28 April 2016

DCNS subs for RAN

This post concerns the Australian government's recent announcement that it has selected DCNS of France as the preferred international partner for the design of its next-generation submarines. I write from the viewpoint of a long-time provider of language services to French industry and more particularly the French naval defence industry.

My comments — and more particularly the congratulations — are made relative to the naval defence industry, not to broader political, philosophical and moral issues. Call it a "cop out" if you will. I may return later to questions like Can one justify the existence of the armaments industry and spending a slice of one's career in its service?

On 27 April Les Echos published a dossier entitled Sous-marins australiens : tout comprendre sur le "contrat du siècle" .
On 28 April Mer & Marine published a dossier comprising Australie : Ambitions navales et Eldorado industriel and Sous-marins australiens : Un partenariat stratégique et historique avec la France.

Thoughts on this huge contract

  1. Congratulation to DCNS, DCNS Australia, the negotiators and the teams that put together the bid, from engineers to technical writers, translators, support staff and more. All must have done an exceedingly good job.
  2. Congratulation to the Australian government on making a major defence decision which, at this stage, looks as though it was genuinely based on sound technical analysis. This is significant given that many defence procurement decisions leave more room for doubt.
  3. Very encouraging to read in Future submarine announcement from the RAN's media room that senior USN officers contributed to the bid analysis process thereby guaranteeing, presumably, that (at least at this stage and this level), the idea of integrating a US-designed combat system with a French-designed submarine, complete with systems and sensors, has been thoroughly explored by all concerned from the outset.
  4. Also very encouraging to read that the Australian government's “decision was driven by DCNS’s ability to best meet all of the Australian government’s requirements. These included superior sensor performance and stealth characteristics, as well as range and endurance similar to the Collins-class submarine. The government’s considerations also included cost, schedule, program execution, through-life support and Australian industry involvement.” (Source: Future submarine announcement). That's a very impressive statement.
  5. Congratulations to the US DoD for (presumably) giving the all clear for the integration of a US-designed combat system with a French-designed submarine, complete with systems and sensors.
  6. Congratulation to the French Ministry of Defence for (presumably) giving the all clear for the export, and in many cases the transfer, of technologies previously considered sovereign know-how, including the state-of-the-art stealth hull, the ultra-quiet propulsion system (not least the pump-jet propulsor) and advanced shipbuilding expertise.
  7. Very encouraging to read in Sous-marins australiens : Un partenariat stratégique et historique avec la France that
    Le franco-australien Ross McInnes, ancien de Thales et président du Conseil d’administration de Safran et de la Chambre de commerce franco-australienne, est notamment présenté comme l'un des artisans de la victoire. (...) Ross McInnes symbolise aussi l’union de l’ « Equipe de France », comme aime l’appeler Hervé Guillou.
Despite the fact that Mr McInnes's background is mostly in corporate finance and as a CFO he is likely to be well aware of the importance of technico-cultural issues in ensuring the success of this sort of project, including the differences between the technical communication cultures of client and prime contractor.

Moreover

  1. Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A: great name!
  2. As a technical writer and translator I would love to know how much attention the bid evaluation teams paid to technical writing, presentation and related aspects. I would also like to know how much effort DCNS put into these aspects of bid preparation. While these considerations are obviously orders of magnitude less important than confidence, cost, schedule, program execution, through-life support and local industry involvement, among yet other factors, they have been known to contribute to or, on occasions, compromise the impact of some bids.

On technical writing

I would now like to make some admittedly sweeping statements based on my personal experience in France as a technical writer and translator in the hope that may be of interest or possibly even direct benefit to some of the people about to embark upon several months of negotiations.
  1. Despite some notable exceptions, technical writing is less appreciated, less understood and less expert in France than in English-speaking countries like Australia.
  2. In France much technical writing is done by engineers often without the assistance of trained technical writers.
  3. Very few naval engineers in France have English as their first language.
  4. Some French engineers draft directly in English, their second language. Others draft in French then have their documents translated into English.
  5. The language service providers that win the contracts to translate "technical manuals" are typically selected primarily on the basis of price.
  6. These companies typically subcontract to freelance translators who only earn a proportion of the amount billed to the client and often too little to attract the very best, much less to keep them motivated to work to the highest standards.
  7. What are the RAN's expectations in these areas and will DCNS and its subcontractors be able to deliver?
I like to think the both client and prime contractor will explore these issues during the contract negotiation phase, that the prime contractor will rise to the challenge and that the client, the RAN, will be happy with with all aspects of this massive project, including the admittedly secondary issue of technical communication.

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