Orion finds sneaky Aussie sub

An Air Force Orion tracked down the Australian submarine Waller outside the search area. File Picture

It might have been a friendly submarine, but a New Zealand Air Force Orion found it under the surface of the Tasman Sea where it was not supposed to be.

A week after Prime Minister Helen Clark said New Zealand Orions had not detected a single submarine in 35 years, it was revealed yesterday that her statement did not apply to at least one of the ageing aircraft.

The Orion and its antiquated electronic sensors detected the Australian submarine HMAS Waller during the early stages of the joint maritime exercise Tasmanex 2001. The two-week exercise involves ships and aircraft from New Zealand, Australia and France.

Wing Commander Mike Yardley, the commanding officer of Five Squadron, New Zealand's maritime patrol force of six long-range Orions, said yesterday that HMAS Waller was targeted by Australian and New Zealand Orions as it travelled across the Tasman Sea from Bass Strait.

A New Zealand Orion, one of three in the exercise, was given the first mission against the submarine.

"We got given a piece of ocean one hundred nautical miles by one hundred nautical miles and got told there was a submarine in the area and to go look for it," said Wing Commander Yardley.

With five minutes of the sortie left, the Orion crew made radar contact with the diesel-electric submarine at periscope depth where it was not meant to be - about 15 nautical miles outside the search area.

Wing Commander Yardley joked that submariners were like that. They seemed to have an unwritten rule which they used to deceive and mislead.

The Waller, one of Australia's new Collins-class submarines, later broke down off North Cape and this week has been berthed at the Devonport Naval Base.

Helen Clark's statement was made when she questioned whether half a billion dollars ought to be spent upgrading the Orions' detection equipment "to spot vessels which aren't there and haven't been found to be there in the entire time we've been trying to spot them."

Late on Tuesday night, one of the three Orions on the exercise took off on a search-and-rescue mission after an emergency locator beacon was activated north-west of North Cape.

The aircraft found the beacon in the water but there was no sign of anyone in difficulty. The beacon had been in the water for some time before it unexpectedly went off.