group based around the RAN’s lead landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ship HMAS Canberra for the ‘Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019’ deployment. Collins’ activities during this deployment included participation in the French Navy-led multinational exercise La Perouse, in the Bay of Bengal in May and June: participants included the French Navy aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle, and ships from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

Navies tend not to talk much about submarine operations. However, the level of operational output currently being generated by the Collins-class boats, as demonstrated by these two deployments, underlines how far the class has come in terms of delivering improved output. Certainly, the programme appears to have moved on somewhat from what was a difficult period in terms of acquisition and initial operations.

The level of output also is highlighting the enduring importance of a submarine capability for Australia just as the country is doubling the number of boats in its fleet, with the purchase of 12 Attack-class SSKs (which it is hoped will replace the Collins boats from 2035 and beyond).

Undersea Defence Technology conference

Speaking at the Undersea Defence Technology conference in Stockholm in May 2019, Commodore Michael Houghton – Director General Future Submarines in the Australian Department of Defence said that, alongside the focus on technology in delivering required operational outcomes, “one of the things … [is] the need for presence, and with presence means availability of platforms”.

The presence of high-end technology onboard a platform is no use for a navy if the platform itself is unavailable, he explained. This is where the Collins boats’ increased operational availability is adding much value to the outputs the RAN can generate in the critical underwater domain, including in terms of generating anti-submarine warfare (ASW) effect.

According to the RAN website, as of January 2020 four of the Collins boats – HMA Submarines Collins, Dechaineux, Farncomb, and Sheean – appear to be available for operations. HMAS Rankin and HMAS Waller are listed specifically as being in short- and longer-term maintenance respectively.

Notwithstanding the fact that precise details regarding submarine operational availability is not something navies routinely reveal, having four boats available from a flotilla of six prospectively is a high level of availability. It also supports the provision of robust operational presence in the underwater domain at a critical strategic time in the Indo-Pacific maritime arena.

Strategic environment

The RAN operates across the Indo-Pacific theatre, from the littoral waters around Australia, across the Southeast Asian region, up into the North Pacific, and also across the Indian Ocean to the Gulf. These various waters all contain a complex mix of shallow and deep waters, and different environmental conditions that challenge even the most capable submarine and submariner.

Perhaps more notably, the Pacific Ocean region in particular was arguably the first theatre in which, going back a decade or more, state-based naval competition – especially in the underwater domain – began to re-emerge. Such competition is now evident across the entire Indo-Pacific arena.

Broadly, the Indo-Pacific theatre is “a very dynamic environment where there is competition for influence”, said Cdre Houghton.

Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW)

The Collins-class submarines are looking at a prolonged period of life extension until the new Attack-class SSKs arrive in the mid-to-late 2030s.

Alongside generating presence and contributing to maritime domain awareness, the primary operational task for an SSK like a Collins-class boat is ASW – especially in terms of its contribution to high-end operations.

Even at the lower end of the operational scale, however, ASW still plays a key role. As with most countries around the world, Australia remains dependent on maritime trade that moves along sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Across Australia’s theatre of strategic national interest, such SLOCs pass through key maritime choke points such as the Straits of Hormuz in the Gulf, and the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits in Southeast Asia. Cdre Houghton noted that keeping SLOCs open is a key role for submarines. Simple presence is key here.

“In terms of Australia’s ASW requirement, the major driver is the regional proliferation of submarines,” Dr Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, told AMR. “The proliferation of submarines does complicate the security of Australia’s SLOCs in the medium to long term.”

In ASW terms, the RAN faces the twin requirement of providing coverage across the Indo-Pacific theatre, with other navies increasingly active underwater in areas of critical Australian strategic interest, and of providing ASW coverage for the RAN’s emerging and increasingly active task group capability. These task groups are based around different combinations of high-value assets such as the two Canberra-class LHDs and the three Hobart-class, air warfare-focused guided-missile destroyers. Such is the RAN’s growing task group capability that, during ‘Talisman Sabre’, its two LHDs – Canberra and sister ship HMAS Adelaide – operated together for the first time.

Working in partnership with other navies is a central element of how the RAN helps provide this ASW coverage.

In the future, the Attack-class SSKs and the Hunter-class frigates (which will begin arriving in service in the late 2020s) will take on the ASW burden, but until then a large part of this burden sits with the Collins boats.

Collins capability

Homeported at Fleet Base West in Western Australia, the six Collins boats are strategically well positioned there to meet what the RAN states is a requirement for defence capability that includes a two-ocean surveillance role.

They are also well equipped to meet this requirement. The principal ASW capabilities of the 78m, 3,400-tonne (dived displacement) Collins boats are the sonar and torpedoes.

The boats are fitted with the Thomson Sintra Scylla sonar bow/flank, active/passive sonar array and the Thales SHORTAS retractable, passive sonar. In March 2019, Waller became the first boat to receive the new Thales modular cylindrical bow sonar array, under the Collins Sonar Capability Assurance Programme (CSCAP) within the wider SEA 1439 programme. Kaushal said the new sonar fit “provides the submarines with a step change in situational awareness, which has ramifications for their role in ASW”.

The torpedo capability is provided by the Raytheon Mk 48 Mod 7AT CBASS, an active/passive homing weapon that delivers a 300kg warhead at speeds of up to 55 knots. The boats can carry 22 weapons in total, with these fired out of six 533mm torpedo tubes in the boats’ for’ard end..

Operation of such sonar and torpedo capabilities is supported and integrated by the Raytheon AN-BYG 1 tactical weapon control system.

One of the most important elements of the Collins capability is its displacement, a size that supports the boats’ ability to deploy at the distances and for the durations Australia requires. According to the RAN, the Collins boats have a range of 9,000 nautical miles while dived and snorting.

Stressing the strategic contribution the boats make to Australian defence capability, the RAN’s Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan said in a letter to The Australian newspaper on 12 December 2019, that the Collins boats provide “a world-class submarine capability” that is “an essential part of Australia’s naval capability”. In particular, he pointed to the Collins boats’ role as “a powerful instrument for deterring conflict and a potent weapon should conflict occur”.

Under the Chief of Navy’s ‘Plan Pelorus’, designed to provide guidance and reference for the navy to enable it to maintain bearing in delivering its mission of fighting and winning at sea, the RAN’s headmark aim is that by 2022 it will be “ready to conduct sustained operations as part of the joint force”. Several elements listed under the headmark reflect neatly what a submarine capability brings here in particular. These include lethality, integration with joint and combined forces, persistence to enable the maintenance of “long-term presence away from … home ports”, and the ability to engage with close partners across the Indo-Pacific region.

“The Collins-class [boats] are highly capable and very quiet SSKs, with excellent (and being kept up-to-date) sensor and weapon systems,” James Goldrick, a retired RAN rear admiral and currently a fellow at the Lowy Institute, told AMR. The boats “are obviously very effective ASW units in a wide variety of situations and locations,” he continued, adding. “It is intended they remain so.”

In its most recent defence white paper, published in 2016, Australia underlined its intent to ensure the Collins boats continue to be operationally relevant through a programme of “priority capability enhancements, obsolescence management, and fleet sustainment …. This will include upgrades to the Collins-class communications and sensor capabilities.”

The white paper also noted the improvements in Collins availability, pointing to previous times when as many as three boats might have been in longer-term maintenance at once.

ASW focus

Across the navy, Goldrick assessed, “There is a renewed emphasis on ASW at all levels, and the RAN is seeking to strengthen its technical and operational capabilities.”

More broadly, Goldrick continued, “ASW has to be considered as a theatre problem, not as a task group or even single unit one.” While individual navies are developing improved platforms and are integrating these more coherently into task groups, what consideration of ASW as a theatre issue means is there needs to be increasing development too of multinational co-operation in ASW, for example. Goldrick pointed to the importance of such co-operation, including the sharing of surveillance information, as key to building future ASW capability.

Certainly, the RAN and its partner navies such as the US Navy (USN), UK Royal Navy (RN), and JMSDF are already doing this, building different bilateral and multilateral ASW links between them. Once again, this has been evident in recent exercises, such as Ocean Explorer and Lungfish.

Ocean Explorer, part of the RAN’s ‘Ocean’ exercise series, trains high-end, blue-water warfighting capability.

At the time of this activity, the RAN’s Navy News publication quoted Commodore Tim Brown, director general Submarines, as saying the Collins boats “[in 2018] spent more than 600 days at sea, which was the highest tempo ever achieved by the Collins class”. The RAN’s aim for 2019 was something closer to 700 days, AMR understands..

In written evidence submitted in November 2019 to a Senate Reference Committee inquiry on Australia’s sovereign shipbuilding capability, the Department of Defence (DoD) stated that, over the previous two-and-a-half years, “Operational availability of the Collins-class submarines [was] at the highest levels ever achieved, exceeding international benchmarks.” Writing in Navy News in December 2019, Vice Admiral Noonan said the RAN was “continuing to achieve record days of availability for Collins-class submarines”.

The DoD submission also noted that work to improve boat availability was enabling the introduction of “capability enhancements … during routine docking activities”, with such enhancements “including the installation of new bow and flank sonar arrays as well as improved communications and electronic warfare capabilities”. “These upgrades and ongoing updates across the Collins fleet will ensure we retain a potent and agile submarine capability as we introduce the Attack-class submarine from the early 2030s,” the DoD added.

As well as focusing on current operational challenges, Australia clearly today is already planning for the long-term sustainability of its submarine programme and the ASW capability it brings, even looking beyond the Attack-class boats. In the 2016 defence white paper, the government stated that “To ensure no capability gap and the ability to progress development of a replacement submarine in the 2050s, the government has decided to implement a rolling acquisition programme for Australia’s submarine fleet. A rolling acquisition programme will ensure that Australia is able to maintain a fleet of 12 regionally superior submarines as submarine and anti-submarine technologies develop over the coming decades.”

by Dr. Lee Willett