France to give us sleek black shark sub

In a vast shed at the French port city of Cherbourg, the new Barracuda nuclear attack submarine is in the final stages of construction.

By Max Blenkin, AAP Defence Correspondent

It’s design is close to how Australia’s new subs will appear – a sleek black shark which will be the world’s most advanced conventionally-powered (non-nuclear) submarine with technology more complex than the space shuttle.

It will be built almost entirely in Adelaide.

The French nuclear Barracuda weighs 4700 tonnes and measures 99.5 metres. Australia’s version, named the Shortfin Barracuda, will weigh 4500 tonnes and measure 97 metres, substantially bigger than the 3100-tonne, 77-metre Collins they will replace.

It will feature some very advanced equipment, especially the pump jet in place of a conventional propeller. It will produce a thousandth of the detectable blade noise of some older French nuclear subs.

So what does this intriguing device look like? It’s still not clear. When Australian reporters visited Cherbourg in February, the pump was shrouded in dark plastic, shielding it from observers.

The Shortfin Barracuda will feature other advanced technology. Conventional optical periscopes – a staple of all submarine movies – will make way for fully electronic surveillance and attack periscopes. Rather than yelling “up periscope”, the commander will observe potential targets on a display screen in the control room.

Builder DCNS – or Direction des Constructions Navales Services, which is majority owned by the French government and defence company Thales – is offering a familiar diesel-electric propulsion system, featuring lead-acid batteries.

It will steer clear of air independent propulsion and – at this stage – lithium batteries, which it regards as not yet proven safe for use in submarines.

“De-nuking” the design is no trivial technical challenge. The reactor, about the size of a Smart car, and its shielding, steam turbine and back-up diesels will make way for six large diesels.

There will be a large bank of batteries. A major design change will involve creation of a large tank around the rear hull for diesel fuel.

When the federal government launched the Competitive Evaluation Process at the start of last year, France was a relative latecomer, after Germany and Japan.

That, plus the seemingly daunting technical challenge of converting a nuclear design to a conventional boat, meant the French bid weren’t taken completely seriously.

Indeed, DCNS deputy chief executive Marie Pierre De Bailliencourt says the Australian government and defence force only accepted that their’s was a serious bid after former defence minister Kevin Andrews and defence chiefs visited the DCNS yard at Cherbourg to view the first new Barracuda-class under construction.

DCNS might not be familiar to Australians but it actually has strong links with the nation.

The company, which can trace its shipbuilding heritage back to the 16th century, is now 64 per cent owned by the French government and 35 per cent by Thales, parent of Thales Australia, our number three defence company once known as Australian Defence Industries.

Over the years Australia has also used plenty of French defence equipment including Dassault Mirage jet fighters. Supply ship HMAS Success is a French design. Collins submarines use French Thomson sonars and Sagem inertial navigation.

It’s likely Germany and Japan could have provided a perfectly-acceptable design.

But DCNS was able to convince the competitive evaluation process and cabinet that it could provide an advanced design at low risk because it had done it before.

In complex defence equipment projects, risk can mean many things but typically technical problems resulting in delays, cost blowouts and a finished product which doesn’t work as well as promised.

Recent Australian defence history is littered with problem projects, some abandoned (Seasprite helicopters) and others fixed at substantial cost and years of delay (Collins subs, air warfare destroyers).

Australian politicians and admirals would rather never again see a screaming “Dud Subs” headline, as appeared in the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1998, highlighting manifold problems with Collins subs and tainting the boats ever since.

DCNS may not have built as many conventional subs as German contender TKMS but it has built plenty and of a diversity of designs. It’s the only contender company constructing both conventional boats, for among others Malaysia, India and Brazil, and nuclear boats for the French navy, including attack subs and four Triomphant-class ballistic missile boats.

Successive Australian governments have ruled out acquiring nuclear-powered subs, though plenty of analysts say nukes, with their superior range and endurance, are precisely what Australia needs to patrol far out into the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

DCNS pitched the Shortfin Barracuda as a stepping stone to a nuclear capability, should a future Australian government opt to head down that path.

The company also pitched the benefits of enhancing Australia’s strategic links to France, overlooked by many commentators, enthralled by the potential for cementing ties with Japan at a time of escalating rivalry between the US and China.

France has military forces in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and is an active partner in the fight against Islamic extremists in the Middle East and in Africa, which neither Japan nor Germany can claim.