Saturday, February 14, 2015


It's possible to justify choosing any of the new submarine bids. 
The Swedish/Australian one? We did that last time and it worked. 
The French? Has the potential to go nuclear. 
The German? Worth pursuing. 
The Japanese? Possibly, but not if it locks us into an alliance with Tokyo; will be built in Japan; and if the Japanese won't explain any of the advantages publicly. 
How many hulls in this picture?
We'd be better off without one, as I suggest in this piece for the Canberra Times . . .


"You're assuming, of course, that the Japanese submarine actually is double-hulled."
David Gould sounded exasperated. The Englishman has been working for years on our new submarine project, and this week he was giving a briefing to an Australian Defence Magazine conference in Canberra. The talk sounded, to a layman, essentially the same one he had given to the Royal United Services Institute a couple of years ago, which might explain his apparent frustration. 
But Gould's words seemingly revealed far more than he had intended. He clammed up immediately. It's a pity he wouldn't elaborate further. If this was an accurate, albeit unintentional, disclosure, Gould has inadvertently revealed why our government has no intention of committing to a genuine competition for the new submarine design.
That's because the Japanese are determined to keep their design secret. They won't be revealing any details of their boat. Not to anyone. And they particularly wouldn't appreciate disclosures – like the fact their submarine might be far bigger inside than anyone realises – in the open competition. It would allow the Chinese to understand much more about the capabilities of their submarines than Japan wants.
It also explains part of the reason the United States is so keen we buy Japanese. The US doesn't build conventional submarines and it doesn't have the design expertise. If, however, we buy Japan's submarine this would have the effect of bolting Australia into the new alliance the US is building to combat the growing influence of China. This is the second reason our government is determined not to allow any genuine competitive tender process for the submarine. 
Japan's submarines don't use American sensors or torpedoes – but ours would. Our submariners are good and if they are operating the same vessel as the Japanese fleet it would make servicing our submarines in the North Pacific possible.
The US is keen to tie all three countries into an extremely tight alliance. It doesn't want a shard of light to separate our countries. Getting Australia to use a secret Japanese weapons system would provide extra ballast in the relationship.
Direct links between Japan and Australia would serve its purpose nicely. This would become merely another way of securely reinforcing the alliance. This geo-strategic nexus is a vital part of the submarine strategy. It isn't a decision about either getting the best boat for our navy or work for South Australians - there are far bigger forces in play.
So forget Senator Sean Edwards' insistence that South Australia is going to get a look in when it comes to building the boat. That verbal assurance isn't worth anything. He has been played for a sucker by his leader.
If you don't believe that, go back to what Gould told this week's conference. He split the construction process into three parts: design, build and "sustainment".
This separation is artificial. Gould insisted on the need for intimate feedback between each phase, which means it doesn't make sense to split the process unless the eventual plan is to go with Japanese construction.
That explains why everyone from Defence and Defence Materiel Organisation has been racking up frequent flyer points jetting off to Tokyo. Adelaide will be left with the scraps.
This, it seems, is what Tony Abbott has his heart set on, because that's the only way of explaining why no details have been released into the public arena to assist informed decision making. 
Rivals are being deliberately ignored, even though they are making every effort to provide information. A German team that visited last week didn't get to meet key people. The French have opened an office here but it seems no one is interested in what they have to offer. And the Swedish/Australian bid?
The Collins class had to be designed from the ground up. Work started on the boats in less than two years and now it's an excellent submarine, which incorporates a lot of valuable lessons. Yet the government appears determined to destroy South Australia's last vestige of manufacturing industry by buying a Japanese boat, made in Japan.
Vital decisions about new submarines have been waiting for years. Unfortunately, our paralysed political process has been unable to put Australian interests first. This is increasing the pressure to buy from overseas. The problem is that Japan has never exported a weapons system like this before and diving in at the deep end might not be the best way to start.
It's worth going back and considering what the objective of the submarine is. Incredible developments in the precision and range of land-based missiles means these can effectively perform many of the roles now of submarines.
They can, for example, sink ships and constrict sea lanes far more efficiently than picket-lines of boats strung out across the ocean.
Japan makes these missiles, and they can be obtained far more cheaply than building submarines. This is exactly the sort of weapons system that it makes sense to acquire – but unfortunately it doesn't have an institutional supporter. The navy, understandably, wants boats.
The only loser from the saga is the taxpayer. And, of course, the South Australian voter. Although they may remember who wrote them off when it comes time for the next election. 


  1. Most subs are not double-hulled. They haven't been for decades.

    Many have a lightweight fibreglass casing on the top, to make the hull flat enough to walk on - and containing various useful things like stowage for dinghies, capstans, lines for mooring etc as well as a cylindrical sonar at the bow. There are often anechoic tiles, or a thin fibreglass or steel shell round the pressure hull to make it smoother, so the ribs don't show.

    The Collins class casing also has the winch and stowage for the towed array sonar, which is why it has a bit of a bulge at the back.

    The casing on top of the single cylindrical hull is visible on this model:

    In larger subs, which have spherical sonars, the pressure hull is a rounded cylinder, with lightweight flooding areas forward containing sonar, missile tubes, ballast tanks etc. Aft, just ballast tanks, communications buoys etc.

    Russian designs that travel surfaced through pack ice are an exception - their outer skin is not a thin shell, but substantial enough to go through ice without damage.

    1. Dear Zoe,

      Sorry about the late reply, I've only just seen your comment.

      You're right of course about the double hulls. The Japanese say they have them so they can travel under the ice of the North Pole. And that's the point. I don't, now, after what Gould said, actually think they do! But if correct (as, again, I think I am) that is a world scoop because the Japanese don't admit they've got so much interior space. The point is, no one actually knows. The other possibility is that they use the space for fuel.

      I think this is the only reason we'd actually be considering the Japanese design.

      But your next point (below) - crewing - is critical, as is range. I reckon there's a great deal we're not being told.

      I'd love to see you. Could you write to me at



  2. Having said that... the main thrust of your article is correct.

    Integrating US equipment with a Japanese hull will be... challenging. Non trivial. Tricky, even.

    The main problem with the Japanese boats will be the manpower needed. We just don't have enough sub crews, by a factor of nearly ten, for 12 boats. 2-3 we could manage, no more.

    As for operating north of the equator - only from US or Japanese bases. They don't have the range to get there, let alone there and back.

    1. Sorry, a late reply again. I'm at Cambridge at the moment and I've been trying to write a book (answering this comment is another way of managing to put off working for another few moments!).
      The more I know about submarines the less I realise I actually understand. Apparently the real story is that the Japanese engines won't work properly in equatorial (hot) waters . . . another complicating issue . . .

  3. Hi Nic and Zoe

    To get a likely feel for how much space likely in Japan's Soryus - here is a 2009 Japanese language video on the insides of Japan's Oyashio class subs . The last of 11 Oyashios was commissioned in 2008 and they are still in service alongside the Soryus. Oyashios are likely very similar to the Soryus.

    Note from 35 seconds into the vid how large the work areas seem - though the sleeping areas look more cramped.The Oyashios have a crew of 70 while Soryus have 65.

    My original post see Submarine Matter's