01 Dec 15. The Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) SEA1000 future submarine programme has formally entered the evaluation phase and news reports are pouring in about the contenders and their strategies. Under the programme, worth up to AUD50 bn (USD36 bn), Australia will replace its current diesel-electric Collins-class submarines from the mid-2020s. Since its conception, the programme has been politically sensitive with Canberra wanting to protect local jobs, and skills of its shipbuilding sector.
The three contenders who have submitted their bids are Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), France’s DCNS, and Japan’s team of with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries. The deadline for bid submission was on Monday, 30 November 2015. The Australian government is now in the process of evaluating the proposals. On February 20, 2015, the Australian government announced that three key strategic considerations would determine the results of a competitive evaluation held between TKMS, DCNS, and the Japanese team. These considerations were that the future submarines would have a similar range and endurance to the Collins class, superior sensor performance and stealth compared to the Collins class, and that the Collins combat system and Mk 48 Mod 7 torpedo would be the future submarines’ preferred combat system and main weapon.
In addition to the technical requirements, involvement of Australian industry will also be a crucial factor amid fears that an off-the-shelf purchase would kill the domestic shipbuilding industry. The bidders have been asked to submit three separate proposals for the current phase: building the submarine fleet in their own country; building the fleet in Australia; and a hybrid option whereby work is conducted in both countries.
SEA1000 programme overview
The submarine programme is touted as Australia’s largest, most expensive military programme ever. The current schedule envisions selection of the design for the submarine by the end of 2015, coinciding with the release of Australia’s defence white paper that some reports indicate would reduce the number of submarines purchased to eight.
The new conventionally powered subs are expected to be capable of launching special forces-operated mini submarines, latest generation torpedoes, and cruise missiles. Another priority for the new submarines will be new-generation air-independent propulsion systems. These allow conventional submarines to stay underwater for longer periods, greatly increasing operational effectiveness. The new submarines will be able to carry a greater variety of long-range weapons, possibly including long-range cruise missiles and short-range tactical land-strike missiles.
The operational capability of the Collins class is still being compromised by crew shortages and a range of mechanical problems. Australia will be sure to apply these lessons that the RAN has learnt and ensure that they are not repeated in the future submarine programme.
Technological: According to Forecast International, “the next-generation submarine will present a key technological challenge for Australia in which close support from the US government and the US Navy will be fundamental to avoid the problems that have plagued the Collins class.”
RAN encountered a range of maintenance issues with the Collins class submarines and the programme has now been classified as a “project of concern” by the Australia Department of Defence (DoD). These problems include the performance of the diesel engines and the electric motors.
Technology Transfer: Although the current proposals include price estimates for offshore construction, this option is extremely unlikely because of the strong political pressure for job creation and protection of local shipbuilding skills. All three bidders have polished their deal by offering to build the submarines in Australia. TKMS has offered to build Australia’s new submarines fleet in Adelaide for the same price as it would in Germany. It has announced intentions to establish its Adelaide operation as a shipbuilding hub for the Asian region.
On 26 November, news reports confirmed that Japan’s National Security Council approved the transfer of sensitive submarine technology to Australia. In addition to joint design and development of the submarine, Japan has reportedly offered deals with regard to maintenance and training.
DCNS opened an office in Australia in 2014 and has proposed to create a further 2900 jobs in Australia if it wins the tender. It has offered an initial block 1A (diesel electric) version of the Shortfin Barracuda submarine in a government-to-government deal, with upgrades to block 1B, 1C and future standards, underpinning a pitch for a long-term bilateral relationship with Australia. DCNS also has a strong start point owing to the presence of Thales in Australia.
A decision on the SEA1000 tender is expected in 2016. It remains to be seen if Australia would stick to this timeframe given the history of procurement delays affecting key defence programmes.