Reporter: Peter Overton
Producer: Jonathan Harley
It hardly sounds like the most enticing job. Cramped, smelly, no sunlight, working around the clock for weeks on end. But on the up-side, there's loads of money, and adventure galore.
Interested. Well, we are talking about a career in submarines.
And right now your navy needs you.
You see, our entire region is in the midst of a massive arms race, fuelled by the rise of economic superpowers like China and India.
It's a prospect that's so alarmed our Prime Minister he's just announced plans for a dramatic expansion in our own armed forces.
And top priority is more submarines.
So, Peter Overton decided to venture below the waves, to see just what it takes to join this elite group of underwater astronauts. And believe us, it was the ride of Peter’s life.
PHOTOS: Peter Overton goes below the sea onboard a submarine
INTRODUCTION - PETER OVERTON: It hardly sounds like the most enticing job. Cramped, smelly, no sunlight, working around the clock for weeks on end. But on the upside, there's loads of money, and adventure galore. Interested? Well I'm talking about a career in submarines. And right now - your navy needs you. You see, our entire region is in the midst of a massive arms race, fuelled by the rise of economic superpowers like China and India. It's a prospect that's so alarmed our Prime Minister, he's just announced plans for a dramatic expansion in our own armed forces. And top priority is more submarines. So, I decided to venture below the waves, to see just what it takes to join this elite group of underwater astronauts. And believe me, it was the ride of my life.
STORY - PETER OVERTON: MATT BUCKLEY: Standby mark 48 - attack.
Master contact to 'Warramungu'.
PETER OVERTON: This is deadly serious - deep below the waves, totally cut off the outside world we're being hunted by two warships armed to the teeth.
MATT BUCKLEY: 5,500 yards, one contact visual FFH. Master 2 'Warramunga', unchanged, broadport - down!
PETER OVERTON: For Matt Buckley, commanding HMAS 'Collins' in the heat of an exercise it's as good as it gets.
MATT BUCKLEY: Ok, Peter, this is it. The man-o a man-o ship vs submarine - two frigates out there. they're looking for us - we're down here, looking for them. We've got some torpedoes and we want to get them on the targets.
PETER OVERTON: I've just signed up to one of the most mysterious jobs in the world. The 60 crew of this Australian Collins Class Submarine can never tell their partners where they go or what they do. The only certainty is that they will spend months silently, secretly plumbing the vast black depths of the world's oceans. So you're an astronaut, aren't you - that's what you're like?
MATT BUCKLEY: The astronauts of the deep, maybe. Yeah, except we got torpedoes!
PETER OVERTON: And just like astronauts, this work is intense and very dangerous. So before stepping on board the 'Collins', every submariner has to complete the gruelling and, quite frankly, terrifying survival course.
SUBMARINER: We're gonna burn you and drown you. That's basically the nuts of today.
PETER OVERTON: For my emergency training, the scenario is as bad as it gets. A ferocious fire rips through several compartments. It's 250 degrees celsius and you're trapped? As the temperature and tension rise I feel my breathing getting shorter and faster... ..and I want out. I've had enough. But the Navy hasn't finished with me yet. The sub's not only burning, it's just been hit by a torpedo. And we've got to stop this freezing flood. In just a few seconds, this sub can fill up. I feel helpless against the enormous force of the water with nothing but timber wedges to plug the holes. But all is lost. We must abandon the boat.
SUBMARINER: OK, Peter, head forward for me please. That's good. Protect your stoll charging connection at all times.
PETER OVERTON: That's my lifeline?
SUBMARINER: That's your lifeline.
PETER OVERTON: I'm now clambering into the sub's emergency escape tunnel. The situation has become so dire my only chance of surviving is to escape the submarine. This survival suit is extremely claustrophobic and very uncomfortable. I have got to get out through a hatch and then, hopefully, to the ocean surface. This is the moment any submariner fears but the moment they must all be ready to face. Finally, waterlogged and singed - I'm ready to go to sea. Or as ready as I'll ever be.
MATT BUCKLEY: The Southern Ocean is right out there. You've done your training back at the submarine school.
PETER OVERTON: Hope I remember it all.
MATT BUCKLEY: I hope so too, because you'll be driving this afternoon.
PETER OVERTON: Really?
MATT BUCKLEY: Oh, yeah.
PETER OVERTON: Commander Matt Buckley is one of the Navy's top skippers. At just 36 years old, he's been in charge of the 77m HMAS 'Collins' for two years. But this is his last voyage before heading ashore to drive a desk. Are you more comfortable on the surface or deep under it?
MATT BUCKLEY: I think... I think ultimately, you know, it's best to be under the water because then we can get on and do what we're. you know, our real job is.
PETER OVERTON: And the real job is safeguarding our vast coastline. We'll be patrolling somewhere off Western Australia putting this billion-dollar boat through its paces in top-secret war games.
XO: Ship control, dive the submarine!
BRETT STRICKLAND: Diving now, diving now.
PETER OVERTON: In a matter of minutes, we'd all but vanished - our last link to the world above our periscopes.
XO: Stand clear, raise attack!
PETER OVERTON: The 60 crew immediately swing into the rolling roster of watches - six hours on six hours off. If not on duty, they're resting, eating or grabbing what little exercise they can on this jam-packed boat.
MATT BUCKLEY: I think that they're all adventurers. I think they all want to do something that's a bit off the wall, a bit different. There's almost a fate worse than death, I think, to be, you know, lashed in an office for the rest of your life.
PETER OVERTON: To give you an idea of how every square inch of this sub is used, this is my bedroom. About a dozen of us bunk in here with a payload of torpedoes and harpoon missiles just above our heads. But my quarters are spacious compared to the bulk of the crew like Leading Seaman Brett 'Stricko' Strickland.
BRETT STRICKLAND: Six people live in here, Peter, it feels pretty cramped but there's plenty of room.
PETER OVERTON: Why did you become a submariner?
BRETT STRICKLAND: I feel like I'm doing something for the country as well as myself. We're always out there just letting other countries know that, yeah, we're here, we've got this capability and if you stuff with us - we'll stuff with you, yeah. We'd give them a good whack, I reckon.
PETER OVERTON: But the Navy is struggling to attract and hold onto the likes of Stricko. Of its six Collins Class Subs, there's only enough crews to keep three operational. And with China and India fast becoming military superpowers, Prime Minister Rudd has announced plans to expand our own armed forces, especially the navy. All of which means, we'll need even more sailors.
MATT BUCKLEY: There's no doubt that we need to get more people in. We can meet our commitments now but we need to get those people in through the bottom end.
MARTIN SMITH: I want you to explain to me what you can see down the back there.
PETER OVERTON: Young Mick Cronin is one of the precious few that the Navy has attracted through lucrative pay packets and the promise of further bonuses for sticking around.
MARTIN SMITH: What's this manifold for?
MICK CRONIN: It controls the main bilge function, main ballast.
PETER OVERTON: First though, he's got to pass the gruelling submariners qualification memorising every bit of this boat and how it works.
MARTIN SMITH: If you don't know what these things are - you won't pass your board, you won't get our dolphins, and you wont be part of the big club the big boys club.
PETER OVERTON: Putting Mick through his paces is Petty Officer Martin Smith. He's been a submarine engineer for 18 years and is still holding out against lucrative outside job offers. Has the bait been dangled in front of you from the mining companies or the oil companies?
MARTIN SMITH: It has. In some cases, it's been offered at double my wage overnight to be poached outside the industry but I feel that the camaraderie's not there.
PETER OVERTON: Not to mention the thrill of the chase. Up in the control room it's battle stations. And this is what these guys live for.
MATT BUCKLEY: We had two warships come past us - two frigates. One of them, the 'Warramunga' has broken off and were now in a scenario where we have to attack him before he attacks us.
PETER OVERTON: On the ANZAC frigate 'Warramunga', they've got exactly the same idea.
WARRAMUNGA CAPTAIN: Lets go find this submarine.
SUBMARINER: Aye sir! The intention is to detect and attack.
PETER OVERTON: Back on the sub, we're all but invisible. Sitting just below the surface, even the frigate's sophisticated sonar has trouble finding us. And we've got the advantage, haven't we? The stealth, the secrecy?
MATT BUCKLEY: Well, that's right, until we get located we got advantage. But once we get located, he's got the speed and the manoeuvrability to make our life very difficult. So the game can change very quickly.
PETER OVERTON: How is your pulse rate at this time?
MATT BUCKLEY: It starts to get a little bit elevated.
PETER OVERTON: HMAS 'Warramunga' is in our crosshairs.
MATT BUCKLEY: OK, Pete, that's our target. Have a look!
PETER OVERTON: And Commander Buckley's finger is on the trigger. Ready to fire a dummy shot from the sub's torpedo tube.
MATT BUCKLEY: XO, Captain, final target set up and shoot.
XO: Final target set up and shoot. Aye, sir.
PETER OVERTON: And what sort of torpedo could they put onto you?
MATT BUCKLEY: Yeah, they've got a lightweight torpedo. But they're still quite effective, certainly enough to ruin your day.
PETER OVERTON: Ruin your day?
MATT BUCKLEY: Yeah.
XO Fire five tube!
SUBMARINER: Fire five tube! Master 2 update. Master 2 - 175 port!
MATT BUCKLEY: Right, he' off! He turned around and he' making a dash for it right now.
PETER OVERTON: So is he trying to outrun the torpedo?
MATT BUCKLEY: He is, and he' not only trying to outrun it he's trying to confuse it by his manoeuvre.
PETER OVERTON: You're smiling. What's going on on the bridge of the 'Warramunga'?
MATT BUCKLEY: Yeah, they're probably going into a fairly intense sort of reaction at the moment, I would say.
SAILOR: Torpedo! Torpedo! Torpedo! Bearing at 210 relative.
PETER OVERTON: Intense alright.
SAILOR: SLT - attack PETER OVERTON: It's all over bar the shouting. These sailors know if it was the real thing, these could well be their last moments. Each torpedo from a Collins Sub packs 1.5 tonnes of high explosives and just take a look at what they can do. But not so long ago, the Collins Class was written off as a dud - too noisy and plagued by computer problems. But a $1 billion refit has ironed out the bugs and now these Australian-built boats can hold their own against the latest generation subs being launched across Asia.
MATT BUCKLEY: These are great submarines and I believe this crew with this submarine we would hold ourselves in very good position and if ever we did have to go in a conflict. We are right up there with the best in the world.
PETER OVERTON: This sub is ready to go to war at a moments notice - stocked with fuel, ammunition and food for potentially months on end. But the one thing they can't take with them is family.
ZORRO: That's probably the hardest part about this job is missing the family. The rest of it, the cooking side of it, everything else, that comes easy but the family - that's the worst.
PETER OVERTON: Tell me about your family?
ZORRO: I'm married with two kids. Sorry.
PETER OVERTON: Perhaps because of the tug of family this remains a young man's game.
PETER OVERTON: And, as for Mick Cronin? Well, his folks can be proud of him... He's got his submariners dolphins - his badge of qualification, on the very last day at sea.
MARTIN SMITH: Make sure you wear them with pride.
MICK CRONIN: Thank you, sir.
PETER OVERTON: And so our mission draws to a close. After a week at sea, deep below the surface - sunlight and fresh air has never felt so invigorating. Matt, you must never get sick of this feeling?
MATT BUCKLEY: No, its always amazing to surface and feel the fresh air. Even better to come back to your home port after a while away. It's always a great feeling.
PETER OVERTON: And at last, we step ashore. From the adventure and adrenaline of life at sea back into the arms of loved ones.
MATT BUCKLEY: When you walk across the brow and you get to hug your family again for the first time is... it's a wonderful feeling.
PETER OVERTON: How are you going to go when you're back onshore and you know you're not going back to sea?
MATT BUCKLEY: There is a feeling of sadness in having to leave this crew. You wouldn't trade ten years in a luxury mansion for a day in command at sea in one of those things, you just wouldn't do it.
PETER OVERTON: Going exploring into worlds that have never been seen?
MATT BUCKLEY: Yeah, it's great fun.