Cameron Stewart, The Australian
23 January 2016
The US has given top-level assurances to France and Germany that it will remain neutral in Australia’s choice of future submarines, despite claims it wants Japan to win the bid.
Tony Abbott’s former national security adviser Andrew Shearer claimed this week that Washington believed Australia would benefit strategically and militarily if it bought submarines from Japan.
His comments have angered the French and German shipbuilders bidding for the lucrative contract, who want the US to be a neutral player in what will be Australia’s largest defence deal worth between $15 and $20 billion.
The Weekend Australian understands that in the face of persistent rumours that the US favoured the Japanese bid, both the French and German government separately sought and received assurances from Washington last year that it would remain neutral.
US officials and military leaders including US Pacific fleet Admiral Scott Swift have repeatedly stated in public that Washington has no preference for which country wins the three-nation competition.
Insiders say Washington’s main concern is for Australia to buy the most capable and reliable submarine to ensure its long-term ability to work in tandem with the US fleet at a time of a rising China.
But in an article this week for The National Interest, Mr Shearer claims Washington believes Japanese submarines would offer a superior capability for the Aus-tralian navy and long-term strategic benefits across the region.
“Appropriately, the (Obama) administration has been careful not to take sides in the intense competition among France, Germany and Japan to partner with Australia in the development of the new submarine,” Mr Shearer wrote.
“But senior US officials and military officers are in no doubt as to the superior capability of the Japanese Soryu-class and to the long-term strategic benefits to the US and the region of an inter-operable fleet of Australian and Japanese conventional submarines equipped with US combat systems.”
A US embassy spokeswoman said America supported Australia “moving forward with its procurement decisions, but we do not influence Australia’s choice of design partner, nor where or how its submarines should be built”.
As Mr Abbott’s national security adviser, Mr Shearer was believed to have been one of the key voices behind the Abbott push in 2014 to choose Japan to build -Australia’s future fleet without a competition.
Mr Abbott reversed that position under political pressure in February last year, ushering in a three-way competitive evaluation process between France’s DCNS, Germany’s TKMS and Japan.
Although the US says publicly it will remain neutral in the competition, it will take a keen interest in Australia’s choice because of the highly sensitive US technology involved.
Whichever submarine is chosen will be installed with a complex and highly secretive US combat system and US weapons.
The US will also work with the Australian navy to ensure that the new boats are as compatible and inter-operable as possible with the US submarine fleet in the western Pacific.
DCNS and TKMS declined to comment on Mr Shearer’s claims.