Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs: A Critical Vulnerability: The Impact of the Submarine Threat on Australia’s Maritime Defence 1915-54

Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs No. 15
Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs No. 15

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David Stevens


This volume examines the impact of the submarine threat on Australia’s maritime defence from 1915 to 1954 and assesses the effectiveness of the RAN in dealing with the trade defence problem over this period. It deals with the way the threat was perceived; the way it was used to influence the military and political decision-making process; and how realistic that perception was.

It also looks at the practical measures taken by Australian authorities in response to the threat. These cover various aspects of tactical and operational thinking, command and control, and equipment procurement decisions. Arising without warning during WWI, the threat posed to Australian shipping by submarines marked the first time the RAN had to seriously consider the relative proportion of assets devoted to local defence as opposed to out-of-area operations. Australia’s naval administrators, however, proved incapable of providing an adequate response. In the post-war period, the RAN faced the additional problems experienced by a small navy in coming to terms with rapidly evolving technology in times of severe financial constraint. Nevertheless, by 1939 it had a core anti-submarine capability available and this provided the foundation for wartime expansion.

Because of imperial commitments and obligations, the outbreak of WWII again raised the problem of where the RAN could deploy its ships for best effect, and this remained an issue until the start of the Pacific War, which determined the priority to be for local defence.

Until the end of 1945, anti-submarine warfare had been a secondary naval capability, and a responsibility usually delegated to reserve forces. But during the post-war period, the threat posed by Soviet submarines became the basis for the RAN’s force structure and, more fundamentally, the rationale for the continued maintenance of a navy in an era of strategic nuclear deterrence. This understanding had far-reaching effects that would colour the RAN’s view of its role and responsibilities until at least the 1980s.