COMMENT: Today’s announcement of the selection of the French Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A design as the basis for the design of Australia’s Future Submarine fleet is perhaps the most pragmatic of the three options assessed under the SEA 1000 Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP).
The 4,500 tonne Shortfin Barracuda design represents the embodiment of all of France’s knowledge of both nuclear-powered and conventionally-powered submarines into a mature large platform design, whose first-of-class nuclear-powered Suffren is already well down the construction track for a launch in 2017. Overall design and construction risk for Australia’s boat has therefore been substantially addressed, other than the switch to conventional power for which French shipbuilder DCNS has previous experience to draw upon.
This is compared to the German proposal to take an evolutionary paper-design from its traditionally smaller submarine design heritage, and ramp that up to match Australia’s unique requirements for a conventionally-powered 4,000 tonne submarine which it had not previously built, and which was unlikely to ever be operated (as parent) by the German Navy. Add to that the risk associated with all submarines being first up built in Australia, and the German proposal perhaps pushed the Australian Government’s tolerance for optimism too far.
Similarly, the Japanese proposal to offer a further iteration of submarines already in-service for several years with the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force begged the question of whether Australia really could expect to secure a “regionally superior” boat from a vessel whose internationally best practice credentials were uncertain, given its substantive development in isolation in Japan. Although no doubt a capable submarine, the recent visit of Japanese Navy units to Australia for exercises confirmed much of that country’s maritime technology is based on decade-old platforms fitted with weapons and technologies passed on from the United States. So a hesitance on the part of Australian authorities to invest in an older generation submarine that was expected to operate well into the 2050s is understandable.
Against the above, France offered Australia a more contemporary submarine design that will be the recipient of its most sensitive and protected submarine technology, and therefore likely to yield the most lethal conventional submarine ever contemplated by Western nations. To that has also been promised a distillation of technology from France’s nuclear submarine program – including technologies such as pump jet propulsion – something that neither Germany or Japan were in a position to match.
Rather than the progressive iteration of historical conventional submarine designs for export – as in the case of the Germans, and the updating of an older submarine design drawing more on strategic considerations for attraction than real differential capability – as in the case of the Japanese, France has offered Australia a bi-national industrial collaboration that brings with it the transfer of all technology, know-how and resources necessary to achieve operational autonomy and sovereignty in a regionally superior platform that also satisfies local requirements for interoperability with major allies.
Added to the French package is intimate government involvement (and therefore assurance) in the Future Submarine project, not just through majority ownership of DCNS, but also via a detailed technology sharing and industrial cooperation agreement from the French Director General of Armaments (DGA) attached to the original CEP response. All these industrial undertakings were next cleverly integrated with the Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda to ensure sovereign capabilities will be put into place to support the new submarines over their full life cycle.
DCNS was also quick to pick up on the subtle shift of terminology in the new Defence White Paper from a ‘continuous build’ of surface ships, to a ‘rolling build’ for Future Submarines. The White Paper’s introduction of a breathing space – by way of a review in the late-2020s to assess whether the Future Submarine’s configuration remained relevant to contemporary strategic circumstances facing Australia – also saw DCNS proposing successive Block 1B capability developments, and including a latter Block 2A development that could possibly see a reversion to nuclear-powering of the boats should strategic developments and local Australian politics consider that necessary.
Overall, it was likely that if all Future Submarine CEP technical responses had been judged relatively equivalent, then strategic factors – including Australia’s rapidly expanding military relationship with Japan – may have played to the favour of the Soryu boat for SEA 1000. However, this has not ended up being the case, with the Navy recommending a clear technical leader in the case of the French, whose selection Defence Minister Payne confirmed was decided upon solely on the basis of “capability”.
This does not mean Australia has lost out. Twelve new submarines of the Shortfin Barracuda genre will make a major contribution to the combined military deterrence of the US, Japan, Australia and other allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Interoperability is assured through the Government’s mandating of a US combat system.
France is nevertheless unique among European countries in terms of retaining specific responsibilities regarding defence and security in the Asia-Pacific subject to its holding of territories extending across New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and the Wallis and Futuna islands. More importantly, alongside the US, France and Australia are the largest contributors to the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Australian warships are regular contributors to coalition operations in the Middle East, and recently a Navy frigate undertook joint exercises with a French Navy Task Force in Middle East waters, while RAAF KC-30A tankers have regularly been employed to refuel aircraft operating in that area off the French nuclear aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.
Selection of the Shortfin Barracuda and DCNS of France as the preferred design/builder for Australia’s future submarines is a pragmatic choice by the Australian Government, which promises to bring the nation long-term benefits via combining the best of contemporary underwater warfare capability and industrial collaboration opportunities to enhance the long-term economic and national security of Australia.