Within the space of a few weeks the Abbott government has presided over a shake-up of the options for a fleet of submarines to replace the ageing -Collins class. While an evolved Collins class was a short-price favourite at the end of the Labor era, an almighty spat between the Swedish government and German industrial giant Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems means a German design could now fall over the line. The nuclear option remains off the table despite the US indicating it would be amenable to an Australian approach on the Virginia class submarines. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s enthusiasm for the Japanese Soryu class submarine – one of the most advanced diesel electric submarines on the planet – has also thrown a fresh option in to the mix. Australia is looking for a vessel of about 4000 tonnes, armed with land attack cruise missiles and capable of performing long-range intelligence and surveillance. Officially, Defence Minister David Johnston says all four approaches to the purchase of new submarines are still on the table and to be considered as part of the release of a new defence white paper by April next year. The former Labor government pared back the options to either an updated Collins or a new design but the Coalition re-embraced two others – an existing off-the-shelf design only slightly modified to Australia con-ditions or an existing design more -drastically modified.

Senator Johnston also threw grave doubt on both the need for 12 sub-marines and the price tag of up to $36 billion at a submarine conference in Canberra in April, when he said the number 12 had never been justified. “There has been a lot of speculation on whether we need 12 boats,’’ Senator Johnston said. “Let me make it clear that my primary focus is not on -numbers but on the capability and availability of boats required to meet the tasks set by the government.”


Senator Johnston has also described the Japanese submarine as the most capable conventional submarine in service and closest of all contenders, including European boats, to meeting Australia’s needs. It has been reported that Japan might be willing to sell -Australia the 3500-tonne Soryu. Certainly Australia and Japan are expected to sign a defence technology and sharing deal as part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo's policy. But defence sources play down the prospect of Japan selling Australia an entire submarine and suggest it is more likely some of the systems aboard the Soryu could be incorporated into whatever design the Abbott government opts for.

Were Japan to sell Australia a fleet of Soryu submarines, it would be the biggest arms sale since Tokyo relaxed restrictions two years ago and would also presumably sacrifice jobs at Adelaide-based ASC. But such a sale would require the alteration of Japan’s constitutional restrictions on self-defence imposed after World War II and it would ratchet up tensions in the region, incurring the wrath of China. The dispute between the Swedish and German governments, which threatens the “evolved Collins” approach spilled onto the floor of a submarine conference in Canberra in early April after retired Swedish Navy Rear-Admiral Göran Larsbrink of the Swedish government purchasing agency said it had been a mistake to sell Swedish submarine builder Kockums to Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems and the Swedes should reacquire it. Sweden has become increasingly angry, accusing Thyssen Krupp of sidelining Kockums, which the Germans acquired some years ago, in favour of its own subsidiary and German sub-marine builder HDW. The Swedish government owns the Kockums intellectual property for the Collins class submarines and a defence source suggests that unless the row is resolved it effectively rules out the evolved Collins option.


Sweden has now turned to defence giant Saab to build the next generation of submarines for its Navy. Saab has poached some of the workforce from Kockums and is making an aggressive pitch for the Australian project.
But defence sources suggest Saab’s disadvantage is that it has not built a submarine. Kockums was excluded from an initial global design search by the former Labor government. None of the existing submarines offered by European submarine builders were considered large enough or as having the endurance for the long-range patrols required by Australia, which is why the European off-the-shelf option was ruled out by former defence minister Stephen Smith.
Both political parties are committed to assembling submarines at ASC in Adelaide despite ongoing delays and budget overruns on the $8.5 billion air warfare destroyer project. TKMS-owned HDW is the world’s most successful exporter of diesel electric submarines and it has proposed a 4000-tonne Type 216 submarine – a stretched version of its successful Type 214 for the Australian project. TKMS chief executive Hans Christoph Atzpodien told the same conference the Germans could build 12 submarines for Australia for $20 billion rather than the often-mooted price tag of $36 billion, even while using the Adelaide based workforce. However, one should be wary of accepting price promises from defence contractors, given the propensity for delays and cost blowouts on technically complex projects.

The race is clearly on in earnest.

Source: Australian Financial Review