It’s not hard to make sense of reports that a Japanese submarine is now in the forefront of the government’s mind as it turns its attention to replacing the Collins class. After all, looking around the world, the only two conventional submarines that come close to meeting Australia’s demanding requirements are our own Collins and (possibly) the Japanese Soryu class. And of the two, only one of them is still coming off an established production line.
None of the European submarines on the market have the range, endurance and habitability qualities required. While there are good reasons to think that the European design houses could help us with design work on a larger more capable boat, they’d be starting well behind the Japanese in terms of proven delivery.
And newspaper reports have the Soryu option at $20 billion—seemingly a ‘bargain’ compared to ASPI’s estimate of $36 billion for a local program, although that figure was predicated on a 4,000-ton boat designed to meet high performance specs. Defence’s most recent public statement showed that the project now has more realistic performance goals: a submarine with the range, speed and endurance of Collins, but with better sensors and better stealth. The cost and risk profile would decrease commensurately.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the government is impatient. The whole future submarine project was badly side-tracked by the 2009 Defence White Paper, which aimed for the moon as far as submarine capability was concerned. Years were lost working on high risk options that are now off the table. If a quick decision is a high priority, and revised performance levels are acceptable, then the Soryu starts to look attractive.
But it’s not clear how urgent the decision actually is. When Mark Thomson and I looked at the timelines for a future submarine developmental program, a capability gap seemed inevitable unless the life of the Collins class could be extended well into the second half of next decade. Publicly at least, Defence has said there’s no reason we can’t do that, although we have no idea of the cost.
Collins’ lifetime willing, there’s still a lot to be said for competition. The German firm TKMS—well established as an exporter of submarines—also pitched a price of $20 billion for a 12 boat build (video) at our conference back in April. Likewise, the French and Swedish submarine builders (the latter now in the hands of Saab) would like a crack at the project and might well be able to match or better that figure. Testing the market is the only way to know the actual price for sure.
In any case, a decision to opt for a Japanese submarine should be contingent on three major factors. First, the submarine must have the characteristics we want. At least based on open-source data, that’s not obviously the case. For a start, it’s not clear that the Japanese Navy operates submarines at long range for extended periods—the sort of operations that have been the mainstay of the Royal Australian Navy submarine fleet for decades. So any deal done with Japan to source submarines will need some careful government-to-government, navy-to-navy and engineer-to-engineer work done behind the scenes to ensure that what we’d get would be fit for our purposes.
Second, despite sometimes being characterised that way, this wouldn’t be an ‘off-the-shelf purchase’. We mightn’t want all of the options that Japan prioritises for their mission set, and there’s a long-standing and strong preference for American combat and weapon systems. Those would need to be integrated into the Japanese design—and submarines certainly aren’t ‘plug and play’ systems. Again, due diligence is required. As Gumley’s Laws remind us, MOTS + MOTS ≠ MOTS, and ‘Australianised MOTS’ is an oxymoron.
Third, it’s not all about the acquisition. While it’s not widely appreciated, the main failings exhibited during the Collins-class experience weren’t design or construction issues with the boats—those weren’t better or worse than other major construction projects, and they’d been largely sorted out by the end of the build. Rather, the main problem was the through-life support arrangements. That’s evidenced by the Coles review, in which essentially all of the key findings related to the management arrangements put in place—and which were manifestly inadequate for the task. Regardless of where we source submarines, we’ll have to support them properly. That means that any arrangement with Japan would have to be robust enough to provide parts and engineering support both in Australia and in Japan for decades to come.
For all of those reasons, a decision mightn’t be as imminent as some of the recent reporting suggests. The government is clearly attracted to what looks to be a good fit to our requirements, and which would help deepen an increasingly important security relationship. But it also knows that it has some homework to do before signing up.
Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. This article is an expanded version of an opinion piece that appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 10 September 2014. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Pacific Fleet.