4 October 2016
SYDNEY – Australia's next-generation submarines development project faces an uncertain future after a substantial information leak from a contractor overseas and strikes by government employees at home.
The Australian government last Friday announced it had selected major U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin for the task of integrating combat systems in the planned new submarines. With a systems integrator finally in place, the vessels' development can finally get underway. It is "an important step in the development of Australia's regionally superior future submarines," Defense Minister Marise Payne said on Friday.
But the announcement also highlighted delays that took place during negotiations, as the selection came a whole five months after Canberra had chosen French shipbuilder DCNS for their design.
The delay appears to be the result of major security concerns arising from an information leak at DCNS, who won the bid over Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, and leading German defense contractor ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems.
A local news report revealed the leak of classified data related to Scorpene class submarines DCNS designed for the Indian navy, including stealth features and underwater performance capabilities.
The Australian defense ministry subsequently asked the company to improve information security.
A source said the time taken to strike a deal was the result of having to take extra security measures after scandal.
"The Americans were reluctant to work with Germans or French in the first place," the source said, adding that the leak made them even more unwilling to accept the deal, and that led to a drawn-out process of creating an information security system that met the U.S. company's standards.
Meanwhile, in late September, work related to the safety and design of the submarines stalled as about 40 naval engineers, architects and technicians at the defense ministry staged a week-long strike "against the degradation of technical capacity in the Defence Department," according to the Professionals Australia union. The strike also targeted a "future frigate program, the offshore patrol boat program and the replacement of a vital naval refueling vessel."
The members warn that budget and payroll cuts may bring an end to the submarine program due to a skills shortage, and called on the government to improve working conditions.
Civil servants have staged a prolonged labor battle, with the negotiations at workplaces including job placement, welfare and tax offices totaling over 1,000 days.
The submarine project has become a favorite target for unionists as it attracts public attention.
David Smith, director of Professionals Australia, told The Nikkei that the union may take further action in the coming weeks.