Oberon Class – The First Australian Submarine Squadron
Re-establishing Australia’s Submarine Capability
Designated ‘SS’ (Hunter/Killer Submarine, conventional), with both anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities – The “Oberon” class was one of the most advanced type of conventional submarines in any navy, combining high speed with great underwater endurance.
The “Oberon” class was one of the most advanced type of conventional submarines in any navy, combining high speed with great underwater endurance. They were then designated ‘SS’ (Hunter/Killer Submarine, conventional), with both anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities.
Designed specifically for silent running, they were amongst the quietest operational submarines in the world, including nuclear submarines. They were therefore extremely difficult to detect and were ideally suited to operations on an enemy’s “doorstep”.
Equipment included sensitive long-range underwater listening devices and electronic fire-control systems. They were fitted with a “snort” system, which enable batteries to be recharged while the submarine remained submerged. Moulded fibre glass had been used extensively in the construction of the casing and fin (sometimes referred to as the ‘sail’).
Oberon Class Specifications
DISPLACEMENT: Surface, 2,186 tons; submerged, 2,417 tons
LENGTH: 295 ft (89.91m)
BEAM: 26.5 ft (8.07m) overall
DRAUGHT: 18 ft (5.48m)
ARMAMENT: Six 21-in (533-mm) weapon tubes (six at bow), capable of firing MK48 torpedoes or Harpoon missiles
MACHINERY: Twin screws; two English Electric main propulsion motors, powered by two 16 cylinder Admiralty Standard Range diesel generators
HORSEPOWER: 3,500 bhp, 4,500 shp
SPEED: Surface, 15 knots; submerged, 19 knots
DIVING DEPTH: >400 ft (121.92m)
COST: approx $10 million each (Oxley, Otway, Ovens and Onslow); (Orion, Otama) approx $24 million each
Australian Submarine Service
The Royal Navy’s 4th Submarine Squadron, which included “T” class submarines, was disbanded on 10 January 1969 when the 1st Australian Submarine Squadron comprising Oxley and Otway was founded.
The rebirth of the Australian Submarine Service followed the decision of the Naval Board, in 1963, to order four of the highly successful British “Oberon” class vessels for the RAN. The orders were placed with Scott’s yard at Greenock and each vessel took just under three years to build. In the tradition of their predecessors of some forty years before, they were named in honour of men who figured in early Australian exploration.
Soon after the keel of the first of the four was laid down, the RAN began sending volunteers for submarine training with the Royal Navy. This flow of personnel was maintained as the building programme progressed, and so as each vessel was commissioned, she was manned almost entirely by RAN officers and sailors.
The Submarine Weapons Update Programme
Entering the Digital Era
By the early 1970s, it became apparent that the original Royal Navy sensors, weapons and fire control system of the Oberon submarines were becoming obsolete and would not meet the RAN’s requirement until the end of the submarines’ life. Several projects were initiated to update this capability – HMAS Ovens was the first to be fitted with the new ANBQG passive ranging sonar in 1976 and later included in an all-encompassing programme known as the Submarine Weapons Update Programme (SWUP. Due to the lack of RN and USN development in conventional submarines, the selection, integration and design was carried out by the RAN.
The heart of the SWUP was the digital Submarine Fire Control System (SFCS) which was built by Singer Librascope to RAN philosophy. Other equipment included in the SWUP were CSU3-41 Attack Sonar, AN/BQG Passive Ranging Sonar, WSN-2 Gyro Compass, MK48 Torpedo and later modifications for the UGM-84 Encapsulated Harpoon Missile. HMAS Oxley completed her SWUP update on 18 December 1979, Otway on 30 April 1981, Ovens on 12 August 1982, Orion on 12 August 1983, Onslow on 21 September 1984 and Otama on 12 September 1985.
SWUP were CSU3-41 Attack Sonar
AN/BQG Passive Ranging Sonar
WSN-2 Gyro Compass
UGM-84 Encapsulated Harpoon Missile.
Oberon Submarines at Sea
The RAN Oberon class when purchased were stealthy, capable hunter/killer submarines and with the sonar enhancements, weapons upgrades and combat system improvements introduced by the RAN they remained highly capable and effective operational submarines throughout their service lives.
Often referred to as ‘strategic’ assets they became extremely important parts of the Fleet, potent and highly regarded for their role in their principle attack role as well as in the conduct of surveillance operations, working with special forces and in the collection of intelligence.
The six submarines were fully operational elements of the Fleet and undertook patrols throughout the region, from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, from the Antarctic to the China Sea. Twice the submarines won the annual Duke of Gloucester Cup prize as most efficient ship in the Fleet – Onslow in 1977 and Orion in 1985.
Not unexpectedly the submarines did undertake some sensitive operations. The limits imposed to protect Operational Security were strict and remain relevant; to this day little is known of the work of these submarines in support of ‘Cold War’ operations. Unclassified admin instructions disclose that officers and sailors who served between 1979 and 1997 in a submarine that was involved in a special operation are considered to have undertaken ‘warlike’ service and that they were awarded the Australian Service Medal with clasp ‘special ops’. However, the details of what was involved remain a mystery – which submarine, where, when and what it may or may not have done are hidden behind a veil of secrecy.
There are a few popular and often quoted stories that have appeared in newsprint and other publications written by interested journalists but none with credible sources or comment for/against from relevant authorities. The submariners who participated do not discuss their experiences in open forum.
There are believed to have been many clandestine assignments – between 1978-1997 – meaning one of the RAN’s six O-boats was at sea on covert operations continuously for part of each year. Potent, stealthy and versatile, the Royal Australia Navy post SWUP Oberons were perfect for the role.
End of An Era
From a beginning which relied heavily on support from mother England, the Australian Submarine Arm has matured into a highly professional arm of the Navy providing a level of service which is unsurpassed. It was through this maturity and non-reliance upon the United Kingdom, coupled with the realisation that the ageing “Oberons” would have to be replaced that the decision to build six new submarines utilising Australian industry, was forged by the Commonwealth Government placing an order with Kockums in 1987.
Subsequent to placing this order a plan was then devised to progressively decommission the ageing “Oberons”. HMAS Oxley was decommissioned on 13 February 1992, Otway on 17 February 1994, Ovens on 1 December 1995, ORION on 4 October 1996, Onslow on 29 March 1999 and Otama in December 2000. The Oberon class submarine base in Sydney for almost 32 years, HMAS Platypus was decommissioned on 14 May 1999.
Celebrations of the 50th Anniversary
A ceremony to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the arrival in Australia of HMAS Oxley, the commissioning of HMAS Platypus and formation of the First Australian Submarine Squadron was held at the site of the former HMAS Platypus, now being remediated by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to open the site for public access. Over 300 people attended this important event including the Minister for Defence, the inaugural Squadron Commander and the first Australian submarine-qualified Chief of Naval Staff.
Transcripts of the speeches delivered at the ceremony can be downloaded by clicking here and a movie of the event can be viewed here.