Australia Inches Closer to Japanese Submarine Deal

Published Jul 9, 2014 10:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

Australian Defence Minister David Johnston hailed the signing on Wednesday of an agreement with Japan as “an important milestone”. The agreement will deepen bilateral defense science and technology cooperation.

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed the agreement in Canberra during Abe’s visit to Australia. “This is an important milestone in the Australia-Japan defense relationship, and an integral part of the broader efforts to strengthen our strategic partnership,” said Johnston.

The agreement will facilitate deeper bilateral defense technology cooperation, and the first project will be the Marine Hydrodynamics Project, an important topic in relation to designing a submarine’s hull to ensure its low noise, stealth capabilities and to improve propulsive efficiency. 

The sharing may not be all one-sided. Scientists from Australia have invented sound-absorbing hull and mast tiles that absorb the radio-wave pings sent out by searching sonar sets. Japan is also said to be interested radar technology developed in Australia that has proved to be effective at shooting down incoming supersonic missiles.

Currently the Japanese constitution prevents that country from taking military defensive action on behalf of allies, but Abe is looking to change that to allow for the concept of “collective self-defense”. Consequently, allies might be more inclined to assist Japan if needed. Australia and Japan have already agreed to work together on submarine design, and this change in policy is viewed as contributing to a growing alliance between the countries. 

Australia may ask Japan for help in designing a new class of submarine or may consider buying complete submarines from Japan. Australia’s previous government had promised to build 12 submarines in Adelaide for a total cost of around $40 billion, the country’s most expensive defense project. However, the Abbott government elected in September last year may downsize that and is said to be considering other options.

Of-the-shelf European submarines have been rejected in the past for being too small and lacking in range for Australian conditions, so Japan’s Soryu class are now an attractive prospect given the willingness of Japan to engage with Australia on the project.

“The language being used is unprecedented in terms of speaking of the special relationship, the depth and breadth of the friendship and their preparedness to share sensitive information with us,” Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop told The Australian.

However, Australia still claims to be in discussions with other countries including Germany, France, the US and Britain. “This is not the only option available to us at this stage. It’s one of a number,” Johnston says.

The ability of any Japanese submarines bought by Australia to operate with the US fleet of nuclear submarines will be a significant factor. Any new Australian submarines are likely to include the same combat system and torpedoes as the US Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines and near-silent propellers developed in the US.

If Australia bought foreign off-the-shelf submarines it would be a serious setback for the local shipbuilding industry. However, after delays and cost overruns in the Air Warfare Destroyer project, the government has already chosen to build a new series of naval supply ships in either Spain or South Korea.