Missions of secret Australian submarines during the Cold War revealed

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HMAS Onslow
The Oberon-class HMAS Onslow, one of the many secret submarines used by Australia for espionage during the Cold War
Photo Courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum

On February 20, 1986, Prime Minister Bob Hawke came to know of the nature of the operations of Australia’s secret submarines during the Cold War in Asia. The prime minister was briefed by six naval officers in the cabinet room in Canberra.

The six naval officers were acting under the invitation of Defense Minister Kim Beazley. They briefed Hawke on the missions undertaken by the Oberon-class submarines of the navy to Vietnam and China and the achievements they have reached so far during the risky operations. Apparently, Beazley wanted to get the prime minister’s approval in the navy’s plan of building of six expensive Collins-class submarines in Australia.

Beazley knew of the costs needed to build the submarines. But, he also knew well of the offensive and defensive capabilities the submarines would afford Australia. The defense minister was keen to provide information to Hawke. But the prime minister made his disinterest in hearing the presentation of the navy rather clear in his conduct.

The naval officers, however, did their job well in sparking Hawke’s interest. Commander Kim Pitt explained one of his missions to the prime minister. A video presentation of Pitt’s grabbed the prime minister’s attention shifting his mood from disinterest into that of intense curiosity.

Pitt was assigned on a patrol mission in the HMAS Orion in the South China Sea November 9 a year before the briefing. His mission was to do surveillance on the then largest Soviet naval base outside of USSR, the Cam Ranh Bay, located on the east coast of Vietnam.

The video showed a very clear footage cleverly taken by the HMAS Orion. The submarine skillfully escaped the unwanted notice of the Soviet Charlie-class nuclear submarine by sneaking beneath and behind the Soviet sub as it headed towards the Soviet naval base.

The footage took images of the Soviet submarine as it was headed towards the Vietnamese port. The camera was secured on the periscope of the Orion which took the footage as the submarine dangerously floated on the rough sea. The location was set 12-nautical miles or 22.2 kilometers outside of Vietnamese territorial limit.

The Orion then took a deep dive close behind the Soviet sub and then to a barely submerged depth again following the surfacing of the Soviet submarine. The prime minister was glued to the video alarmed as he watched the propeller of the Soviet sub in close proximity to the Orion. He also took a glimpse of the Soviet Charlie-class technology from underneath including the ship’s sonar and hull.

The Orion then positioned ahead and still beneath of the Soviet submarine. Pitt then maneuvered the Orion to almost a halt. The Soviet sub hummed pass by without a clue of the watching Australian eyes allowing the Orion to get clear images of the other side of its hull. The photographs and the video itself provided intelligence that could only be gathered if spies were to infiltrate and take the images on the dry Vietnamese port.

The intelligence provided by the Orion was crucial to place Australia in a very strategic and political military advantage. Then, Australia was in negotiations with the US in moving against the USSR and the video granted them the upper hand in the Cold War intelligence race.

After watching the video, Hawke inquired on the nature of the operations of the patrols for about an hour. The briefing included the duration, the frequency and the success of the missions. Hawke was also informed that the navy also recorded radio transmissions that were able to document the Soviet fleet.

The missions helped in the tracking and identifying of Soviet vessels. During the presentation, the officers showed Hawke a photograph of the highly regarded Soviet Kirov-class nuclear-powered cruiser. US spy satellites were able to track the cruiser en route from Murmansk, around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean.

The cruiser was intercepted by the guided missile frigate HMAS Canberra off Sri Lanka and shadowed it as it made its way to the Strait of Malacca and into the Cam Ranh Bay. The patrolling frigate did a good job in taking photographs and monitoring the communications since trailing the cruiser.

Pitt was manning the HMAS Orion as it lingered near the Cam Ranh Bay awaiting for the cruiser. He documented the communications of the cruiser including their procedures and protocols. The recording was crucial in getting information on the operations and conduct of Soviet navy including its command and control systems. The in-depth information was also understandably crucial in intercepting and blocking Soviet communications during military encounters.

Admiral Mike Hudson was also reportedly in the briefing. He tried to pour cold water on the naval officers’ excitement by warning them of the risks involved in the missions. If a submarine was detected or captured by the Soviet navy, the international costs could be colossal.

“As we do more and more patrols, the likelihood of this happening will increase,” Hudson said. But Hawke was optimistic.

“No, you are wrong,” Hawke 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.”

Defense Minister Beazley was glad of the outcome of the meeting. Hawke backed Beazley’s plan with an approval to create new submarines. The naval officers were even more delighted that they were able to convince their prime minister of reinforcing the naval force.

The naval officers, however, had secrets they kept from Hawke. They had to withdraw the information of Pitt taking videos of another Soviet submarine entering into Cam Ranh Bay. While Pitt displayed his connoisseurship in submarine seamanship, he was considered by his colleagues “a bit of a pirate” in taking the risk. Pitt’s expertise made him director of submarine warfare well along. Australian submariners also earned respect as well as prestige during their daring patrols numbering to 20 between 1977 and 1992.

The intelligence strengthened the alliance between the US and Australia. The missions were kept classified as they kept feeding information much needed by the Western counterparts of the Soviets. The missions also produced one of the finest Collin-class submarines that became vital to the Australia’s navy.

But the HMAS Orion also had one story of failure to tell. It was on the last mission on October 22, 1992. The Orion proudly left Sydney Harbor on a mission to Shanghai. The operation involved gathering information of the Chinese navy. Manning the submarine was commander Rick Shalders who was keen on making surveillance on the new Chinese subs. He was eager to complete the mission and return home making another mark for the Australian submariners. He later on became commander of the Collins-class submarines.

The US sought the support of Australia in gathering intelligence on the Chinese navy. The US subs were large enough to make it easily detectable in East China waters. The Australian subs, however, were ideally small to sneak into the shallow waters.

The Shanghai Harbor was a very strategic area located at the mouth of the Yangtze River. It was also China’s biggest mainland harbor. The water that feeds the Chinese marine waters was shallow and murky. Civilian vessels such as local fishing boats and ferries were also dispersed along the busy water. Eyes were everywhere.

It was difficult to do espionage without getting seen by military and non-military vessels. Any detection could compromise the mission. It would also antagonize or distress international relations between Australia and China.

The Australian navy greatly prepared to make the mission a success employing the best photographic and top-notch marine technology for intelligence gathering. They also hired translators to join the mission and interpret Chinese navy communications they could gather.

The mission, however, proved more difficult than the submariners planned for. The civilian fishing boats provided a natural local defense against espionage. The local fishermen with their nets were watchful of any catch and a slight movement of the submarine could also attract their curiosity, alarm and attention.

The local setting proved a dilemma as it was necessary for Shalders to raise the Orion’s periscope to gather the necessary intelligence they were ordered to. Shalders, however, could not risk surfacing the submarine or get it near the surface without alarming all of China.

Shalders fears were actualized. The Orion suddenly got in tangle into some fishing lines and nets. A fishing boat reportedly sank when its net became snarled into the submarine. The fisherman had to cut the net from the boat with an axe to escape from the mesh.

They were desperate to get out of the critical state they were in. Shalders was aware of the risks of detection and capture by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Navy. Shalders knew that the disturbance in the shallow waters would impel the Chinese navy to look into the matter. The consequences would be fatal. They, for one, would be captured and tried as spies.

Aside from the safety of his crew, Shalders understood well the international and political implications of the discovery of their presence in Chinese territory as well as the purpose of their presence. So, he chose to abandon the mission.

He maneuvered the submarine out of the busy shallow waters into a less dangerous area around the East China Sea. They left the Chinese territory to head for home with a breath of relief even without completing their task.

The experience of the last mission of the Orion forced the Australian navy to decide to cease the patrols. Admiral Ian McDougall, chief of the naval staff and former submarine commander, advised Defense Minister Robert Ray that the naval services of the O-boats should be discontinued due to the real dangers posed by the missions.

The missions were hard to let go for the Australian navy. The remarkable and brave tales of the submariners made a mark in war history. The cessation of the missions also meant foregoing the funding that poured into the naval services of the Australian O-boats.

The Defense Intelligence Organization advised against the cessation of naval espionage. It saw the necessity and importance of colleting intelligence despite the collapse of the Soviet. Other countries, it claimed, had to be monitored for the potential threat they posed. However, the Defense Minister voted on the stop of the patrols.

Commander John Dikkenberg, a senior submariner, lobbied for the reinstatement of the missions to Prime Minister Paul Keating who stepped into office after Hawke. The prime minister, however, refused to challenge the decision already made by his defense minister.

After four years, the decision was overturned. Ian McLachlan was made defense minister during John Howard’s office. McLachlan inquired on the nature of the patrol missions. The navy at that time advised the defense minister to reinstate the missions. The request was approved on conditions that the missions be carefully “controlled and limited off Indonesia”.

Minister for Defense Science and Technology Bronwyn Bishop also saw the need to continue the naval services to re-establish the skills of the navy on collecting intelligence. Six missions were launched targeting Indonesian military communications in Indonesia and East Timor where a civil war was raised by the Fretilin guerillas for their independence.

The Australian reports that the Abbot government is contemplating on building up a fleet of 12 new submarines. The defense project is Australia’s largest by far.

If approved, the secret missions then undertaken by the O-boats during the Cold War and their contributions to global intelligence are, no doubt, a major piece of Australia’s history that will have stirred the officials to decide on placing a large chunk of people’s money into expensive submarines that are proven invaluable to the country’s, if not other countries’, security.