The Hunt for the Shortfin Barracuda



After years of debate and circumspection about the controversial Royal Australian Navy submarine upgrade, a decision has finally been made. The Federal Government will be purchasing 12 Shortfin Barracuda model submarines from French shipbuilder DCNS, which will be built in Australian shipyards.

Why we need to buy them

As outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper, an upgrade of Australia’s navy is seen as crucial to remain secure in an increasingly uncertain Asia-Pacific environment. Particularly with the United States’ “pivot to Asia” and the stationing of marines in the Northern Territory, Australia is being incorporated further into the US alliance. The Shortfin Barracuda - which will be outfitted with a US combat system (built by US firm Raytheon and Lockheed Martin) - will have co-operational capability to reflect the furthering of Australia’s global alliance and network of military hardware. It is also by no mistake that the acquisition of new submarines, and the earmarking of 25% of the defence investment budget for maritime and anti-submarine warfare, coincides with the estimation that half of the world’s submarines will be located in the wider Asia-Pacific region by 2035. Submarine capability can act as a powerful deterrent, increasing a potential intruder's hesitance to enter Australian waters due to a submarine's stealth and undetectable nature.

Additionally, given Australia is geographically isolated and surrounded by vast oceans, the effective defence and patrol of its shores requires the covert and detection capabilities that an upgraded submarine arm of the Royal Australian Navy offers. Indeed, Defence Minister Marise Payne remarked at the announcement of the acquisition that “we are a maritime-based trading nation and both our national and economic security are linked to the maritime environment of our region”.

What we’re getting

So, what are we getting out of the $50 billion submarine purchase?

The 12 submarines are a modification of the Barracuda class nuclear submarine – reportedly the best option to navigate the highly varied conditions, climates and temperatures of Australia’s coast. With a quieter jet propulsion system (rather than the traditional propeller propulsion), the submarines all operate on a diesel electric motor capable of traversing around 12,000 nautical miles, ideal for the significant patrols the ships will be required to make.

Bidding Process

The Future Submarine project has been far from a straightforward process. While it was a well-known secret that Tony Abbott had given Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the implicit nod of approval for the purchase of the Soryu model submarine, domestic pressures pushed the government into adopting a Competitive Evaluation Process for the tender. Opening the contract up to Japanese, German and French tenders, each company had to submit their proposal detailing the costs of both building the submarines entirely overseas and constructing them in Adelaide’s shipyards. By opting to build the submarines in Australia, the Turnbull government has created 2800 jobs, undoing the potentially politically unpopular move proposed by Abbott to have the submarines built overseas.

Japan’s reaction

With Japan having been the initial favourite by the Abbott government, there has been some speculation that the relationship between Japan and Australia may have been damaged in the process. Japan, with its longstanding pacifist constitution, modified their laws around the export of military technology as a way of accommodating the prospective submarine deal with Australia. In light of DCNS winning the contract, a somewhat terse statement was released by the Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani stating, “the decision was deeply regrettable”. In response, Prime Minister Turnbull has played down any souring of relations and reaffirmed Australia’s close relationship with Japan stating “each of us [Abe and I] shared our unwavering commitment to our strong, special, strategic partnership with Japan”.

German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems admitted their disappointment at missing out on the contract, but reaffirmed their commitment and willingness to contribute to Australia’s future naval acquisitions.

Why France?

Despite speculation that the submarine deal gave preference to alliances and strategic relationships, the recommendations from Defence Department were fundamentally based upon capability. Due to Australia’s specific mandate about the abilities of the new submarine fleet, DCNS was the most able to deliver. Several former US admirals weighed in upon the deal and it has been cited as what will be the best submarine in the Asia Pacific region. Having to reach specific parameters of range, stealth, speed and reconnaissance to meet the demands of the Royal Australian Navy’s potential missions, all while not being powered by a small nuclear reactor, the Shortfin Barracuda was the obvious choice.

Joel Paterson is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au for more information.

Image credit: Australian Department of Defence (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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