National / Politics

Aussie desire for nuclear option may have sunk Japanese sub bid

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Canberra chose a French design for its next-generation submarine fleet partly because it can easily be refitted for nuclear propulsion by the time the vessels enter service, an influential Australian business daily has reported.

Japan proposed a diesel-powered design based on its Soryu-class sub, which Tokyo believes is one of the quietest in the world.

But Australia wanted the option of converting some of its 12 planned attack submarines from diesel to nuclear, the Australian Financial Review reported on its website Sunday, quoting unnamed political, government and industry sources.

Australia now plans to deploy 12 new submarines starting from the early 2030s to around 2050.

In general, a nuclear-powered submarine is noisier than a conventional one but can cruise underwater much longer without refueling or surfacing.

A nuclear submarine would allow Australia to reach China, the northern Pacific or the western edge of the Indian Ocean, the Australian newspaper reported.

“Cabinet ministers and defense officials have already discussed the possibility of switching from diesel engines to nuclear power part-way through the construction contract,” the website quoted unnamed sources as saying.

On April 26, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that his government had selected a diesel-powered submarine proposed by France’s state-controlled naval contractor DCNS.

The model, a Shortfin Barracuda, is to be based on the firm’s nuclear-powered Barracuda-class sub. Experts have pointed out that redesigning an atomic-powered submarine to accommodate diesel engines is extremely unusual.

Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems and Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries competed with DCNS to win the 56 billion Australian dollar ($43 billion) contract. But neither produce nuclear-powered submarines.

Japan promoted the Soryu-class submarine to boost defense cooperation with Canberra and Washington in the Asia-Pacific region, with an eye to reviving arms exports.

If Japan had won, it would have been the government’s first major arms export deal since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe eased the long-held ban on weapons exports in April 2014.

At a news conference Thursday, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said the Japanese side wanted a “detailed explanation” from Canberra about its decision and was “adjusting schedules” with Australian officials for that purpose.