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Strategic Intentions of Our Prospective Next Generation Submarine Builders

This year will see the release of Austalia's latest Defence White Paper and with it, directions as to how many new submarines will be procured for the Royal Australian Navy. The government is set to announce the leading partner in the ongoing SEA-1000 Future Submarines project this year.

The agenda to replace our current Collins class submarines was initially touched upon in the 2009 Defence White Paper under the Rudd government. But progress has been slow and inconsistent. In 2013, for example, Tony Abbott appeared to be set on striking a deal with the Japanese, only to backpedal and announce a competitive tender process months later. Today we know that there are prospective builders from three countries: Germany, France and Japan, who have been invited to submit their bids. But there’s little discussion in the media regarding their strategic intentions.

German firm ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (‘TKMS’) wants to turn Australia into a submarine industry hub for much of Asia, envisaging that countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore could draw on Australia’s high tech maintenance capabilities for their submarines. The company, which is regarded as a world leader in diesel subs, wants to place itself in a strategic position amidst growing military tensions in the region; and it enjoys the support of the German government. On its part, the German government has much to gain from the success of TKMS’ bid. It has recently initiated Industrie 4.0, a project formulated under its high tech strategy to place Germany at the forefront of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. The Merkel government aims to develop Germany’s high tech capabilities by up skilling its industries’ competencies. It calls for the utilisation of flagship projects, such as Australia’s SEA-1000, to gain experience and develop collaborative relationships with key strategic partners.

Naval defence specialist DCNS has the support of the French government in its bid. The company commands worldwide respect as an authority in submarine design and production, albeit having a greater focus on nuclear, as opposed to conventional diesel engines. It wishes to leverage off an already available technology, offering the Royal Australian Navy, the 4,000 tonnes Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A design – a diesel boat based on France’s nuclear model. Similar to its German competitor, DCNS wishes to expand its operation in Australia, having established a domestic subsidiary just last year. The promise of both European bidders to base production in the country align well with the wishes of the government at home given the desire to keep jobs arising from the project in Australia.

The Japanese, for their part, were initially reluctant to commit to base production in Australia until recently. They are regarded as the frontrunner in the process, but unlike their European counterparts, Japanese bidders Mitsubishi and Kawasaki have not had extensive experience in international defence partnership. They have also taken a back seat in the discussion, preferring to allow their government to take lead in negotiations with Australia. The passive stance demonstrates misgivings on the part of the companies. Mitsubishi and Kawasaki hold diverse portfolios. So for them, Australia’s submarines project is not a ‘must have’ given the significant hurdles. For their government, however, this project is an important step towards re-establishing Japan’s presence as a military power in Asia Pacific. The Diet has just voted to change Japan’s pacifist constitution to give the country greater military autonomy. Deeper collaboration with Allies in the region like Australia sends a message to China that Japan will be more assertive in the future. But the move is not without controversy. Not only are members of the public outraged at the constitutional amendment, senior military personnel are also wary about the prospect of selling military technology to Australia – lest some information gets leaked to China.

Understanding the underlying intentions of our prospective strategic partners in the Future Submarines Project is important if we were to ensure that our security and political objectives will align with the interests of our chosen partner. Under Malcolm Turnbull's prime ministership, it has been reported that Japan’s position as a ‘shoe in’, in the competitive tender process, is now uncertain and as far as policy decisions are concerned, “everything is on the table”. The Turnbull government would be wise to take the interests and intentions of the three competitors in the SEA-1000 tender into consideration as it makes the important choice of who is to build our next generation of submarines.

Kevin You is a doctoral candidate and sessional academic at the Griffith Business School, Queensland, Australia.

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Image credit: Horatio J. Kookaburra (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)


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