Cheap shots at Aussie subs wide of the mark

IN recent years we’ve been subjected to a stream of apparently insightful reports in Australia’s tabloids claiming the Navy’s six Collins-class submarines were duds.

But contentions that this Aussie-built weapons platform was a “$5.2 billion debacle” are, to use military lingo, “off target”.

This appears now to be dawning on some editors, who are slowly coming around to reporting the story as it is.

The fact is that Australia’s six conventional Collins-class subs – Collins, Farncomb, Waller, Dechaineux, Sheean and Rankin (still to be commissioned) – are world standard weapons. We’re lucky we have them.

There’s no doubting the Collins-class program, the most expensive since acquisition of the F-111 fighter-bombers from the US more than 30 years ago, had difficulties (few modern weapons systems don’t have early glitches) which, among other things, meant outlaying a further $600 million.

But the outcome has been success.

The Collins class is now the Navy’s main offensive strike weapon.

Because they’re a covert weapon they can double as surveillance and intelligence collection and eaves-dropping platforms.

Each has six weapon tubes and can discharge torpedoes, mines and the Harpoon anti-ship missile, and each is crewed by fewer than 50 highly trained people.

Australia opted to acquire them to replace its Oberon-class submarines which, according to one submariner, were essentially submersible torpedo boats.

He said the Collins-class were “true submarines”. HMAS Waller, after a recent exercise off Hawaii, returned to Sydney submerged all the way.

Acquisition began in 1987 when the Hawke Government contracted Adelaide-based Australian Subma-rine Corporation for their constru-ction with Swedish submarine builders, Kockums.

Soon after, cultural cringe critics surfaced, claiming skilled Aussie workers couldn’t put together the six steel tubes and fit them out with state-of-the-art weaponry and elec-tronics.

Time proved them wrong.

Despite a stream of pessimistic claims, then Defence Minister and now Labor leader, Kim Beazley, pushed for acquisition of more of the subs to be built.

It was probably this far-sighted intention that, unfortunately, raised the ire of strategically placed surface vessel and career oriented Navy people, who began leaking half-truths about the Collins-class subs to journalists.

The fear was that if sub numbers rose then, with limited budgets, something had to give, and that something would be cutbacks in surface ships.

Whether that’s true we’ll never know.

But media leaks about alleged leaks in the Collins-class, their alleged noisiness, computer mal-functions and other exaggerated or out-of-context claims, were probably another reason that the fleet will be six when 10 or a dozen would have been far better.

Imagine if New Zealand had also acquired two.

A fleet double that which Australia will have – all based at HMAS Stirling, south of Perth – would make us a formidable power for good in this region.

Remember the impact of one British submarine in Falkland Islands waters combating Argen-tina?

Notwithstanding all that, information now emerging is that the Collins-class are markedly faster and more maneuvrable than the Oberons and can dive deeper.

Their sonar system is excellent and, contrary to rumours, they’re stealthy – meaning very quiet.

At a recent press conference in Sydney, US Vice-Admiral James W Metzger, Commander, US 7th Fleet, was asked about the performance of HMAS Waller in the “Tandem Thrust” exercise off Queensland.

“I would say, and I am a submariner, that from what I’ve seen and heard, the Waller is very professionally handled, very capable submarine, very quiet submarine that challenges any naval force in the world today.” Admiral Metzger said.

“And we don’t have all the results in from Tandem Thrust yet.

“But the initial indication from the Maritime Component Commander, Admiral Willard in this case, was that he felt extremely challenged and felt that it was a significant issue from his vantage point in dealing with both the submarine from the US and the Waller that were opposing his forces. And, in fact, initial indications are that the Waller found, and made attacks upon our amphi-bious forces, as they were getting ready to conduct an amphib-ious assault.”

Two points need mentioning. Firstly, Waller and Farncomb are still to be upgraded, so they’ll be even better.

Secondly, a defence contact told State Scene that Admiral Metzger’s reply, if anything, understated Waller’s performance.

He said US submarine warfare experts believed if Iraq had one Collins-class sub, the West’s efforts to keep super tankers plying the Persian Gulf unimpeded would be markedly more difficult.

Let’s hope the coming $100 million annual submarine main-tenance contract goes to Jervoise Bay – adjacent HMAS Stirling – not Adelaide.

With three South Australians in the Howard Cabinet and South Australia’s Liberal Government fac-ing an election politics may cloud Canberra’s decision.

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