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Politics

Japan should protect tech secrets in Aussie submarine bid

TOKYO -- Japan's leading shipbuilders Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries are strongly promoting their technological strengths to Australia in a bid to win contracts to build that country's next generation of submarines. Mitsubishi Heavy said that it is considering building all the vessels in Australia, but hurdles remain, such as how to train local engineers in such a short period of time. Management of costs and protection of technological secrets are also major concerns.

Toshihide Yamauchi

     Toshihide Yamauchi, councillor at the Taiheiyo Engineering, a Tokyo-based defense-focused consultancy, discussed how the Japanese camp can prepare for these challenges, in a recent interview with The Nikkei. Yamauchi previously served as captain of the Japanese submarine Setoshio.

Q: Compared to the German and French rivals in the bidding, what are the advantages of the Japanese submarines?

A: The Japanese submarines can dive much longer without having to surface. This is a significant technology. Japan's Ministry of Defense has said it plans to replace conventional lead-acid batteries with more powerful lithium-ion cells, which will enable the vessels to cruise at high speeds underwater.

     The Japanese submarine is as capable in combat as the German boats. Our country is also advanced in combat systems (which can pick out specific sounds of the enemy from surrounding noise and conduct operations based on this information). In addition, Japan has a well-developed supply chain for submarine building. There are companies that can custom-make even a single screw for a submarine.

Q: What are the specific challenges in building submarines, compared to commercial vessels?

A: There are particular difficulties, such as steel plate processing, for example. The inner shell of the boat should be as tough as it can be to resist the high pressure deep under the sea. The work requires skilled welding techniques that cannot be acquired overnight.

Japan hopes to provide high-tech Soryu-class submarines, like the one shown here, to Australia. (Courtesy of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)

     If they were to build the submarines locally in Australia, it would be hard to train engineers there in a short period of time. Sweden built the Collins-class subs for Australia, which are currently in operation, but it failed to fully train local staff to a desired level. A winning contractor should take this lesson into account when it develops training programs for engineers.

Q: This is an extraordinary project worth an estimated 4 trillion yen ($35.3 billion). If a Japanese company wins the deal, will it be able to make a profit?

A: To secure profits, a shipbuilder should conclude a contract by which it can charge all the costs, including additional spending. I assume that the 4 trillion yen will only cover the shipbuilding part. Including the development of maintenance systems and a training program for engineers, the total spending could be double that amount.

     The Acquisition, Technology & Logistic Agency, an arm of Japan's Defense Ministry, together with the shipbuilder, should take these factors into consideration before signing a contract.

Q: The U.S. will be largely involved in the developing and building of the Australian submarine. Are there any concerns about that?

A: The Japanese should be careful about disclosing sensitive information to their partners. A sort of "black-boxing" of information may be required to prevent technologies from leaking to the U.S. and Australian sides. For example, when performing sensitive welding work, I would suggest sending Japanese engineers to do the work at the site and shutting out others until the work is finished. 

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Yoshifumi Uesaka

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