Sydney Harbour is likely to become a base for Australia’s next fleet of submarines in a move that could require major redevelopments and would put the city at the heart of the military’s ability to project its most lethal power into the Pacific.
Three defence reports obtained under freedom of information laws reveal a strong preference for a so-called “two ocean policy” that would base at least some of the next fleet of 12 submarines on the east coast.
The existing six Collins Class boats are all based at Fremantle in Western Australia. But for strategic reasons, including to reduce the risk of the entire fleet being neutralised by an attack or natural disaster, as well as to help recruit and keep the larger submarine workforce that will be needed, the future fleet will be split across the two coasts.
An east coast base would also cut the time submarines have to transit to carry out missions and exercises in the Pacific.
The most detailed Defence Department study on future submarine basing, provided to Fairfax Media, states that “Sydney Harbour provides the best three currently available options for a sustainable east coast [future submarine] homeport”.
Fairfax Media understands this is also the prevailing view in the Royal Australian Navy, though any decision will be complicated by the crowding and congestion in the harbour.
The review by Commander D.L. Stevens, obtained under FOI by South Australian Senator Rex Patrick of the Centre Alliance party, lists as the three top options the present Fleet Base East at Garden Island, HMAS Waterhen at Balls Head Bay, and Cockatoo Island.
Fairfax Media understands Cockatoo Island however is not regarded as a likely prospect within the navy.
Defence Minister Marise Payne said no decisions had been made because the first of the new fleet will not enter service until the early 2030s. But she expected Defence to give the government “a range of initial submarine basing options” late next year.
Reflecting the juggling act that will be required, some sources said Garden Island would be a challenge because of the demands of the growing surface naval fleet. From the late 2020s, it will include Hunter class frigates, which are more than twice the size of the current Anzac class.
Submarines frequently berth at Garden Island but have not been based in Sydney Harbour since the decommissioning of HMAS Platypus at Neutral Bay, which served as the headquarters of the previous Oberon class of submarines until 1999.
The Stevens review was finished in December 2011 but is still regarded as the definitive document. A more recent submarine report from last September - also obtained by Senator Patrick - calls it “by far the most detailed specific review into submarine basing”.
It states that basing four future submarines at Garden Island could “conceptually” be managed without “substantial new investment in buildings or wharves”. But this would mean docking for maintenance would have to be done elsewhere.
Basing six would require a new wharf to be built on the eastern side facing Elizabeth Bay, Double Bay and Rose Bay.
Senator Patrick, a former Royal Australian Navy submariner, said it made “perfect strategic sense for Australia to have a two ocean submarine force posture”.
“In 2014, coinciding with the G20 meeting in Brisbane, a Russian navy task group deployed to the Coral Sea,” he said.
“China is expanding its naval capability and is utilising soft power in both Timor-Leste and Vanuatu. We can expect more foreign naval activity in the eastern Indonesian archipelago, the Coral Sea and South Pacific in the future.”
He said having bases on both coasts meant the logical place for deep maintenance - in which a submarine is docked for between six months and two years - stays in Adelaide where much of the expertise resides.
The review ruled out Adelaide, Hobart, Gladstone, Port Stephens and Twofold Bay on the south coast of NSW. It said Jervis Bay, Newcastle, Western Port in Victoria and Brisbane could be considered, though they rank below Sydney.