Submarines and ships—building, building, building!
2 Dec 2015|


A significant amount has been written about the looming defence maritime mega projects—SEA 1000 (Future Submarine) and SEA 5000 (Future Frigate). Each of these projects has been subjected to intense scrutiny due to the Abbott Government’s seeming original pre-disposition to transfer all manufacturing overseas, and a slow, painful walk-back to a more sensible position for an in-country build. Both of the projects are currently subjected to a Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) as the means to determine the way forward—but the structure and nature of the CEP is vastly different for each project.

In a recent post on The Strategist, Mark Thomson discussed the strategic merits of the Japanese option for SEA 1000, and the potential fallout irrespective of what decision is finally made. The Frigate decision, when it comes, is unlikely to bring such pain to the Government as it hasn’t been subjected to (unspoken and undeclared) previous commitments. SEA 5000 also differs from the Future Submarine in that it unambiguously seeks to institute a continuous naval shipbuilding enterprise in Australia.

What seems to be overlooked in the consideration of these two large and expensive projects is that we aren’t simply buying a platform, or a capability. What’s at stake is the selection of a strategic dance partner for the next 50+ years. As such, the tender evaluation processes and considerations may not apply in the normal way (even though Defence is doing a good job with maintaining probity and transparency for the contenders), and the political aspects of both decisions are likely to be larger than any technical or cost considerations.

If we were to adopt a strategic lens through which to view these competitions, the clear favourite for SEA 5000 would be the UK’s Type 26 general purpose frigate. The other serious contender might be a reworked Air Warfare Destroyer from Navantia due to the ability to build on the hard-learnt lessons from the AWD Project, but this wouldn’t bring the same strategic benefits.

Selection of the Type 26 would utilise existing substantial and mature intelligence links, allow Australia and the UK to plan further enhancements to the ship in a collaborative manner, potentially develop a mechanism for the exchange and cross-fertilisation of design and other project personnel, and enable the RAN and RN to jointly develop tactics and exchange operational information. As both Australia and the UK are members of the ‘Five-Eyes’ community all the above will utilise information exchange links developed over decades, rather than having to implement them. None of the other contenders for SEA 5000 provide such a broad and deep collaborative environment. Such a decision would also draw upon many years of RAN/RN cooperation, including a degree of commonality in ship fighting and crewing philosophies.

The issue of SEA 1000 isn’t so clear cut when viewed through the strategic lens, although the Japanese option would appear to be the winner. The French bid for SEA 1000 recognises the importance of the strategic aspect, and promotes the value of regional cooperation and collaboration. One interesting development in the Future Submarine contest is the recent Prime Ministerial announcement for implementation of a ‘2+2’ strategic dialogue with Germany involving the Defence and Foreign Ministers from each country. Whilst this will deepen Australian-German relations in the longer term, it’s unlikely to influence decisions that are required in early 2016.

Selection of Japan as the strategic partner for submarines would bring strategic benefits and strategic risks. As others have commented, it has the potential to make a clear statement how we see the future strategic makeup of the Western Pacific, how it’s important that we work to ensure that China plays within the accepted international behavioural norms, what sort of future we value, and the importance of Japan in that world as it ‘re-emerges’.

The risky side of the equation is however considerable, and includes the not-insignificant risk of drawing adverse comment and reaction from our most important trading partner. Also on the risk ledger is that this is new territory for Japan, and the domestic appetite for this new, more forceful, world outlook isn’t universally accepted and a new Government may revert to a more pacifist agenda. Given that Japan hasn’t exported military hardware to date, the risks associated with culture, language, corporate management and industrial philosophy cannot be overlooked.

However, the key in both these projects is the strategic benefit of the partner country over the entire journey, not the technical or operational benefit of the specific platform, and my money is on Japan (SEA 1000) and the United Kingdom (SEA 5000).