For years, Australian officials have hinted that the answer to their submarine prayers would be a deal to give them access to Japan’s boats.
Large, long-range, ultra quiet and packed with advanced eavesdropping gear, Japan’s submarines rank among the finest conventional subs in the world.
That’s key for Australia, which has one of the world’s most challenging requirements. Most nations use their conventional submarines as relatively local defense and intelligence gathering tools. Canberra needs subs that have vast range to get from Australia to distant operating areas before starting their missions.
Australia effectively needs a nuclear submarine, but since it won’t develop one for political reasons, it will — again — have to develop a one-off design for its unique needs. Canberra wants a dozen subs valued at more than US $33 billion.
Fortunately, the Japanese design is closer to the mark than anyone else’s. There are other candidates, including Sweden’s new sub design, but Australian officials and analysts note that given the political fallout over the Collins class — which was based on a vastly enlarged version of a successful Swedish design that became problem-plagued in part because of Canberra’s domestic industrial requirements — Australia would find it difficult to again turn to Sweden for new subs.
Still, a transfer of cutting-edge Japanese submarine technology to Australia would be good for both countries at a time when China’s sweeping territorial claims and increasingly dangerous tactics are rattling the region.
It would deepen the strategic relationships between two of the region’s major powers and increase a critical reconnaissance and strike capability as US spending declines.
And despite grumbling from some in Japanese industry over parting with their technology, the deal will help reduce the cost of Japan’s subs, which are high because they supply only one customer: their own government. The deal also would get Japanese industry into the international arms market that Tokyo has avoided since the end of World War II.
Japanese firms are also skittish because they fear China may retaliate against their commercial interests. That’s a factor, but given China is using its economic might to bully Japan, remaining deferential may no longer be an option.
To succeed, Australia is going to have to avoid mistakes it made with the six-boat Collins class, which are good boats but have been plagued with maintenance problems because Canberra demanded as much as possible be made domestically. That meant sometimes giving work to inexperienced suppliers that produced only a handful of components on what was a limited production run.
This time, Australia must use as much proven content as possible, no matter the origin of the parts.
Second, it has to get realistic about some high dollar requirements, such as Tomahawk vertical launch tubes that are so expensive that even Britain — which has a penchant for shooting them — avoided designing them into its new subs. Even America wants to move away from the complex technology in favor of the Virginia payload tubes, a giant multimission tube that can carry weapons, special operations gear or underwater vehicles.
This is a complex project that will take years to realize, but a vital one for the security of the region. Indeed, it could become a platform for international submarine cooperation, improving interoperability and ensuring that China’s rage would have to be directed at all sub producing nations instead of just one.