The Buzz

Why Doesn't Australia Want Japan's Submarines? (Some of Best in the World)

As the dust settles on Japan’s unsuccessful bid to sell its Soryu-class submarines to Australia, Tokyo has a lot to think about. The failure in Canberra was Japan’s second strike in its politically-led push to export its homegrown weaponry.

The joint bid by the Japanese government on behalf of two defense heavyweights — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries — lost out to a conventionally-powered variant of France’s Barracuda-class nuclear submarine. Germany was also in the running with its Type 214.

Australia wants 12 new long-range, non-nuclear submarines to replace its current six Collins-class boats starting around 2030. The program could cost more than $15 billion.

While Tokyo’s hopes of selling Soryus to Australia and P-1 maritime patrol aircraft to the United Kingdom have been dashed, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dream of a healthy defense export market survives— but only if Japan can learn from its failure down under.

The Soryu is a solid, proven platform. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force has operated its fleet of — so far — eight Soryus for seven years now. The boats are a known quantity, but that didn’t really matter. Australia didn’t want an off-the-shelf submarine. Rather, Canberra demanded significant changes to whichever boat it ended up buying — whether French, German or Japanese.

Among some of the changes the future submarine project demanded were a longer service life than Tokyo’s standard 20-year requirement, greater operating range and the integration of equipment and armament than the Collins-class subs already carry.

All three bids required significant changes to the platform. French and German companies, long major players in the global arms market, are accustomed to meeting a prospective customer’s demands. Japan, a new weapons-exporter, is not.

A more transparent Japanese bid might have helped reassure the Australian public that Tokyo was capable of doing the job. Tokyo’s personality-driven, government-to-government sales channel seemed slow to catch up to Australia’s changing political environment.

French shipbuilder DCNS outflanked the Japanese bid by responding to Australia’s needs and engaging the media. Tokyo and Canberra largely kept the Soryu offer under wraps, creating the impression of underhandedness and aloofness.

This may not have sunk their bid in the eyes of Australian officials whose main concerns were cost and capability, but Tokyo’s poor media-relations certainly made the Japanese sub option less politically viable.

A Sure Thing:

Japan’s bid in the Project Sea 1000 Future Submarine program owes much to a burgeoning Australian-Japanese strategic relationship founded upon their mutually strong ties to the United States and their shared concern over China’s regional ambitions.

Prime Minister Abe’s government lifted a longstanding post-war ban on defense exports in April 2014. This is part of his larger political campaign to reorient Japan as a “proactive contributor to peace” —his euphemistic rebranding of a post-Gulf War trend that has seen increasing Japan contributions towards international security at an appropriate commensurate with its position as a leading political and economic power.

A healthy military export market could greatly help Japan’s leading defense firms. By generating business abroad, companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries could drive down per-unit costs, invest in increased capacity and enter deeper international collaborative projects.

For the government, this translates into lower purchase and lifetime costs, better equipment and healthier competitive bids.

In July 2014, Abe visited Canberra to sign an defense science and technology agreement with his Australian counterpart, Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The two leaders announced that their national defense research bodies would cooperate in the areas of marine hydrodynamics.

But Abe did little to hide the direction of this research. “Technology derived from this field of research can be applied to a wide range of vessels, including submarines,” Abe told The Australian.

In the month before Abe’s visit down under, Australian defense minister David Johnston became the first foreign minister to inspect a Soryu submarine —Zuiryuthen in port at Yokosuka. In May 2014, Johnston had called the Soryu “the best conventional submarine in the world.”

Johnston emphasized that the Australians were looking at European platforms, too. But by September 2014 — following visits by Japanese government and defense industry officials — Australian newspapers reported that a deal worth between $15 and $20 billion was imminent.