Today the Nikkei featured an article (日) that raised once again the possibility of Japan transferring the technology underpinning the prized Soryu submarine to Australia. The article did not offer much additional detail about how the process from here is likely to unfold, although it did frame the technology transfer as part of a supposedly mutual desire to balance against Chinese naval activities. It nevertheless suggests that defense officials are still considering the plan and that the chances are good that something will come out of the process notwithstanding any domestic or international backlash. The main issue for the Japanese side likely revolves what level of information and access to provide to the Royal Australian Navy.

As for the back story, the process appeared to be initiated in May 2012 when a senior Australian official inspected the Soryu at the MSDF’s Kure Base in Hiroshima Prefecture. Then in June 2012 the issue was further discussed during a visit to Australia by Admiral Masahiko Sugimoto. Soon after that in July 2012 Rear-Admiral Rowan Moffitt, head of the Future Submarine Program, and Dr Alexander Zelinsky, the Chief Defense Scientist, traveled to Japan to further inspect the Soryu. Then in September 2012 Defense Minister Stephen Smith confirmed that Australia was indeed considering at least the submarine’s propulsion systems as part of a technology deal.

All things being equal it would seem like this deal is likely to be done as it offers strategic benefits for both sides. However, both sides may still need to be somewhat flexible as the two sides have bottom lines that may stand in the way of deep collaboration. First, the Australian side will demand that the subs be built in Australia to enhance Australia’s shipbuilding industry centred on Adelaide, as well as to keep Australian tax dollars and jobs onshore. While Japan in December 2011 relaxed its arms export restrictions, which has allowed this deal to be considered in the first place, these restrictions were however ostensibly relaxed to allow Japanese defense manufacturers to engage in the joint development of sophisticated weapons systems with other partners. A simple one-way transfer of technology was not necessarily envisaged, and in any respect, the technology that gave birth to the Soryu has been nurtured over the last 30 to 40 years in Japan and the Japanese government, MHI, and Kawasaki are not likely to let go of the full suite of technologies and design specifications without considerable benefits being extracted in return. If Japan was unable to extract any offsets from the transfer of the technology then it might get cold feet at the last minute and back out of the deal. More likely is that the two sides might only come to an agreement on a partial transfer, perhaps of the propulsion/AIP-related system technologies only.1 This would still be a big deal nevertheless, especially coming on the back of similar hardware-related collaborative developments in the UK-Japan defense relationship, and with something similar with India surely not being too far away.

Extra: The Sydney Morning Herald article above provides a few quotes worth emphasizing that illustrates the closely guarded nature of technology as well as its possible strategic and tactical suitability in light of Australia’s defense goals:

 ”The Japanese submarine is out there, but it’s an enigma,” said Steve Ludlam, the chief executive of the Australian Submarine Corporation in Adelaide, likely to be a local partner in the new project. A predecessor, Hans Ohff, said: “We know more about Russian submarines.”

“They [Japan] have got a similar-sized submarine, in fact a larger submarine, with what would appear to be an extremely competent propulsion system,” he said. “Where is our problem area? Propulsion system. No other nation builds submarines of that size. They do. They’ve cracked it. Even if I was only going to buy their diesels, their main motor and their generators, I would still be in front. So engage with them collaboratively in sharing with them the more sensitive end of acoustic signatures and other stealth forms would be in good shape.”

1To be sure the propulsion system is composed of these engines:
Kawasaki 12V 25/25 SB-type diesel engines (2)
Kawasaki Kockums V4-275R Stirling engines (4)
Electric propulsion motor (1)

As noted below, for the AIP component of the propulsion system the original licence and components are from Kockums, but KHI builds the completed products and delivers them to the shipyards.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
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