Searching for The Silent Service

Exercise - Ocean Explorer.

Royal Australian Navy is honing its anti-submarine warfare skills with the help of Allies including the US Navy.

History of Submarines in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

The role of submarines during World War II had a huge impact on those fighting in the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Kriegsmarine U-boat attacks on convoys from the United States to the United Kingdom sank millions of tons of shipping carrying vital supplies to keep Britain’s war effort going – and at one point nearly brought the country to its knees during the ‘happy period’ between 1940 and the end of 1942, before anti-submarine warfare technology and tactics evolved sufficiently to begin to turn the tide against the U-boats.

In the Pacific, the sighting of the USS Nautilus near the Japanese Navy’s aircraft carrier group was enough to persuade Admiral Nagumo to send one of his destroyers, the Arashi,  to keep the submarine submerged in order to let his fleet escape. The tragedy for the Japanese was that Air Group Commander Wade McClusky’s dive bombers had spotted  the destroyer racing to rejoin the main force and, on a hunch, following its direction which let straight to the four aircraft carriers of the attacking fleet. Three dive bombing squadrons made a coordinated attack and the rest is history.

Recent years

Anti-submarine warfare has been a traditional requirement for NATO members in the Northern Hemisphere, originally to keep the North Atlantic open for the reinforcement of Europe should war have occurred with the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation, but in recent decades exercises such as Dynamic Mantra have brought together multinational combined forces to how learn how to combat hostile submarines from the air, surface and underwater.

Outside of NATO, other major naval operators such as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) are looking at the rapidly growing challenge being offered by the Chinese and are examining their own ASW capabilities. While the South and East China Seas for been the ‘close-in’ focus of the Chinese Navy’s surface fleet, it is now beginning to roam across all of the world’s oceans and its submarines must be expected to be similarly tasked.

RAN Anti-Submarine Warfare

“There is a renewed emphasis on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) at all levels, and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is seeking to strengthen its technical and operational capabilities,” said James Goldrick, a retired RAN rear admiral and currently a fellow at the Australian foreign policy and defence ‘think tank’ organisation, the Lowy Institute.

More broadly, Goldrick continued, “ASW has to be considered as a theatre problem, not as a ‘task group’ or even ‘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 of multinational cooperation. Goldrick points to the importance of such cooperation, 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 Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) are already doing this by building different bilateral and multilateral ASW links between them.

Anti-Submarine Warfare Exercises

One such exercise in February 2019, saw the RAN’s HMAS Collins, Dechaineux, Farncomb, and Sheean joining with the USN’s 688/Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Santa Fe off Western Australia to participate in various activities and exercises, the latter including Ocean Explorer and Lungfish. Exercise Ocean Explorer, part of the RAN’s Ocean exercise series, trains high-end, blue-water warfighting capability including ASW.

The Ocean Explorer Task Group comprised HMA Ships Canberra, Newcastle and Success. The airborne anti-submarine elements comprised Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft with an AN/AAQ-2(V)1 acoustic system partnering with Navy Sikorsky MH-60R ‘Romeo’ maritime combat helicopters from HMAS Canberra and Newcastle. The MH060Rs are equipped with Raytheon AN/AQS-22 Airborne Low Frequency Sonars (ALFS).

HMA Ships Canberra, Newcastle and Success are joined by three MH60-Romeo, an MRH-90 Maritime Support Helicopter and a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for anti-submarine warfare exercises.

Australian Maritime Task Group

Commander of the Australian Maritime Task Group, Captain Andrew Quinn stated: “Submarines complicate the manoeuvre of a maritime surface task group,” adding that “the world-leading identification, location and tracking capabilities offered by the Poseidon and Romeo aircraft provide a potent response to the growing proliferation of potential submarine threats in Australia’s near region.”

Aviation Warfare Officer, Lieutenant Commander Damian Liberale from 816 Squadron’s Flight 4 (Parramatta), who was embarked in Canberra, was responsible for anti-submarine mission profiles. “Currently the Romeo operates mainly from Anzac class and Adelaide class frigates, and in the near future Hobart class destroyers, and it is exciting to see them embarked in the Canberra class amphibious assault ships to augment other anti-submarine warfare assets,” he said.

“The sophisticated combat systems in the aircraft allow us to accurately locate a submarine using organic sensors and engage with anti-submarine warfare weapons during the prosecution of a hostile adversary,” Liberale added.

by Dr. Lee Willett