09 September 2014

Australia Nears Deal to Buy Up to 10 Japanese Submarines

09 September 2014

A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces diesel-electric submarine Soryu is seen in this undated handout photo released by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces. (photo : Reuters)

CANBERRA, Australia—Australia is close to buying up to 10 submarines from Japan for as much as 20 billion Australian dollars (US$18.7 billion) in a move that would turn the north Asian country into a weapons exporter for the first time since World War II.

The deal, which senior defense officials on Monday said they expect to be signed this year, risks stoking regional tensions since it positions Tokyo as a major guarantor of Australia's security as relations between China and some of its neighbors, including Japan, remain strained.

A purchase of Japanese submarines would breach a promise by the government before last year's elections to build a new fleet at home to help support the nation's struggling ship builders. On Monday, Australia's prime minister, Tony Abbott, said his government wanted to support the manufacturing industry, but not at the expense of national security.

"The most important thing is to get the best and most capable submarines at a reasonable price to the Australian taxpayer," he told reporters. "We should make decisions based on defense requirements, not on the basis of industry policy."

Toru Hotchi, director of the equipment-policy division at Japan's Defense Ministry, said on Monday that "since Japan and Australia have reached an agreement concerning the transfer of defense equipment and technology in July, we are cooperating in various aspects." He declined to say whether that included submarines.

Australia sees a submarine fleet as necessary to protect the country's vast maritime borders, as well as to defend sea lanes vital for its raw-materials exports, and to patrol some of the world's largest offshore oil-and-gas projects.

Canberra has for some time expressed a strong interest in buying Japan's Soryu-Class stealth submarines to replace its own aging Collins-Class fleet of six boats, which face rising maintenance costs as they approach the end of their working lives.

The 4,200-ton Soryu, or Blue Dragon, is the world's largest diesel-electric submarine, jointly built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. The vessels are driven by an ultraquiet air-independent propulsion system that allows them to operate underwater for almost two weeks at a time.

The Australian-built Collins are among the world's biggest diesel-electric submarines and have a longer range, but have been plagued over their 18-year lifespan by issues concerning noise and reliability.

A decision to buy the Japanese submarines this year would come sooner than defense analysts had expected, given that the Australian government is slated to publish a major defense-strategy blueprint early next year.

While competing French and German submarines hadn't yet been completely ruled out, several senior defense figures said that a decision on the Japanese vessels gained momentum after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's July visit to Canberra, aimed at strengthening military ties amid China's regional muscle-flexing.

"The exact details haven't been finalized," one of the officials said. "But it's very close—before the end of this year. The Japanese are strong favorites."

The Soryu submarines can travel for up to 11,000 kilometers (6,835 miles) before having to return to base. That is less than the Australian government had originally hoped for, considering Canberra's wish to safeguard shipping routes through disputed waters in Asia, where China has recently jousted with Vietnam and the Philippines.

One option Australia has is to shift its submarine port-and-maintenance facilities to the northern Australian city of Darwin, closer to other countries in Asia, from Perth and Sydney where they are currently situated. Such a base could also give better support to visiting U.S. nuclear submarines, as Canberra looks to deepen security ties with its closest ally.

It was unclear whether Australia would buy off-the-shelf boats built solely in Japan. Maintenance and possibly some fitout work would be carried out in Australia.

"What we need is the right submarine for Australia that works from the start and [is] affordable through life," a spokesman for Defense Minister David Johnston said. "We didn't achieve either of these objectives with Collins."

Japanese military contractors are taking their first steps toward selling weapons abroad since Mr. Abe relaxed an export ban, a politically sensitive shift in the country's postwar pacifist defense policy that has angered neighbors including China and South Korea.

Tokyo has also been in talks with India about the sale of Japanese US-2 amphibious aircraft, which can be used for civilian maritime-rescue operations as well as for military purposes. Even under the new policy, Japanese contractors will be restricted from selling to governments involved in international conflicts, and to countries that intend to re-export military hardware.

A spokesman for Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces said Japan was paying ¥64 billion (US$609 million) for each Soryu submarine. He declined to discuss possible submarine exports.

(Wall Street Journal)

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