In an op-ed last week, Hugh White argued that choosing Japan as the partner nation to acquire a new class of submarines would bring with it a strategic as well as financial price.

Quite predictably, this has led to significant debate and contestation, as it points the finger at the strategic implications of 'Option J' that many hope, and others fear, Australia's decision would bring with it. In this debate, judgments and assumptions about the merits of closer alignment with Japan, about the strategic significance of defence acquisition, of the leverage of supplier nations and the basis of interoperability risk becoming hopelessly entangled.

It is worthwhile pointing out that both detractors and proponents of 'Option J' seem to agree that acquiring submarines from Japan would come with expectations of closer strategic alignment. The merits or pitfalls of such expectations are a topic in their own right, suffice to say that it is all too easy to slip into the tautology that acquiring the Soryu is good because it strengthens these links, and strengthening the links is good because it gives us access to the Soryu.

But how important is acquisition of major defence platforms for underpinning a strategic relationship?

Globally NATO is arguably the most successful and closest alliance, but even a most favourable interpretation of its history would still consider it a failure in terms of joint platform development or platform standardisation. In contrast, the 'quasi-alliance' most closely underpinned by defence technology and weapons transfer was probably that between Israel and France in the 1950s and 1960s. Both countries went to war with Egypt in 1956, France equipped Israel's air force and provided the technology for its nuclear weapons program, at a time when the US still refused to sell weapons to the Jewish state. Alas, this did not prevent the relationship breaking down after 1967, when France decided to prioritise its relations with the Arab world and ceased support to Israel's defence capability.

The consequences of a cooling of relations don't have to be so dramatic as a breach of contract or arms embargo to still cause significant problems. Supplying a platform is one thing, providing the necessary cooperation to maintain the capability is quite another and requires genuine cooperation that cannot be contracted for. Australia has experienced this itself in its own alliance with the US, which for many years refused to release to Australia the source codes for radar warning receivers for the F-18 and F-111. It is easy to see the risk of something similar happening again in relation to all three contenders, but especially with a nation that a few years ago still encrypted its own air defence radar data so that it could not be read even by its own US ally.

Would choosing the Soryu significantly improve interoperability for Australia with Japan and the US in the Pacific? If Australia acquired a variant of the Soryu with a US combat system, Japan may well follow suit. But the US and Japan do not need Australia to do so.

At the tactical level, a common combat system may facilitate integration, but overall a joint submarine campaign is first and foremost a matter of operational organisation that depends little on commonality of materiel, as demonstrated by the long and close cooperation of Norwegian, UK and US boats against the Soviet Arctic Fleet in the Cold War. And even if that is the direction in which the US, Australia and Japan are heading, it is far more likely for both geographic and operational reasons that each countries' conventional submarines would work with US nuclear-powered boats, than the possibility of a Japanese-Australian wolfpack that discussion of submarine cooperation sometimes seem to evoke.

What does this mean for Australia's submarine choice?

Historically, defence acquisition has done little to support strategic relationships, so cost and capability considerations should remain central. Acknowledging political benefits for Australia's relationship with Japan from choosing the Soryu should not mean we close our eyes to the risk to Australia's defence capability this might entail. In the end, if our strategic relationship with Japan is truly grounded in shared values and interests, it will endure Australia choosing the best boat it can get.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.