16 October 2015
JAPAN was a late starter in the battle for the hearts and minds of Australian taxpayers and suppliers with its bold plan to build Australia’s future submarine but it is moving fast to catch up.
A high powered 12-man government and industry delegation travelled to Australia earlier this month in a bid to convince the nation of the merits of Japan’s bid for the navy’s $20 billion future submarine build contract.
It included Rear Admiral Naoto Sato from the Maritime Staff Office, senior executives from submarine builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and it was led by senior government official Masaki Ishikawa.
Japan has lagged behind both Germany and France in the public relations battle for the biggest defence contract in Australia’s history.
From the start of the public blitz Mr Ishikawa dealt openly with all contentious issues including sovereign risk, the fact that Japan had never exported military technology and the cultural and language concerns that have framed the discussions about Australia buying a new version of Japan’s Soryu Class submarine. A full-scale mock-up of the proposed boat was to be named ‘Zero’ but that was withdrawn when the WW2 fighter plane sensitivities were pointed out to the delegation.
These issues have overshadowed the fact that the 4000-tonne Soryu is the world’s biggest and most technically advanced conventional submarine and, unlike its rivals the Endeavour from German builder Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems (TKMS) and the Shortfin Barracuda from French government firm DCNS, is actually operating at sea.
This should be a major advantage in a competition against two ‘paper boats’ but Japan has been unable to capitalise under the Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) that ends in late November.
From there either one or two builders will be chosen to proceed with the job or to a detailed two-horse contest under a formal tender process.
While Germany and France have promised to do just about anything to win the work including creating submarine schools and dual design and sustainment centres in Adelaide and have offered up their most intimate secret technologies, Japan, until now, has been largely mute.
All that changed in Sydney on the eve of the Pacific 2015 Maritime Convention when Mr Ishikawa told News Corp Australia that his country was willing to release ‘100 per cent’ of its submarine technology to Australia.
“Our objective is to have everything available to transfer,” Mr Ishikawa said.
Rear Admiral Sato from the Maritime Staff Office backed his colleague and said that all technologies would be released to enable Australia to build the submarine. However he said some intellectual property would need to be ‘controlled and protected’ by Australia.
The technologies on the table include advanced welding techniques, top-secret stealth capabilities, combat system integration, state-of-the-art high capacity lithium ion batteries and a unique all-weather snorkel system that can gather oxygen for the diesels even during a typhoon.
The plan also includes an option that would allow hundreds of Australian engineers and tradesmen to be sent to Japan for ‘on the job’ training and to work on the mock-up to avoid pitfalls with a first of type.
Mr Ishikawa said Japan was prepared to build all the boats in Australia or the first one at the Kobe shipyard in Japan under Australian supervision.
Japan has built more than 50 submarines since World War 2 and two of its biggest companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries have cooperated to deliver six Soryu Class boats on time and on budget with four more to come.
According to the delegation and to the few Australians inside the Japanese tent the vessels have achieved very high levels of reliability and availability unlike the world’s second biggest conventional sub — the Collins Class.
Three build options have been investigated under the CEP, but a fully Australian build is now favoured by all three bidders.
The competitors have engaged closely with local industry to maximise Australian involvement and the Japanese delegation will tour five states by November to spruik its ‘Australia First’ supplier concept and to meet with up to 100 local firms from Cairns to Brisbane and Sydney to Perth.
“There are many opportunities for Australian companies. We have to create a new supply chain for this new submarine,” he said.
Germany and France have conducted similar roadshows and the new links could open doors to other global supply chains with whoever wins the job.
During his briefings in Sydney Mr Ishikawa was at pains to emphasise Japan’s close engagement with global companies such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Thales. This includes work on the world’s most advanced stealth fighter jet the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Such relationships will be vital in ensuring that the combat management system or the brain, eyes and ears of the submarine is properly integrated into the platform.
All the big players were at the Pacific 2015 Expo and according to Lockheed Martin combat system expert Mike Oliver his company would be happy to work with any of the Sea-1000 platform competitors.
Lockheed will compete with another US giant Raytheon to supply and integrate the future submarine’s combat system and for about $4 billion worth of work.
The Commonwealth has said that it favours the US Navy’s BYG-1 combat management system for the submarines regardless of whether the vessels are German, Japanese or French and built in Australia.
Lockheed supports 98 submarines around the world including 72 US Navy boats.
Integrating the complex electronic systems is a huge task and it was the major technical challenges in the early days of the Collins Class project when another US firm, Rockwell Collins, was sacked after it failed to achieve a workable solution leaving the boats dangerously exposed.
According to Mr Oliver the combat system is a collection of components where the sum of the whole is greater than its parts.
“We have to be careful not to be over ambitious,” he said.
That means identifying risk and ensuring that the system is delivered in tandem with the platform.
To this end the firm will open a laboratory in Adelaide to identify problems and find solutions even before the steel is cut for the first submarine.
“No single company has all the answers and we need to draw on expertise across the board,” Mr Oliver said.
“The key is starting early in the design phase ….to avoid expensive modifications down the track.”