Australia snubs Japan, awarding giant $50 billion submarine contract to French company

The Shortfin Barracuda. Photo: DCNS.

French defence firm DCNS has been announced as the winner of the contract to replace Australia’s submarine fleet.

Malcolm Turnbull confirmed the awarding of the contract in Adelaide today, saying the recommendation panel had been “unequivocal” in its choice of the French bid over the submissions from the Japanese government and German firm TKMS.

The submarines will be built in Adelaide, with the prime minister saying this morning that the submarine project will create 2800 jobs and adds to previous commitments under the Abbott administration to build dozens of surface ships in projects worth $40 billion.

The decision to award the building contract to DCNS will be a shock to some in the Australian, Japanese and US security establishments following public pressure for Australia to choose the Japanese bid in the interests of regional security.

At the announcement in Adelaide, Turnbull said that the decision on the contract was a “sovereign choice” and added: “Both Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe and I… and our respective nations are thoroughly committed to the special strategic partnership with Japan.”

The DCNS vehicle is the Shortfin Barracuda, a version of France’s Barracuda-class subs. The Shortfin runs on conventional rather than nuclear power.

The Barracuda design proposes a hydro-jet propulsion. Source: DCNS

The Shortfin Barracuda is 97m long and displaces 4,500 tons when surfaced. DCNS claims it will “remain state-of-the-art until the 2060s”.

Dr Andrew Shearer, who was Tony Abbott’s security advisor, argued in a research paper for Washington DC think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies that Australia should favour the Japanese bid.

Shearer told ABC radio earlier this month that “the United States, Japan and Australia are three of the most capable countries in the region in terms of naval power and maritime power and when they work more closely together there’s an effect at the strategic level, for example at the strategic level, cooperation with Japan and helping Japan to develop its defence industry will help to imbed and lock Japan much more closely into the regional security architecture”.

He said closer co-operation with Japan would “make for a more secure and less anxious Japan and that’s very important. And at the operational level, more submarines that can operate together will be more capable of doing the sort of job that needs to be done and then at the industrial level closer cooperation among the three countries means that we’re not duplicating precious resources when all of our defence budgets are under more strain.”

Abbott himself has publicly backed the Japanese bid, saying in a speech in Tokyo two months ago that for Japan, “this submarine deal is strategic; for the other bidders, it’s commercial”.

A strategic naval alignment between the Japanese government and Australia would send an important signal in terms of regional defence posture, as China continues to exert its naval influence through expansion of facilities in the South China Sea.

In March, the Japan Times reported that, under the framework of Australia’s Defence White Paper, Japan appeared to have an “insurmountable lead” over the French and German bids.

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