Cold War exploits of Australia’s secret submarines
The Oberon-class submarine HMAS Onslow at the Singapore Naval Base 1974. Picture: The Australian National Maritime Museum Source: Supplied
ON February 20, 1986, six senior naval officers came to the cabinet room in Canberra to brief prime minister Bob Hawke on Australia’s secret Cold War submarine operations in Asia.
Defence minister Kim Beazley had invited them to explain to Hawke what the navy’s ageing Oberon-class submarines were capable of, and what they’d achieved on dangerous, clandestine missions to Vietnam and China. Beazley wanted to lock in Hawke’s support for the costly and contentious plan to build six Collins-class subs in Australia.
The large and genial defence minister understood the strategic value of submarines as offensive and defensive weapons. When Hawke arrived, he looked like thunder and his crabbed body language signalled he wanted to be anywhere but hearing a presentation from the navy.
That was soon to change. Commander Kim Pitt began explaining he had been on patrol in HMAS Orion in the South China Sea from September 17 until November 9 the previous year; the focus of that patrol was Cam Ranh Bay on the east coast of Vietnam, then the largest Soviet naval base outside the USSR.
Pitt began a video that grabbed Hawke’s attention and immediately transformed his mood. The PM appeared transfixed as he watched dramatic and brilliantly clear footage taken by HMAS Orion as it slipped in behind and beneath a surfaced Soviet Charlie-class nuclear submarine heading into the Vietnamese port.
The video began with distant pictures of the Soviet submarine motoring towards the harbour, well outside the 12-nautical mile (22.2km) Vietnamese territorial limit. The video was shot through a camera in Orion’s periscope as the submarine loitered, barely submerged in the choppy sea.
Then Pitt took the Orion deep, ran in close behind the Soviet boat, and came up to periscope depth again. Now the video showed the Soviet submarine’s wake boiling and bubbling on the surface. Hawke watched, startled, as a clear image of the turning propeller appeared on the screen just above and ahead of Orion.
Pitt ran beneath the Soviet submarine, filming sonar and other fittings mounted along its hull. The remarkably clear pictures exposed the underwater secrets of Charlie-class technology. The only other way to get them would be for a western spy to penetrate dry-docks in the Soviet Union.
Pitt positioned Orion ahead of and beneath the Soviet submarine, slowed almost to a stop, and then allowed the Soviet boat to pass him while he filmed the other side of its hull.
Hawke grasped intuitively that this video intelligence would add immensely to Australia’s prestige in the US. It could be used to Australia’s advantage in negotiations with Washington and gave Australia a seat at the top table in the global Cold War intelligence collection game. For 45 minutes, Hawke asked questions about how the patrols were organised; their duration, their frequency, their success. He was told how the submarines recorded radio transmissions to deliver vital intelligence to the Western effort to track and identify the Soviet fleet.
The officers put up a photograph of a Soviet Kirov-class nuclear-powered cruiser, much admired by Western navies. US spy satellites had picked up the cruiser leaving its base in Murmansk and tracked it around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean.
The RAN sent the guided missile frigate HMAS Canberra to intercept the cruiser off Sri Lanka and follow it through the Strait of Malacca and up towards Cam Ranh Bay. The frigate took vital photographs and monitored the cruiser’s communications until it approached Vietnam.
Pitt, in HMAS Orion, was waiting, submerged outside Cam Ranh Bay with the submarine’s communications masts deployed to record the cruiser’s arrival. He recorded its procedures and protocols, which deepened Western understanding of Soviet naval communications and command and control systems, meaning the West might be able to jam them in the event of hostilities.
The cautious admiral Mike Hudson, chief of the naval staff, dismayed the submariners by telling Hawke that while the operation was professional and produced good intelligence, it was very hazardous. A submarine might be detected and possibly captured, with serious international consequences. “As we do more and more patrols, the likelihood of this happening will increase,” Hudson said.
Hawke rounded on him. “No, you are wrong,” he replied. “I’ve got a degree in statistics and I can tell you that the probability of detection does not increase as the number of patrols increase. They are discrete, one-off events and the probability of detection is constant.”
Beazley was delighted with the meeting. Hawke’s support for new submarines was locked in. The submarine officers were also triumphant. They had put together a show that had convinced Hawke, converting him from curmudgeon to champion.
They did not tell Hawke that Pitt had also video-taped a submerged conventional Soviet submarine going into Cam Ranh Bay. It was brilliant submarine seamanship, but some of his colleagues regarded it as dangerous and unnecessary and Pitt as “a bit of a pirate”. He later became director of submarine warfare.
The mystery boat operations were shrouded in secrecy as the submarines collected intelligence on the Soviet nuclear submarine and surface fleets and reinforced the US-Australia alliance. They also won Australian submariners their spurs in the Cold War’s global espionage game, as they showed uncommon bravery, dash and initiative on about 20 patrols between 1977 and 1992.
Their success ensured the Collins-class submarines were built and secured the future of Australia’s submarine service.
But the last patrol in the series proved a dangerous failure, with HMAS Orion at grave risk of detection and capture.
On October 22, 1992, she left Sydney Harbour and headed for Shanghai to gather intelligence on the Chinese navy, especially its new submarines. Orion’s CO was commander Rick Shalders, who later commanded Australia’s Collins-class submarine fleet.
The Americans wanted better intelligence on the Chinese navy, but US nuclear submarines were too big to be sent into the shallow waters of the East China Sea. Australia’s smaller O-boats were ideal for the task.
Shanghai was China’s biggest mainland harbour at the wide mouth of the Yangtse river; the water was shallow and murky, and busy with non-military shipping, including the local fishing fleet and ferries. The shoreline was heavily urbanised.
It would not be easy to stay unseen and undetected while barely submerged and trying to collect intelligence, and the consequences of detection could be grave for the submarine’s crew and for Australia-China relations.
Shalders’s trip to the area of operations was uneventful and the submariners were looking forward to getting their work done and getting back to the relatively safety of the open sea. Orion was equipped with the best photographic and electronic intelligence collection equipment; civilian language specialists were on board to translate Chinese navy transmissions.
But the patrol proved a nightmare, with the harbour crowded with fishing boats, many trailing long fishing lines and nets.
Shalders had to raise his periscope periodically to check the intelligence-collection aerials.
The fishermen constantly watched for signs of fish and could not miss minor disturbances made by Orion’s equipment and by the presence of the submarine not far below the surface.
They followed Orion around the harbour. Shalders could not surface and could not risk moving quickly away from the danger.
Things started to get desperate when Orion fouled the fishing lines and nets. One fishing boat started to sink by its bow as its net became entangled with the submarine. The fisherman saved himself by cutting away the net from the boat with an axe.
By now Shalders knew he was facing possible disaster. It was only a matter of time before the Peoples’ Liberation Navy became aware something was seriously amiss and investigated what was going on in the shallow water. Shalders and his crew faced the real prospect of detection, surrender, capture, imprisonment, trial and possible execution as spies. Relations between Australia and China would be in tatters. Shalders decided he had no choice but to abandon the operation.
Summoning all his skills, he took the submarine out of the harbour and into the relative safety of the East China Sea. The Australians returned home with nothing to show for their hair-raising experience.
The then chief of the naval staff, admiral Ian McDougall, a former submarine commander, told defence minister Robert Ray the O-boats were reaching the limits of their service lives and the patrols should be stopped because of the growing danger.
The submarine service was incandescent. It saw the patrols as invaluable for its reputation at home and abroad, and for continuing access to funding. The submariners wanted to preserve the skills they had developed.
The Defence Intelligence Organisation argued that despite the Soviet collapse there was an acute need to collect intelligence on the military activities of other countries, especially China, India and Indonesia, and that submarines were the most effective means. But Ray accepted McDougall’s advice and ordered an end to the patrols.
A senior submariner, commander John Dikkenberg, met Hawke’s successor as PM, Paul Keating, to argue for reinstatement of the patrols. Keating listened carefully, but would not over-rule his defence minister.
Four years later, when Ian McLachlan was appointed John Howard’s first defence minister, he asked to be briefed on the cancelled patrols. The navy urged their resumption and was given the OK for a carefully controlled and limited mission off Indonesia to re-establish intelligence-collecting skills.
Bronwyn Bishop, then minister for defence science and technology, also accepted that skills were being lost and gave her blessing to resumed patrols. Six more patrols were undertaken, mainly monitoring Indonesian military communications around Indonesia and East Timor. The Howard government wanted more information on Indonesian military activities in Timor, where Fretilin guerillas were still fighting for independence.
The new Abbott government is considering whether to acquire a fleet of 12 new submarines, which would represent Australia’s largest defence project. If it does, the proud Cold War history of the O-boats will have helped persuade decision-makers that submarines, despite their daunting cost, can be very good value indeed for taxpayers’ dollars.