Why we need to talk about Option J
6 Jul 2015|
Japanese Soryu class submarine

Like the operations of submarines themselves, current Australian policy on submarine acquisition seems opaque, with the surface troubled by hints of turmoil down deep. There’s little clue as to why the Government is so wedded to Option J, the purchase of Japanese submarines, an attachment some in the Department of Defence don’t seem to share.

It has been assumed that Option J is preferred because that’s what the US wants. Just last month, ASPI’s Graeme Dobell wrote that ‘the PM really wants a Japanese boat’ without explaining why.

In February, Hugh White outlined some broad strategic difficulties with the rush to Option J, noting that no existing sub meets Australia’s requirements and that the Soryu sub is already superseded. Any existing design must be modified, making our contractual relationship with the designer one of the most critical and risky elements of this process. This is a relationship that will have to work well for decades.

I have written elsewhere about the hazards of not building on lessons learned from the years of working with Sweden on Collins class subs, including that restrictions on intellectual property mean that sensitive technical data can’t be used with other designers. And there are still big questions about how much and what kind of technical data Japan will be willing to share with us.

A completely new design will be needed from Japan and, according to their accounts, will take at least ten years. That’s a big ask for a nation that has never exported defence tech before. It appears the Japanese design architecture is a generation behind Collins and two generations behind current European work. This is because Soryu subs, with their attractive teardrop shape, are evolved from the US Navy Barbel class designs of the 1950s and 1960s (only three of these were ever built). Modern submarines are now cylinders with a carefully shaped forebody and afterbody to achieve nearly the same result hydrodynamically but with a much less expensive production method.

Important technical considerations arise from a conservative approach to sub design. Unless the Japanese move from fixed welded decks to the more modern ‘floating’ decks slid onto huge resilient mounts, their subs will be more expensive to build, noisier, and have greater vulnerability to explosions, as the mounts soak up machinery noise and isolate crew and equipment from shockwaves.

On 4 June it was reported that the former commander of the Japanese submarine fleet, Masao Kobayashi, cast doubt on the ability of the ASC shipyard to build Soryu class subs. It’s true that ASC is set up to build Swedish designs, not Japanese ones, although they could be adapted. However, Japan’s two shipyards, Mitsubishi and Kawasaki, are both fully engaged in building Japanese boats. Where will the spare capacity needed to build boats for Australia come from? Does Japan propose to build another shipyard and train up more workers? If so, why not do that in Australia?

So, what process should the Abbott government follow? We should select at least two competitors to continue to develop a fully-costed, tender-quality design, with a production schedule, and then make a choice. This will take time but shouldn’t slow things down (and by the way, eight appears to be the new twelve in sub numbers, given the amount currently budgeted).

Another issue for the government to consider is the role of submarines in a future where the seas are likely to swarm with ever cheaper, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). We need to think of how submarines might act as a kind of underwater aircraft carrier.

In May former US submariner and aide to Chief of Naval Operations, Bryan Clark, was interviewed on ABC Lateline about the challenges of the near future ‘transparent ocean’, in which new detection technologies will force far-reaching changes in how submarines are used:

So we need to think about submarine design in terms of the ability of the submarine to be a mothership or to be the host or command-and-control platform for a large group of unmanned systems as opposed to the submarine being an independent platform that operates on its own without any other platforms along with it. So it changes the design of the submarine. They may have to be larger. They may have to incorporate a lot more communication equipment to be able to communicate undersea using a variety of communication methods that are available [emphasis added].

Clark was asked if Australian military planners had been in touch to discuss how the ‘transparent ocean’ issues above would affect design and purchasing decisions for our Future Submarine. Clark said he hadn’t heard from anyone in the Australian Government. Given we’re looking for our next-generation subs to be operating in the waters of the future as far out as 2070 we need to make sure that our design specifications allow us to meet plausible future challenges.

This is what makes the lack of transparency in the process so troubling; so far there have been no signs that the Government grasps the issues related to Japanese submarine design and innovation. It’s critical we factor in the ability to innovate at the design stage and into the future, to ensure we don’t waste billions or end up with the submarine equivalent of coal-fired power stations.