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Future submarine choices: more than a one horse race

By Peter Coates - posted Thursday, 11 December 2014


The Abbott Government might announce Australia's future submarine, likely to be Japan's Soryu, following the Japanese elections to be held on December 14, 2014. It makes sense for Australia not to hold a tender if the Government wants an in-production submarine rather than a risky drawing board design. If the unprecedented sale of Japan's Soryu (Plan A) falls through Abbott needs a Plan B. Given Australia's financial situation six new submarines make more sense than twelve.

Many of the following issues are technically complex, but given the $20+ Billion cost the issues need more public discussion. Reading my previous OLO articles on the submarine selection here and here may assist understanding.

The Australian Government's preference for Japan's Soryu is partly based on three aspects that could not be part of any tender process. One is deepening Abbott's friendship with Japanese Prime Minister Abe (like Abbott Abe is a political conservative). Another aspect is the Australia-Japan regional alliance value of purchasing the Soryu. Australia would gain no such alliance benefits in buying submarines from the major European hopefuls (Germany, France and Sweden). The increased interoperability of Japanese and Australian Soryus would be an additional aspect.

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Japanese Political Uncertainty

The December 14, 2014 Japanese election involves at least three levels of uncertainty. First it is for the lower House (of Representatives) where Prime Minister's Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is in a ruling coalition with the pacifist Komeito party. If the LDP loses seats or Komeito gains seats Abe will have a weaker mandate to push through his defence export (Soryu largest item) policies. Secondly, and depending on the election's result, Komeito might break from its conservative LDP ally and ally itself with leftist opposition parties. Thirdly the Japanese electoral rules require the existing Cabinet, including Prime Minister Abe, to resign. Abe then expects to be re-elected by LDP members, as Prime Minister, but that isn't a sure thing.

Australiais unfamiliar with such nuances of Japanese politics even though such politics might impact a Soryu selection, delivery and maintenance process for over forty years. The enormity of the Soryu sale will be a test case for Japanese politics, Japan's constitution and its defence industry as Japan has no major defence sales record.

A German or French Plan B

Japanese uncertainties mean Australia needs a Plan B to buy from European submarine sellers. These sellers have no serious political uncertainties and have proven defence sales records. Problems exist for the European sellers in anticipating what Abbott wants. This uncertainty demands an expression of Australian needs short of a formal tender.

In 2009, at the peak of the mining boom, it was calculated that Australia needed specially designed large submarines. But now we are in a mining trough this seems an unsustainable extravagance. It may well be that the European contenders have anticipated that Australia is still wedded to the 2009 requirements for submarines that weigh 4,000 tons (surfaced). Germany's TKMS has apparently proposed the Type 216 to the Australian Government. France's DCNS has proposed the so-called conventional Barracuda, also called the "SMX Ocean", that apparently weighs 4,700 tons (surfaced). As both submarines would basically be Australia only ("orphan") designs they are handicapped compared to the, in production (for Japan) Soryu. Meanwhile Sweden is offering a larger version of the drawing board design (A26). Sweden built its last complete submarine in 1996 or arguably 2001 if you count the Collins class.

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The tonnage Australia really wants, or is prepared to tolerate, is a pivotal issue. If Australia is prepared to select submarines at the upper tonnage end of European designs then Australia could then make decisions that result in minimal design lags. This would increase the chances that the European submarines are built on-time and on-budget. Australia has practiced flexibility in (apparently) choosing the Soryu, that is less than 3,000 tons (surfaced). Such flexibility should also apply to current designs built by Germany and France.

If Japan's proposed Soryu deal falls through the Australia government might really be after extended range versions of existing German or French submarines. These are Germany's Type 214 and France's Scorpene.

If Australia applied the same design realities of the Soryu Mark 2 to the 214 or Scorpene then lower tonnage would be more reasonable. The new batch of Soryu's (which I call the Soryu Mark 2s) apparently will be without the extra weight of air independent propulsion (AIP) plants. Instead they will rely on new Lithium-ion batteries that have a higher performance than existing lead-acid batteries. Germany and France also appear to be developing Lithium-ion batteries. For the Soryu, 214 or Scorpene lighter Lithium-ion batteries should allow extra diesel fuel to be carried for the extra range required (already 21,000 kms for the Collins).

A vertical launch system (VLS) appears to be absent in the Soryu's and therefore should not be a weight gaining requirement for German and French proposals. Tomahawk cruise missiles can be fired from existing horizontal torpedo tubes. Modified VLS is not required for divers as divers are increasing being catered for in detachable dry dock shelter technology that sits behind a submarine's sail-fin.

Six Submarines Not Twelve

To save many $Billions in purchase, manning and sustainment costs it would be better if Australia aimed at acquiring just six submarines not twelve. This takes into account Australia's tight financial circumstances with many competing demands within and outside the defence budget. A requirement for twelve submarines was an uncosted, minimally justified, extravagance included in the 2009 White Paper (page 70, section 9.3) drawn up under the Rudd Government. There appears to be a historical trend of shooting high in Australian submarine numbers. The numbers of UK built Oberon class submarines proposed for Australia shrank from eight to six (operating 1967-1999). The proposed number of the Collins went from ten, to eight, to six (operating 1996 - present).

The naval budget should not be spread too thinly given that the major new ship acquisitions will need to be maintained. These new acquisitions are the two Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Docks and the three Hobart Class Air Warfare Destroyers. These new ships will arguably double the combat tonnage of the Navy.

Despite the political, financial and strategic uncertainties the Abbott Government needs to make a series of reasonable decisions for the future submarines. By having a reasonable Plan B the political risks of Plan A (choosing Japan's Soryu) can be reduced. Plan B involves existing German and French submarines that are also in production (like the Soryu). Given Australia's rapid naval expansion choosing a reasonable six submarines makes more sense than twelve. Whatever happens a repeat performance of designing a very large "orphan" submarine like the Collins should be avoided.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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