JAPAN - On Nov 12, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to strengthen bilateral defence cooperation, including the possible transfer of technologies for Australia's future submarine programme.
Australia is currently investigating how to procure 12 new submarines to replace its ageing Collins-class submarines, and Japan's Soryu-class submarine has become a candidate.
The Soryu-class is the largest diesel-engine submarine in the world, equipped with the cutting-edge air-independent propulsion system which enables it to remain submerged for weeks rather than days.
If Australia decides to use the Soryu-class submarines, it will be a win-win-win deal in which Japan can sell its products, Australia can acquire the world's best non-nuclear submarines, and the two countries' navies will become highly interoperable.
Australia can also save money. The Soryu-class subs cost about A$600 million (S$667 million) each, or "less than half the price of an Australian-made alternative", according to news.com.au.
Some observers are surprised at the recent development and wonder why Japan is now willing to sell its most advanced and highly sensitive military equipment after decades of absence from the international arms market.
In fact, it was only in April that Tokyo made a historic decision to lift the self-imposed ban on arms exports and on Japan's participation in international joint weapons development programmes.
The policy change was brought about by at least three major considerations.
First, Japan could no longer afford extremely expensive domestically produced weapons and equipment. For Japanese arms producers, Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF) was the only customer, but the amount of major equipment that the SDF procured had dropped dramatically since the end of the Cold War.
Despite all the investment on research and development, they could sell only a small number of products, driving the weapons' unit cost up.
For example, a Japanese Type-90 main battle tank costs US$7 million (S$9.1 million), almost twice as expensive as an M1A1 - its US equivalent, which costs US$4.3 million.
An F-2 fighter, co-developed with the US but for Japan's use only, costs US$111 million as compared with an US F-15 fighter with a price tag of US$27 million. A Type-89 rifle costs US$3,000 while a US M-4 carbine costs a much more affordable US$240.
This is not something that a country with a massive general government gross debt can continue to afford.
Second, active participation in international joint arms development and production has become the only realistic means of acquiring cutting-edge weapon systems at affordable prices.
As modern weapons become increasingly sophisticated and costly, the world is moving towards deeper cooperation on weapons development and production.
For example, the fifth-generation F-35 fighter was co-developed by the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and five other partners; and the Eurofighter Typhoon by Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain.
One of the most important challenges of multinational weapons development is to find the least common denominators of diverse and sometimes contradicting requirements.