On 26 April 2016, Australia chose France as its preferred partner for its Future Submarine Program. This enormous undertaking — estimated at €34 billion over 50 years — calls for the design, construction and in-service support of 12 conventional blue-water submarines. It also aims to give the country a sovereign submarine construction industry and to supply the Royal Australian Navy with regionally superior subs that outclass those of other powers in the broader region. These requirements led to the decision in favour of a conventional diesel-electric variant of France’s next-generation Barracuda type attack submarines. With a length overall of around 100 metres and a surface displacement of 4,500 tonnes, the proposed Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A will carry a combat management system and weapons designed by US-based contractors.
The ASC shipyard near Adelaide, South Australia (© ASC)
DCNS, designer and shipyard operator
“Since 26 April 2016, we’ve put in place staffing and contracting arrangements and created the technical and political conditions to ensure the programme’s success. We’ve signed a number of contracts and are negotiating others. We recently received assurances that DCNS will indeed be the lead designer and shipbuilder as well as the operator of the shipyard, near Adelaide in the state of South Australia, where the subs will be built. Many contracts remain to be negotiated, as is normal for a long-term programme of this size. To expedite contract management, we’ve split the main contracts into tranches. Given that the programme will run for 50 years, it hardly seemed reasonable to stipulate everything from the outset,” says Marie-Pierre de Bailliencourt, deputy chief executive of DCNS and general manager of the group’s FSP programme.
Australian’s future submarine (© DCNS)
Agreements at all levels
The last 12 months have seen a number of milestones. First, the formal launching of the programme, now designated as the Future Submarine Program. In July 2016, the French and Australian governments signed an inter-governmental agreement based on earlier commitments under which France and DCNS will supply Australia with a fleet of submarines along with the resources needed to build and maintain them. In October 2016, DCNS signed the Design & Mobilisation contract marking the effective start of early planning on this complex programme involving the Australian Ministry of Defence, DCNS, and the Australian subsidiary of US-based group Lockheed Martin, the combat system contractor.
In December 2016, the French and Australian governments concluded two more agreements. The first covers the sharing of classified information on defence programmes while the second is an umbrella inter-governmental agreement.
First order in 2019 or 2020
Although the first order is not expected before 2019 or 2020, many milestones will be passed between now and then; beginning, this year, with the strategic partnership agreement scheduled to be concluded in October. This framework agreement will set out the relations between the parties over the next 50 years. More specifically, it will stipulate the business model, the intellectual property regime, the conditions and guarantees for the technology transfer, each party’s responsibilities and so forth. Australia will also conclude a similar agreement with Lockheed Martin.
DCNS will be responsible for the design of the submarines. The Australian authorities have also decided, although this was not stipulated in the April 2016 agreement, to appoint DCNS’s local subsidiary as the shipyard operator.
DCNS Australia to employ 2,000
In late 2014, the DCNS group set up DCNS Australia in Canberra to promote and support the French bid for the FSP programme. Today, DCNS Australia counts some 30 employees. This number is expected to double by June 2017, build up progressively to between 300 and 500 by 2019/2020, then to around 2,000 direct employees from 2021 when the first sub is slated to be laid down at the Adelaide shipyard. When production is in full swing, subcontractors will have a further 1,500 to 2,000 people working on the Shortfin Barracuda production programme, not counting civil engineering works.
The first French Barracuda SSN under construction at Cherbourg in 2016 (© DCNS)
An ultramodern shipyard
The programme calls for the expansion and upgrading of the ASC North shipyard in Osborne, near Adelaide, South Australia. Government-owned ASC currently holds the in-service support contract for the Royal Australian Navy’s six Collins-class subs which entered service between 1996 and 2003. On completing their next scheduled refits, the Collins-class boats will successively move base to Garden Island, south of Perth, Western Australia. “The Collins and Shortfin Barracuda programmes will be synchronised to ensure that as each Collins-class boat is rebased, DCNS will take over responsibility for the in-service support facility and its upgrade to fit in with the FSP programme. In parallel with these activities, DCNS will build new facilities alongside ACS’s existing infrastructure to give the country a new submarine shipyard under DCNS Australia management. The overall idea is to build a facility comparable to, though smaller than, the group’s Cherbourg yard. The new ASC North yard will be tailored specifically to the Shortfin Barracuda programme and will also be more modern than Cherbourg,” says Marie-Pierre de Bailliencourt.
The ASC shipyard near Adelaide, portions in blue to be built or updated (© DCNS)
DCNS will obviously draw on the experience acquired through the on-going Brazilian submarine programme which includes the building of the Itaguaí shipyard near Rio de Janeiro. There are, of course, obvious differences between the two programmes, the main one being that whereas the Brazilian facility is being built from scratch on a green field site, the planned South Australian facility calls for a combination of new and upgraded infrastructure. The overall aim is to optimise the entire production capability, including the development and management of the supply chains and the adoption of the digital plant concept that DCNS plans to progressively implement at its shipyards in France.
Challenge: set up a sub shipbuilding industry
While the Future Submarine Program does not include a technology transfer component per se for submarine design, one of the main challenges is undeniably to establish a local industrial fabric to both build and maintain the proposed subs. “The approach is long term; the aim, to shape and coordinate an entire industry focused on excellence.” Work in this area began in 2016. “We launched an in-depth study of Australia’s existing industrial fabric and mapped out who does what and where relative to our needs. So far, we’ve identified 3,000 potential partners. We then examined each in turn to assess their expertise in specific areas and their experience in working to the required technical, quality and confidentiality standards. Companies that tick all the right boxes are qualified directly, while those that tick most but not all can work through an upgrade and development plan. Given that we are looking for long-term partners to work on a multi-decade programme, the requirements include not only technical and logistical capabilities, but also the candidate’s overall solidity. Where we encounter SMEs that have unique skills but are too small, the Australian government can help them to achieve a critical mass.”
French Barracuda SSN under construction at Cherbourg (© DCNS)
French companies too
The strategic procurement plan associated with this mammoth endeavour will coordinate supply chains in Australia and France. Where there are capability gaps in Australia, DCNS will turn to French equipment manufacturers. “If we can’t find a skill locally, French suppliers will be invited to join the supply chain. With 12 subs to build then maintain and a long-term programme offering good visibility, this should be feasible.” While large groups like Thales and Schneider Electric already have facilities in Australia, this programme will give others a chance to enter a new market, develop local capabilities and explore other opportunities. Examples include Jeumont and Leroy Somer (electric motors), Fapmo (silent pumps), Techclam (high-pressure piping), Def Ouest (firefighting equipment) and suppliers of special steels and foundry work (Industeel, Aubert & Duval, Dembiermont, FMDL). “We know these companies well. They are already qualified for this type of work and we are now inviting them to join us in Australia. We’re also helping a number of SMEs to set up local facilities. In this connection, we’ve entered partnerships with the French maritime cluster (Pôle Mer), French Business confederation Medef, Business France and marine industry association Gican, all of which can help.”
Overall, DCNS believes that the FSP programme will involve around 2,500 subcontractors for ‘standard’ activities like electricity, cabling and pipework. All, or nearly all, will be Australian. A further 250 major suppliers and 40 or so equipment manufacturers with critical capabilities — many of them French — will also contribute.
DCNS’s Cherbourg shipyard (© DCNS)
Economic benefits for France
The benefits for French manufacturers will be significant despite the technology transfer components for submarine construction and maintenance. There will also be benefits for France in general. DCNS will assign between 300 and 500 employees in France to the FSP programme which means that the total number of direct and indirect jobs will be close to one thousand. The FSP design phase, which will last five years, represents an enormous workload for the group’s main shipyards, not least Cherbourg. Indeed, DCNS is actively recruiting staff for the programme, the main categories being naval architects and engineers familiar with contract management under Anglo-Saxon legal systems, IT specialists to set up secure communications networks between Australia and France, and others to work on the exchanges with Lockheed Martin. At Cherbourg, DCNS has just completed a new building specifically for the FSP programme. This will be used by Australian and American teams (about 50 and 10 people, respectively), along with DCNS employees, working on the programme. As many of the Australians and Americans will be accompanied by their families, local and national authorities will help to ensure that all are well received and find suitable accommodation.
The keys to sovereign in-service support
While the French side will retain full responsibility for the design, the Australians will follow the preliminary design stage closely to gain in-depth understanding of their future boats and, by the same token, the skills they will need for the in-service support and modernisation phases that are essential components of any submarine programme. “Every aspect of the knowledge required for in-service support and obsolescence management will be transferred to the Australian teams. They will also be involved in the design phase since that is the best way for them to acquire the expertise they will need first in sub construction, then for in-service support. All this — it is worth repeating — with a view to giving Australia sovereign control over submarine shipbuilding and maintenance,” says Marie-Pierre de Bailliencourt. This will be achieved not only through extensive training programmes in France and Australia and the establishment of vast supply chains, but also through ambitious long-term cooperation with Australian education and training establishments. “We are working closely with the Australians to identify the best approaches to education and training. The contract is particularly demanding as regards human resources management for the simple reason that the aim is to give Australia the trade skills and expertise it will require over the next 50 years. In addition to setting up a sub construction industry, we have to create an entire human resources ecosystem ensuring that people with the required skills arrive on the job market when needed. In partnership with universities and training establishments, we are thus focusing on specific skills and age groups.”
Cooperation with French engineering schools
Cooperation agreements have been signed between Australian universities and several of France’s leading engineering schools (École Polytechnique, Supéléc, École Centrale Nantes and ENSTA ParisTech) grouped under an umbrella consortium called Gema. The first such agreement was signed in January by Adelaide-based Flinders University, the second in March by the University of Tasmania. Programmes now being set up include new masters and doctorate courses, training for lecturer-researchers specialising in specific areas, joint R&D and advanced science and engineering exchanges. In addition to expanding academic relations between the two countries, these agreements will lead to new training courses, joint R&D programmes and technology transfers in oceanic and naval engineering. On 20 March, while inspecting the Central Nantes engineering school’s test basins, Professor Monique Skidmore, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global), of the University of Tasmania said: “Universities such as the University of Tasmania, South Australian universities and the Gema consortium will together create the new generation of highly skilled workers required to research, design, build and maintain the next-generation submarine fleet.”
Australia’s future submarine (© DCNS)
First keel to be laid down in 2021
While work on training programmes and the shipyard infrastructure is already under way, the detailed design and feasibility studies will only begin towards the end of the year. By 2018, the design of the Australian Shortfin Barracuda and work on the supply chain will have advanced to the point where serious negotiations can begin on the order for the first boat. This order is expected to be placed in 2019 or 2020, the keel to be laid down around 2021, and the first-of-class sub to be delivered to the RAN in early 2030. The production rate for the rest of the first batch (the planned fleet of 12 boats will be produced in batches) will depend on future orders which, in turn, will be determined by the state of the country’s manufacturing capability and local resources.
Marie-Pierre de Bailliencourt also reminds us that, aside from the local industrial fabric for sub construction, one of the programme’s other major challenges is the integration of a US-designed combat management system and weapons with a French-designed sub. “We will have to achieve complete convergence of our respective specifications and make sure that neither the platform nor the combat system has a negative impact on the other’s performance.” For instance, given that the Shortfin Barracudas use conventional propulsion, trade-offs will have to be made regarding power consumption by the platform and the combat system. This is important because the CMS will be based on systems developed for nuclear-powered subs aboard which power consumption is less of an issue. On a diesel-electric boat, choices have to be made. “Do you allocate more energy to the CMS or to endurance? The challenge is to achieve a trade-off ensuring the best possible overall performance. We will be working closely with both the Australians and Lockheed Martin to precisely this end. So far our relations with both are going well. For the last six months, which is to say since October 2016, we’ve been working together, with everyone on the same page.”
Translated and adapted by Steve Dyson