Australia sees sense in subs

Finally, Australia has narrowed the field of bidders to one for its Sea 1000 Future Submarine requirement for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

Following a competitive evaluation process (CEP), DCNS of France edged out ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems of Germany and a Japanese consortium, according to an announcement by Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull in Adelaide on 26 April.

This has got to be one of the longest sagas in Australian defence acquisitions and, now, we’ve finally made it to the start line!

The French company has been selected as preferred international partner for design of the submarines. Australia wants 12 boats, and the estimated AU$50 billion (US$38.5 billion) price tag will make it the country’s most expensive ever defence acquisition.


The CEP was supervised by head of the Future Submarine programme, RAdm Greg Sammut, and general manager submarines, retired US Navy RAdm Stephen Johnson. All contenders had to submit options for a complete build, hybrid build and wholly foreign build.

The Sea 1000 project has seen innumerable twists and turns. Even up till last week TKMS was supposed to be in pole position, before the lead reverted to DCNS. If it had been a horse race, it would have been an engrossing contest.


Initially the Japanese bid had gained major traction thanks to former prime minister Tony Abbott, who seemed to take a shine to the Japanese and their Soryu-class submarine. However, at Shephard we were pretty sceptical about this offer as it was extremely risky to opt for a partner with no experience in defence exports.

Saab, with its recently acquired Kockums shipyard were excluded early on, despite them having potentially the least riskiest option and experience of working in Australian. Some of the blame for issues with the RAN’s existing Collins-class boat have been laid at their door and there are some within the Australian Defence Material Organisation (DMO) that have long memories, which is why the Swedish company were left out of the running.

Based on that Collins experience it was paramount that the DMO choose a submarine provider that had the least amount of risk, which was why, despite significant media coverage touting the Japan option, it was never a serious choice, which was the reason Shephard believed that a European solution would win out.

That Japan was not chosen has come as a surprise to some experts and media commentators who seemed to have put more weight on the strategic imperative to create closer links between Australian and Japan feeling that this would trump industrial and technical requirements.

The DCNS design is the Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A, a diesel-electric version based on a nuclear-powered submarine. Some 97m in length, it will displace more than 4,000t when submerged. The submarines are all to be assembled at the ASC shipyard in Osborne, South Australia using local steel.

Canberra said the project would ‘directly sustain around 1,100 Australian jobs and a further 1,700 Australian jobs through the supply chain’ as ‘part of our plan for the jobs and growth of the 21st century’.


The prime minister held up the prospect of ‘immense’ economic flow-on effects. ‘The bulk of the work will be done here’ in Adelaide, he said. Interestingly, then, French media reported the DCNS victory will mobilise 4,000 workers for a six-year period.

The submarine supply chain will stretch across Australia, France and the US, for the combat management system will come from the latter.

A news piece by the RAN said, ‘This decision was driven by the French bid’s ability to best meet the unique capability requirements. These included superior sensor performance and stealth characteristics, as well as range and endurance similar to the Collins-class submarine.’

For example, it will use pump jet propulsion instead of ‘obsolete propeller technology’, according to DCNS. This will be a technological challenge as a nuclear propulsion system is converted into something conventional. The French shipbuilder boasted it would possess the most advanced sonar ever fitted to a conventionally powered submarine. Quick-access tech insert hatches will permit upgrades to be inserted over time too.

Canberra added, ‘The government’s considerations also included cost, schedule, programme execution, through-life support and Australian industry involvement.’


Defence Minister Marise Payne commented, ‘National security has been the number one driver of this decision. It reflects the fact that we are a maritime-based trading nation and both our national and economic security are linked to the maritime environment of our region.’

Discussions with DCNS will begin on commercial details, after which the design of the Future Submarine is expected to commence this year. The first vessel will become operational sometime in the early 2030s, and they will serve on till 2060 and beyond.

The Australian government thanked the losing bidders for their high-quality proposals, though the decision in favour of the French design was ‘unequivocal’.

However, Japan in particular is aggrieved over its loss, especially considering positive assurances that seem to have been given by Abbott.

Japan has little experience in exporting military equipment or defence technology, which probably counted greatly against its Soryu design. Clearly, Japan’s promise of a greater strategic alliance with Australia just didn’t cut it as reason enough to opt for the Japanese platform.

Ironically, a Soryu-class submarine of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) was in Sydney recently for a naval exercise with the RAN. However, perhaps knowing what lay ahead, the submarine had slipped its moorings by the time the Sea 1000 announcement was made today.

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