Despite the headline, this is not a column about global warming. The topic is important to Hawaii, and one that receives scant media attention even though it will be critical to the region in coming years: submarines.

The government of Australia is currently facing a multi-billion-dollar decision about submarines. Nearly 25 years ago, the country began to turn out its first line of home grown subs — the Collins class of diesel-electric submarines, built in southern Australia.

The half-dozen vessels have been plagued with issues of varying degrees of seriousness over the years. The time is rapidly approaching to select a successor model, and unlike in the United States or China, nuclear submarines are not part of the discussion.

USS Mississippi

The USS Mississippi arrives in Pearl Harbor in late November.

U.S. Navy

That leaves a handful of options to acquire up to a dozen subs. According to local media reports from Australia and Japan, a Japanese consortium is likely to win the project.

Such a decision would mark the first time since World War II that an international defense contract would go to any company based in Japan. It’s a development that required a reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

And that’s not the only drama underway on this topic.

The newer subs are larger, with more sophisticated electronics and surveillance gear.

On this side of the Pacific, the United States is upgrading its own submarine fleet on a very different timeline. Just about two weeks ago, the USS Mississippi quietly arrived at its new home in Pearl Harbor. It’s the ninth Virginia class sub that’s been built, and the fourth to be stationed at Pearl Harbor, which is home to 18 fast-attack submarines.

It’s been more than a decade since the United States began to upgrade its submarine fleet, from the Los Angeles class to the Virginia class. That process of building out the subs on order will continue for approximately the next 30 years. Some defense analysts are concerned that the new construction may not keep up with the pace of retirement of the older vessels and potential demand for U.S. submarine patrols, particularly in the Asia Pacific.

The newer subs are larger, with more sophisticated electronics and surveillance gear, and with a better ability to perform as a littoral vessel — operating closer to shorelines and in waters shallower than the open ocean.

These vessels have come a long way since World War II-era skippers scanned the horizon with mechanical periscopes. Submarines are now at the front end of intelligence gathering, electronic eavesdropping, and many other facets of modern warfare. They drop off Special Forces teams close to target zones. They also perform the kind of routine monitoring and observation that make up the present day reality in waters from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

The time frame involved in planning submarine fleets adds context to the political process now underway in Australia. The Collins class of subs will begin to leave service in a dozen years, and the lead time involved in procurement adds some urgency to the decision making.

Companies from several countries are eager to win the business, including Germany, France and Sweden. And there is pressure to do at least some of the work domestically in Australia. But the leading candidate appears to be the Soryu class submarines produced by Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

One reason for that front-runner status is readiness. While other countries are proposing custom-built vessels that would require quite a bit of time for design work and refinement, the Japanese version could be ready for delivery much sooner.

Just last week, Australian Defense Minister Joe Hockey told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “We don’t have time for people to suggest they can build something that hasn’t been built.”

All of this is being carefully monitored from the Hawaii headquarters of U.S. Pacific Command.

There is another factor at work. At last month’s G-20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia released a joint statement with Japan and the United States, agreeing to “deepen the already strong security and defense cooperation” among the three countries, and to increase “maritime security capacity building.”

Those phrases are sufficiently vague to carry a number of meanings, but it’s tough to think of “maritime security capacity building” without considering submarines.

China is clearly considering submarines among its maritime concerns, especially when it comes to regional disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

The Pentagon says China has 56 attack submarines, with plans to add more. Other regional countries are expanding their submarine fleets by a combination of outside purchases and domestic developments. India is producing its own; while Vietnam is buying models from Russia and Indonesia is spending money on Korean models. South Korea and Japan are expanding their submarine fleets as well.

All of this is being carefully monitored from the Hawaii headquarters of U.S. Pacific Command. As part of the Obama Administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, 60 percent of the Navy’s assets will be assigned to the Pacific by the year 2020, up from its current 50/50 split with the Atlantic. For submarines, that rebalance has already taken place: 60 percent of U.S. submarines are already in the region.

As for Australia, the decision about the future of its submarine fleet will be public. Many other developments in our shared underwater future will be far less transparent.

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About the Author

  • Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.