CANBERRA – It may be that Canberra’s decision, announced Tuesday, to purchase a fleet of 12 French submarines to replace its aging Collins-class submarines will prove to be the right outcome arrived at by a messy process that is bound to leave bruised feelings in Tokyo.
There were three equally compelling considerations at play in the decision on the next-generation submarines: the submarine that best met Australia’s distinctive defense requirements; the need to manage alliance and bilateral relations with Washington, Tokyo, Berlin and France; and the wish to generate employment and create-cum-sustain domestic defense manufacturing capability. It remains to be seen if the decision to go with the French option will create more irritable dissatisfaction than domestic and international recognition that it was the correct choice.
The announcement caps the most important naval acquisition decision for Australia’s defense industry in 30 years. The deal is worth 50 billion Australian dollars and the submarines will be the most potent weapon in Australia’s military armory. Most, if not all, of the submarines will be built in Adelaide using Australian steel. The first of them are scheduled to be commissioned in the early 2030s and they should be in service into the 2060s.
Announcing the decision in Adelaide, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said it would generate an additional 2,800 Australian jobs. The technical advice to the Cabinet’s national security committee was that the French bid would best meet Australia’s unique requirements, as a geographically isolated, maritime trading continent-nation, of force-projection, deterrence and sea denial. Half the world’s submarines might be operating in Australia’s maritime region by 2035, according to Defense Minister Marise Payne. Australia was looking for long-range submarines that are quiet, hard to detect, can remain undisturbed for extended periods of time and have advanced sensor technology to detect other vessels.
For Japan the deal was principally strategic; for France and Germany it was essentially commercial. In partnership with a consortium led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Tokyo — the one-time front-runner — offered an evolved version of its 4,000-ton Soryu-class submarine. To accommodate Australia, the submarine would be 6 to 8 meters longer to provide additional fuel and battery space for increased range, and to fit the taller Australian crew. Germany’s Thyssenkrupp bid to build a 4,000-ton diesel-electric submarine of a new design and technology, and a digital manufacturing model for Australia. France offered a 4,500-ton conventionally powered version of its 4,700-ton nuclear-powered Barracuda submarine, using an advanced pump jet-propulsion system significantly quieter than a propeller, making the submarine much harder to detect.
Constituencies that want more public resources directed at dwindling public and social services do not believe that the case for submarines has been made persuasively. They question the need to buy expensive naval toys that have not fired a shot in anger since 1945, when more hospital beds, for example, are required around the country on a daily basis. They are also apprehensive about cost overruns and costly delays in project completion.
A second group remains puzzled and angry that the option of buying nuclear-powered submarines “off the shelf” from America — the Virginia class being the most favored — seems to have been ruled out of consideration from the outset, for ideological reasons of hostility to nuclear propulsion. Although technologically noisier (and thus easier to detect by enemy vessels), they might have had big advantages in cost ($3.7 billion instead of the French $4.2 billion each), range (important for force projection in far-off contested waters), at-sea underwater endurance and durability. Moreover, they could have entered service a decade earlier. Ironically, the winning bid is a scaled-down version of the French nuclear-powered submarine.
A third group favored the Japanese bid for broader strategic-political reasons. Washington is believed to have backed Tokyo’s bid strongly as a means of strengthening the Western alliance in the Pacific, promoting interoperability and helping to integrate naval assets across the Pacific as part of the coordinated response to the rising assertiveness of China.
Within this group, a subgroup would have been neutral on Japan’s bid to begin with, but believes that once then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave the nod to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the political cost of walking away from Tokyo is unacceptably high. This is especially so because the Abe government has been left politically exposed, having gone out on a limb to meet demands from Canberra and Washington to reinterpret its constitutional prohibitions quite radically to beef up defense cooperation.
Turnbull says he and Abe remain committed to “the special strategic partnership” between their countries and also to the “strong trilateral strategic engagement between Japan, Australia and the United States.”
Abbott was forced to open the bid to international competition after a rebellion by his party members of parliament from South Australia who feared the loss of their seats in the economically struggling state whose naval shipbuilding industry would collapse. “The decision was deeply regrettable,” Defense Minister Gen Nakatani is reported as saying. “We will ask Australia to explain why they didn’t pick our design.” The lack of a military export tradition, culture and reputation seems to have badly damaged Japan’s bid. Against this, it should be noted that Beijing is bound to be relieved that Japan’s path to remilitarization by stealth, even as a “normal” country, has been stopped, at least for the time being.
In the end the government was not prepared to pay the biggest political cost of all, which is domestic electoral consequences of any decision that laid waste to still more manufacturing jobs in the state of South Australia. It is not coincidental, from this point of view, that some key parliamentarians in the ruling coalition are from that state and could have faced serious pressure from rival candidates in the general election expected to be held on July 2.
To condemn the decision for putting base domestic political calculations ahead of military efficiency and broader strategic considerations is to ask politicians to stop acting like, well, politicians. But there is also a deeper argument.
Globalization has worked to enrich a constantly shrinking elite now derided as the 1 percenters. A new Oxfam report released in January showed that the combined wealth of the world’s 62 richest billionaires is equal to that of half the world’s poorest people.
As domestic manufacturing capacity has been gutted and jobs shipped overseas by the millions in a succession of industrial countries, anger has swelled and politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have ridden the crest of the popular backlash. Ignoring the alarming growth in inequality is to court serious social unrest and political peril down the line.
The pleased and relieved state Premier Jay Weatherill said the decision confirms South Australia will have a high-tech naval shipbuilding sector for decades to come as the state transitions from the old to the new economy. And Australia as a nation will achieve substantial self-reliance capability in maintaining, sustaining and upgrading the future submarines.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.