Cameron Stewart, The Australian
22 October 2015
For more than 150 years a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte on his steed has towered over the small town of Cherbourg on the northwest coast of France as homage to the former military leader for turning it into an important naval port.
But now this pretty seaside town is spearheading a military quest no less ambitious than one of Napoleon’s campaigns.
If France has its way, Cherbourg will partner with Adelaide to help build Australia’s next generation of submarines.
It is a bid that is being pursued with increasing vigour by the French government, which has stepped up its campaign to snare the $20 billion contract, believing it has the winning formula for Australia.
The submarine bid is part of a bigger play by France to assume a dominant role in Australia’s lucrative naval shipbuilding industry for decades to come. French shipbuilder DCNS is not only bidding for the contract to build the navy’s new submarines but is also positioning itself for a likely tilt at building Australia’s new frigates and its offshore patrol vessels, with all three projects worth a combined $60bn.
The potential rewards are so large that France is investing heavily in developing and marketing its Australian submarine bid, to the point that it is no longer considered an outsider in the three-way competition with Germany and Japan.
The parties have until the end of November to lodge their final bids for the future submarine project, known as Sea 1000, with the expectation that the government will eliminate at least one of the bidders by March next year.
The winner will build eight new submarines for the navy to replace the existing six-strong Collins-class fleet from the mid-2020s, in what will be Australia’s largest defence contract since Federation.
Because no other navy in the world operates the 4500-tonne conventionally powered long-range submarines Australia says it needs, each of the bidders will have to come up with a unique design to win the contract.
Japan operates 4000-tonne conventional Soryu-class submarines, but these do not have the range needed for Australian conditions; while Germany’s shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems has not built a 4500-tonne boat before, despite being an experienced exporter of submarines.
France’s challenge is unusual in that it has built 4000-plus-tonne submarines before, but only nuclear-powered ones, not the conventionally powered boats Australia wants.
What DCNS is proposing is a conventional version of its new Barracuda nuclear-powered submarine. To be known as the Shortfin Barracuda, the 4500-tonne boat would use the latest technologies of its new Barracuda fleet, including pump-jet propulsion to replace propellers, which DCNS claims are obsolete.
Its 97m boat, with 60 crew, would also feature hydroplanes which can retract to reduce drag and noise; the most powerful sonar produced for a conventional submarine; and the latest stealth technology provided as part of a government-to-government agreement.
Critics of the French plan say the ability to build a large nuclear-powered submarine does not easily translate to building a large conventionally powered sub because so much of the boat’s configuration needs to be altered.
For example, while there is no nuclear reactor on the conventional boat, space would need to be found for at least three times the number of batteries and for large diesel engines.
Critics argue that changing these configurations presents design risk and potential costs, making the French plan no less risky than those put forward by Japan and Germany.
Alain Morvan disagrees. Morvan is the director of DCNS’s Cherbourg shipyard, which has constructed 107 submarines since 1899. The company builds and exports smaller conventional submarines as well as building the larger nuclear boats.
Morvan says the transfer of know-how from the current Barracuda nuclear submarine program to a similar-sized conventional version of the Barracuda would be relatively easy and would save time and money.
”It is a good idea because you already have the design and the technology so you save time and money,” he tells The Australian at a briefing at the Cherbourg shipyard. “The hull is about the same (and) we want to use the same technology as we do on the (nuclear-powered) Barracuda.”
The Cherbourg shipyard, which employs about 3000 people, is building three of France’s six new Barracuda-class nuclear attack submarines, with the first boat to be completed in 2017.
DCNS deputy chief executive Marie-Pierre de Bailliencourt says her company’s experience in building small and large submarines gives it an advantage over competitors — a comment aimed at the German TKMS, which has not produced a 4000-tonne submarine previously.
When the federal government first announced the nine-month competitive evaluation process for the three submarine bidders earlier this year, France was considered by many to be the outsider.
This was because of a perception, rightly or wrongly, that the US did not entirely trust the French with its most sensitive technologies, given the Australian submarines will be fitted with an American combat system and weapons.
Since then, France has gone out of its way to kill such speculation. It has solicited a formal letter from the US government in which the US declares it is fully supportive of the French bid for Sea 1000.
During a briefing near the Eiffel Tower, DCNS’s de Bailliencourt goes so far as to say that building the Australian submarines would amount to a three-way partnership between France, Australia and the US.
“It is a strategic partnership,” she says. “We are already working closely with the US (and) we are the most active (naval ally) with the US at this current time.”
France has stepped up its military co-operation with the US in recent months, extending its bombing campaign against Islamic State from Iraq into Syria; its aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, will take over command from the US of a major naval anti-Islamic State taskforce in the Persian Gulf in December.
“We have a very close relationship with the US Navy, we are totally interoperable with them and have many missions to prove it,” French Navy chief Bernard Rogel tells The Australian in an interview in his Paris office, sitting in front of a model of the Barracuda.
France hopes the submarine decision will be made on merit rather than politics. It has long been suspected that Washington is quietly supporting Japan’s bid as a means of strengthening the Australia-Japan-US alliance against China in the Pacific.
But the French admiral says the final decision should be one for Australia to make, “and no one else”.
Like each of the bidders, DCNS, which is two-thirds government-owned, has been asked to put forward three options: to build all the submarines overseas; all in Australia; or a hybrid of the two. Since the demise of Tony Abbott as prime minister, neither the Coalition nor Labor is likely to risk seats in South Australia by advocating that the new fleet be constructed entirely offshore.
That leaves only two politically feasible options: having all of the submarines built in Adelaide or having the first one or two built overseas and the rest in Adelaide.
DCNS is providing both options to the government in detail. The first is a hybrid build that it calls “two shipyards as one”, whereby DCNS in Cherbourg and ASC in delaide form one production system that will see the first boat produced in France.
DCNS will train the Australian workforce in France, then move the production to Australia where the rest of the fleet will be built.
“Over 70 per cent of the total project will be completed in Australia and 2900 direct jobs will be created in Australia,” DCNS says.
The company says this hybrid option would allow the first submarines to be delivered to the navy more quickly, which could be important given the serving Collins-class fleet will need to be retired from the mid-2020s.
The second option is to start the project in Australia and build the whole fleet here.
Under this option, DCNS says more than 90 per cent of the total project will be completed in Australia. “This option also creates 2900 direct jobs but delivers submarines to the navy more slowly and at a higher overall cost,” the company says.
De Bailliencourt says labour costs in Australia are up to 40 per cent higher than in France, which is why a pure Australian build would come at a higher total cost to the program.
DCNS has partially built its submarines in overseas shipyards before, for example in Brazil, but it has never built an entire 4000-tonne submarine in a foreign shipyard before.
Under both build options DCNS says it has designed programs for the transfer of technology, expertise and knowledge to Australia to support not only construction but sustainment and upgrades across the expected 35-year lifespan of the boats.
France also has been marketing its bid heavily, as have the Germans, although Japan has been far more reluctant to argue the merits of its case in public.
In April, DCNS Australia was formed to sell the company’s long-term ambitions in Australia.
It recruited as its chief Sean Costello, a well-connected former chief of staff to former defence minister David Johnston, and former BAE Systems executive Brent Clark as director of strategic communications.
Costello and Clark have quietly briefed a large proportion of government and opposition MPs, including frontbenchers and backbenchers, about the nature of the French bid, ensuring France’s position is well understood in the corridors of power.
In its glossy booklet explaining its submarine plan, DCNS notes the Anzac connection between the two countries.
“It is more than 100 years since the Anzac legend was forged in places like Fromelles and the Somme in France, and today Australia and France remain the strongest of allies,” it says.
“Our shared military heritage provides a solid foundation for a new endeavour to further strengthen this time honoured relationship.”
The booklet is titled The Most Advanced Submarine You’ll Never See — a reference to its stealth qualities.
Germany and Japan hope the Barracuda Shortfin is indeed the most advanced submarine you’ll never see.
Whether that is wishful thinking should become clear within six months as the largest and most lucrative defence competition in the nation’s history nears its climax.