Australian submarines: Is the Japanese option too risky?
The Australian defence white paper confirmed the intention to buy 12 new submarines to replace the existing six Collins-class boats in the Royal Australian Navy that will be built from the 2030s through to the 2050s.
It stated that the acquisition of the submarines ‘will commence in 2016’ with the announcements of the results of a Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) this year. The industrial options on the table are:
(1) An offer from French shipbuilder DCNS, which is putting forward a 4,500t conventionally powered version of its Barracuda-class nuclear powered attack submarine. This version is known as the Barracuda Shortfin 1A;
(2) Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) new Type 216 design that displaces 4,000t;
(3) And a modified/stretched version of Japan’s existing 4,000t Souryu-class diesel-electric submarine that is in service with the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force and built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
There has been a lot of media speculation that Australia will opt for the latter modified Souryu-class submarine design. It all happened quite quickly and it has been suggested that it is practically a done deal. However, there is a lot of risk with Japan’s offer and there are significant hurdles to jump for this option to get through.
Firstly, Japan is only a recent entrant into the defence exports market. To dive in at the deep end and export something as big as this so soon would a ripe situation for problems to develop. There is not just a need to understand the process of collaborating at an industrial and government level but also an acceptance of significant levels of technology transfer for what is the ultimate weapon at sea.
Secondly the Souryu design will have to be modified. If it was bought off-the-shelf it would be cheaper and pose the least risk, but changing the design and building it in an overseas shipyard will present issues for MHI and KHI that they have not faced before – not just meeting an overseas customer’s needs but ensuring that Japanese and Australian engineers are on the same wavelength.
Third is political. Australia has taken a painfully long time to recognise the Japan is one of its closest allies in the Asia-Pacific region. It was only in the mid-2000s that the government really started to make an effort with Japan and failed to do so previously either because they felt under existing US protection, or because of the cultural differences and hangover from the Second World War.
It is not yet clear that the defence relationship has developed to the point where there is enough trust or people on either side of government that are ready to push this through. New Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is reported to be less keen on a Japanese solution than his Liberal Party predecessor Tony Abbot, so that lack of a push from the top of government could be telling.
Both TKMS and DCNS have decades of experience exporting diesel-electric submarine designs to overseas customers, working with them and building boats jointly and installing different systems o board. They may be able to offer a more attractive deal for work to take place in Australia at state-owned shipyard ASC, in South Australia, which is the most likely place for construction over the Australian Marine Complex in Henderson, Western Australia.
TKMS has also raised the prospect of buying ASC outright if it wins and this raises the issue of the privatisation of ASC that the Australian government has been mulling for quite a while. MHI has also recently announced that it would invest in South Australian shipbuilder, ASC, if it the Japanese solution was to be chosen.
Politics is also the likely cause of the exclusion from the final three of Swedish submarine manufacturer Saab, which acquired local submarine manufacturer, Kockums, from TKMS. This is probably because Kockums designed the Type 471 Collins-class, and the Australian DoD probably blames them for some of the issues they have had with the class ever since.
Ironically Japan’s Souryu-class uses the Stirling Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system, built by Kockums, that allows the diesel-electric submarine to remain submerged for up to two weeks. After excluding Saab Kockums, by choosing the Japanese design it would then mean the company would be included.
All three options present a significant level of risk. From a cynical standpoint, the Australian government could be boosting the potential of a Japanese deal to get DCNS and TKMS to present better, more affordable options and secure investment in its ASC yard to get it into a good position for a sell-off.