Sea Platforms

Australia leaning towards buying Soryu-class subs

15 September 2014
Australia's interest in the Soryu class has gained momentum following the signing of a bilateral defence co-operation agreement with Japan earlier this year. Source: Japanese Ministry of Defense

Key Points

  • Australian officials are leaning towards replacing the Collins-class submarine fleet with Soryu-class boats bought from Japan
  • The purchase would end submarine construction in Australia and the opposition Labor Party has said it would cancel the deal if it won the 2016 general election

Despite political opposition and apparently contradictory ministerial statements, it appears increasingly likely that Australia will replace its Collins-class submarines with 4,200-tonne Soryu-class submarines built in Japan.

Amid intense media speculation about such an agreement, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on 8 September that a decision on replacing the six Australian-built, 3,400-tonne Collins-class submarines under Project Sea 1000 would be based on capability, value for money, and regional rather than industrial policy.

"The most important thing is to get the best and most capable submarines at a reasonable price for the Australian taxpayer," he said.

The current life-of-type of the Collins fleet runs from 2024 to 2031, although there are no apparent issues to prevent some or all of the class having service life extended by up to 10 years.

Several sources have put the cost of 10 Japanese-constructed submarines at about AUD20 billion (USD18.3 billion), compared with an estimated AUD36 billion for an Australian-designed and built replacement.

On 9 September Defence Minister David Johnston said the bulk of what he described as "the Australian work" on future submarines would be carried out in South Australia - a remark which an authoritative source subsequently clarified as referring to maintenance, not construction.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten meanwhile accused Abbott of putting Australia's national security at risk by considering the acquisition of completed submarines from Japan, and pledged to cancel any such agreement should the Labor Party win the next election - due in August 2016.

Although a decision on Sea 1000 had been anticipated as part of a Defence White Paper due to be published in mid-2015, there is now speculation that selection of the Japanese option could be announced as early as the Group of 20 leaders' meeting in Brisbane in November.

In April Johnston described the Soryu class as the platform closest to Australia's requirements and repeated earlier remarks about Australia's interest in the type's drive train.

"Obviously we must talk with them, and we are, on what they can do to help us going forward with our programme," Johnston said. "We would be foolish not to ask."

In June he became the first minister from a foreign country to inspect a Soryu-class boat. The following month Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to enhance bilateral security and defence co-operation, including the transfer of military equipment and technology.

Discussions are understood to have then moved rapidly from drive train technology to a full build in Japan. This was driven on the Australian side by concerns about cost and schedule, linked to the capabilities of Collins-class constructor ASC and its performance in the over-budget, behind schedule Air Warfare Destroyer programme.

An unconfirmed bid in association with ASC by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), owner of German submarine builder HDW, has reportedly offered Australia 12 4,000-tonne Type 216s for AUD20 billion or less. However, none have been built, making its selection unlikely.

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