Australian defense minister says the country needs submarines capable of operations at a long rangeRob Taylor, Wall Street Journal, Mar 25
CANBERRA, Australia – Australia’s government has signaled the military will be spared from cuts amid mounting budget pressure on spending, defending plans to spend A$50 billion (US$39.39 billion) on powerful new submarines as a bulwark against instability in Asia.
A fleet of eight to 12 conventionally-powered submarines would need more range and armament than the country’s current aging fleet of six submarines when they came into service next decade, Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said Wednesday, with firms from Germany, Japan and France to compete on a contract to be decided this year.
“To the average Australian taxpayer this may seem to be a huge price to be paid for a capability that may never be used in anger,” Mr. Andrews told a conference on which submarine may suit Australian requirements.
“We need submarines capable of operations at long range over extended periods. Australia’s future submarine must give us a significant capability edge in our region,” Mr. Andrews said.
Like other countries in Asia, Australia is urgently looking to replace its submarine fleet amid worries over Chinese muscle-flexing in territorial disputes. Over half of the world’s submarines will be in Asia by 2030, as Australia’s neighbors, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, modernize their militaries and look to hedge against instability by building undersea fleets.
Australia’s plans, though, have been complicated by sharp political differences over whether the submarines should be built at home to safeguard advanced manufacturing skills
and shipbuilding jobs, or whether the government should look to save money buying boats built overseas.
The country’s Labor opposition called Wednesday for cross-party agreement on what will be the country’s largest ever defense purchase, calling for the submarines to manufactured in Australia at a cost of up to A$50 billion for construction and future maintenance.
Australia’s choice of submarines is being closely watched by key ally the U.S. Current U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey said last month during a tour of the country that Australian submarines allowed the U.S. to free parts of its own undersea fleet, already under challenge from newer Chinese and Russian designs.
Both the Pentagon and Australian military planners hope the conservative government commits to building 12 boats, as first outlined by the country’s former Labor government in a 2009 strategy planning blueprint that pointed directly to the strategic challenge posed by China’s rise, before being blunted in the face of anger in Beijing.
Mr. Andrews said the government remained committed to lifting the current A$29 billion defense budget to 2% of GDP by 2024, up from 1.8% currently. Australia is also boosting its air force with at least 72 new stealth fighter aircraft, missile warships, amphibious landing ships and armored vehicles.
The government last month announced a 10-month competitive evaluation process for diesel-powered submarines that will weigh Japan’s 4000 tonne Soryu class submarine against Germany’s Type 216 design and a conventionally powered version of France’s 5000 tonne Barracuda nuclear submarine, manufactured by DCNS.
The Japanese are thought to be front-runners after the country’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott reached a deal last year to strengthen security and trade ties, although the Soryu’s builders – Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. – aren't attending the submarine-planning conference.
Mr. Andrews said Australian industry involvement in the submarine project would be a fundamental consideration when evaluating competing bids, along with interoperability with U.S. weapons and combat control systems – potentially a challenge for Japan.