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The Submarine Force of
The Royal Australian Navy

by CDR David M. Hendricks, USN

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a non-periodic series intended to give UNDERSEA WARFARE readers some insight into the capabilities and challenges of allied submarine forces.

For many years, Australia has been one of America’s staunchest allies, and the U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) have long enjoyed close ties and the valuable experience of mutual cooperation. With the delivery of the first submarines of the new Collins class, the RAN is on the threshold of a new era of excellence in undersea warfare.

A Short History of Submarines in the Royal Australian Navy
Until 1967, the RAN had not had long-term experience in operating a submarine force, despite several earlier short-term attempts. Since that time, however, the Submarine Squadron has been an important element of the nation’s naval force structure.

Australia received its first submarines in 1914, when the British-built AE1 and AE2 were commissioned into the RAN at Portsmouth, England. At the outbreak of World War I, both were assigned to the waters off New Guinea, where AE1 was lost with all hands, presumably from equipment failure. AE2 remained in the South Pacific until being offered to the Royal Navy for service in European waters and was subsequently assigned to the British Squadron in support of the Gallipoli campaign. There, AE2 made the first successful passage through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara, where she sank a Turkish cruiser and harassed the enemy for six days prior to being sunk herself. This ended the RAN’s first attempt to establish a submarine service.

In 1919, the British Admiralty transferred five ‘J’ class submarines to Australia, but they reached the country in such poor condition that they spent most of their service in refit. Because of the poor economic climate of the times, the RAN soon placed these boats in reserve and ultimately scrapped them. And for a second time, the RAN submarine arm ceased to exist. In 1927, because of British insistence that the burden of the Empire’s naval defense be shared among its subjects, the submarines HMAS Oxley and Otway were commissioned, but with the onset of the Great Depression, these boats were handed over to the Royal Navy. Thus, with the exception of the Dutch submarine K9 used for training during World War II, Australia did not operate submarines for another 36 years. During the period 1949-69 a total of ten Royal Navy ‘A’ and ‘T’ class submarines were stationed in Sydney with operating costs funded jointly by Australia and New Zealand.

In 1967, the RAN undertook a much more successful attempt to establish a submarine service, and that force endures to this day. Australia purchased six Oberon-class boats from the United Kingdom, and in August of that year, HMAS Platypus, a submarine support depot, was commissioned in Sydney to service the new units. These Oberon-class boats, HMA Submarines Oxley, Otway, Ovens, Onslow, Orion, and Otama have served the RAN and Australia for three decades. Approximately halfway through their operational life, an ambitious modernization provided the boats with the capability to fire U.S. Mark 48 torpedoes and Harpoon missiles.

With the introduction of Australia’s Two Ocean Basing Policy, which divides the RAN between Sydney and Western Australia, the decision was made to homeport submarines at HMAS Stirling at Garden Island, about 50 km south of Perth. HMAS Oxley was the first submarine to be based at Garden Island in 1987, and in 1994, the Commander of the Australian Submarine Squadron moved his headquarters there from HMAS Platypus.

Additionally, after more than a quarter century of service, the British-built Oberons are being replaced by a new force of Australian-built Collins-class boats, and the new class is already taking over submarine roles in intelligence gathering, surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, maritime strike, and interdiction. Five Oberon-class submarines have now been decommissioned, and the last, HMAS Otama, will be retired from service in late 1999. In May 1999, HMAS Platypus was also disestablished, and future submarine activities will be focused at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia, where the Collins boats will be homeported. On a regular basis, one or two of these will be deployed to the east coast.

The Development of the Collins Class
The Collins-class development began in 1981, when the RAN initiated a program to specify and procure a replacement for its aging predecessors. A contract with the Australian Submarine Corporation for the design and construction of six submarines, with associated services, was awarded in June 1987. The first of the class, HMAS Collins, was laid down in February 1990 and commissioned in July 1996. She was the first submarine ever built in Australia and the 18th to have entered service with the RAN since 1914. HMAS Farncomb, the second of the Collins class, was commissioned in January 1998, with the third, Waller, due to be commissioned mid-1999. The follow-on submarines, Dechaineux, Sheean, and Rankin, are scheduled for delivery in late 1999, 2000, and 2001, respectively.

The Collins-class boats were among the first to be totally designed using computer-aided techniques. Highly automated systems control running machinery, course, speed, depth, and trim, which minimizes manning requirements. The ships require a crew of 45 (eight officers and 37 sailors), compared to an Oberon crew of 64. The basic design is of Swedish origin, and industrial organizations from nine countries have been involved in the development. Nonetheless, 70 percent of the first ship’s and almost 100 percent of the follow-on ships’ production has been done in Australia. The main assembly site is near Adelaide, South Australia. Overall characteristics are listed here:


77.8 meters (255 feet)


7.8 meters (25 feet)


6.8 meters (22 feet)


3,350 tons (submerged)
3,050 tons (surfaced)


Diesel electric; 3 Hedemora VB210 18 cylinder diesels, with generators producing 1,400 kW each; one water-cooled, DC shunt, double-armature motor rated at 5,250 kW; single shaft

Diving Depth

In excess of 180 meters (590 feet)


In excess of 20 knots (submerged)
In excess of 10 knots (surfaced or snorkeling)


In excess of 9,000 nautical miles


45 (8 officers and 37 sailors)


6 forward tubes for Mk 48 wire-guided torpedoes and submarine-launched Harpoon missile

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HMAS Collins at sea.

The Collins class have their aft control surfaces in an X-configuration, and these are individually activated for increased maneuverability and redundancy. Some unfavorable publicity has been generated over problems with the combat system and diesel engines, but these issues are being addressed and corrected.

RAN Submarine Personnel
Most RAN submariners transfer into the submarine service after initial qualification in the surface fleet, and all volunteers undergo a rigorous selection process that also provides prospective submariners with significant insight into what the service is like. Sailors generally must have completed their initial training and have at least 12 months of sea duty before transferring to submarines, and Seaman Officers must have qualified as Officers of the Watch. After completion of submarine training ashore and at sea, Seaman Officers progress through a series of Assistant Warfare Officer and Warfare Officer positions at sea prior to their Executive Officer tour. Command of submarines can be achieved at the rank of LCDR following successful completion of the Submarine Command Qualifying Course (PERISHER) conducted in Holland. Two engineer officers, a marine engineering officer, and a weapon electrical officer round out the wardroom, for a total of eight. Recent government decisions have led to the acceptance of female crew on RAN submarines, and the first women submariners commenced training in 1998.

The Way Ahead
With the likely retirement of HMAS Otama at the end of 1999, the transition from the Oberon class will be complete. Three Collins-class submarines should be operational by then, with a fourth in Adelaide for post delivery availability. Although the Collins construction contract also included an option for two additional boats for a total of eight, the RAN has not yet decided whether to exercise it. The Collins class was designed specifically to have all the capability of the Oberon class, with better speed and shorter snorkeling time to improve blue-water performance. This is in accordance with the Two Ocean Basing Policy, which “reflected a growing recognition of the strategic importance of our northern maritime approaches and the need for flexibility in our defense policy to enable better access to the north and northwest.” In any event, the RAN submarine arm will have more capability than at
any time in recent years, even with two submarines yet to be delivered. The RAN has been looking forward to this new era and will be well prepared to enter the next century.

– CDR Hendricks is a U.S. Submarine Officer assigned as Squadron Warfare Officer, Australian Submarine Squadron, Perth, Australia.

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