Two days before Anzac Day, Germany launched a charm offensive against visiting Defence Minister Kevin Andrews. The minister had come to Berlin to meet his German counterpart and to visit the shipyards that will be bidding to build Australias future submarines.
With potential contracts worth more than $20 billion in the offering, the Germans were keen to impress. After Andrews met Germanys Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, he was taken on a helicopter ride with a German vice-admiral over the shipyards in the northern port town of Kiel.
The pilot made sure Andrews was flown low over as many as nine submarines in the water or in the dry docks of shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems.
The message was clear and unsubtle: Germany was an industrial powerhouse to be reckoned with and submarines were its specialty.
For the next 4½ hours, Andrews was walked all over the shipbuilding facility and regaled with graphs and statistics to show how TKMS had built 161 submarines for 20 navies during the past half century.
The following day, at Cherbourg on Frances northwest coast, Andrews was led through the shipyards of giant French nuclear submarine builder DCNS and was told how DCNS had built more than 100 submarines. He also met Frances Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Japan, the third foreign bidder for the submarine contract and the favourite because it has the personal backing of Tony Abbott, is expected to host a visit by Andrews next month.
Two weeks ago Andrews spoke with his Japanese counterpart, Gen Nakatani, and formally invited Japan to participate in the evaluation process.
In short, the foreign battle has begun in earnest for the most lucrative contract offered by any Australian government since Federation.
The government costs the future submarine program the acquisition of between six and 12 new submarines and their sustainment through their life at about $50bn, including construction/purchase costs of anywhere between $15bn and $30bn depending on how many boats are ordered.
During the next eight months the governments of Japan, Germany and France will employ every trick they know to gain leverage over the others and to win the hearts and minds of the Abbott government.
By the end of this year Japan, TKMS and DCNS will present their final bids to Canberra for the right to design the new submarines as part of the so-called competitive evaluation process announced by the government in February.
At last, after some astonishing displays of political ineptitude by both major parties in recent years, the future submarine project is finally inching its way forward.
The crazy early notion that Australia might design its own submarines has been shelved in favour of a more practical understanding that a proven overseas submarine builder will design and play a sizeable role in helping construct the boats.
The only question is where they will be built and therefore how much Australian industry will benefit from the project.
But much time has been wasted and the race against time has still not been won.
Australia has to have the first of its new submarines available from the mid-2020s when the existing Collins-class fleet begins to retire.
This is less than 10 years, barely enough time to choose, design and build a new submarine fleet, especially if it is constructed mostly in Australia.
Defence does not want to extend the life of the troubled Collins-class fleet beyond the due retirement date, having been given advice that this would be prohibitively expensive and problematic.
Yet the government deftly has pushed this pressure from its own political procrastination on to the bidders Germany, France and Japan.
It must be delivered in time to avoid a capability gap in the mid-2020s when the Collins-class submarine is scheduled to be retired from service, Andrews said bluntly when announcing the evaluation process.
The decisions we make on the future submarine program will determine what kind of capability we have to defend Australia and Australian interests into the 2040s and beyond.
Given the gravity of this decision, taxpayers deserve better political leadership on this issue than they have had to date.
The Rudd and Gillard governments squandered valuable time by making close to zero progress on the future submarine issue while in power.
The Coalition then came to power promising action but instead delivered confusion.
First the Coalition promised to build 12 submarines in Adelaide before changing its wording to up to 12. Then, late last year, it hedged on whether any of them ultimately would be constructed in Adelaide.
Behind the scenes Abbott and Japans Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hatched an idea, without initial input from the Defence Department, that Australia could buy an evolved version of Japans large and successful Soryu-class submarines.
Potential bidders Germany and France cried foul, believing Japan was going to win the contract on politics rather than on capability.
Meanwhile South Australia feared it would miss out on constructing the submarines in Adelaide under any Japanese deal.
In the end the government tried to resolve the mess by announcing its competitive evaluation process between Germanys TKMS, Frances DCNS and Japan. It excluded Sweden, which also wanted to bid for the project.
Under this process Germany, France and Japan have been asked to provide three options to build the submarines.
The first is to build them largely overseas, the second is to build them entirely in Australia and the third is to have a hybrid model where they are built both overseas and in Australia. Any construction in Australia almost certainly would involve the winning bidder buying government-owned Adelaide shipbuilder ASC.
The key to these bids will be cost. The government wants to maximise the Australian construction content of the submarines but will do so only if the cost premium to do so is not exorbitant.
This is where the German and French bids have an advantage over the Japanese.
Unlike Japan, Germany and France are experienced exporters of submarines around the world.
Although neither has designed or constructed a 4000-tonne conventional submarine before, they previously have structured export deals so that their submarines can be built in overseas shipyards such as in Adelaide.
Japan has never exported submarines, so it has no experience of contracting the construction of a submarine outside of Japan.
Both TKMS and DCNS have said they could construct an option that would see the submarines built largely in Australia; however, Japan has not yet given a similar public commitment.
Privately, Frances DCNS and Germanys TKMS still fear Japan is first among equals in the submarine competition and that politics may determine the winner as much as capability.
There is no reason to believe the Prime Minister has gone cold on the notion of buying submarines from Japan and the concept does have some benefits.
Japans Soryu-class submarine, at 4200 tonnes, is the largest and most capable conventional submarine in the world and the only one that compares with the 3400- tonne Collins for size.
Buying Japanese submarines also has the strategic benefit of binding Australia more closely with Japan and the US in the Pacific in an era of a rising China.
However, any Japanese submarine for Australia would need to be an evolution of the Soryu because it would need greater range than the existing Soryu has in order to deal with Australias vast ocean distances.
As such, it effectively would be a new class of boat, which raises the risks associated with its development.
The Japanese bid also has to be treated slightly differently by Australia because it is a government-to-government negotiation as opposed to France and Germany, where the bids are being negotiated by partly privatised companies in TKMS and DCNS.
The greatest disadvantage of Japans bid is that Tokyo has never sold submarines overseas before. Therefore it does not have the open export culture of the French or the Germans and cannot readily produce the slick graphs, slides, figures and other forms of salesmanship that may be needed to win the bid.
However, Japan is slowly moving in the right direction.
It is expected to agree within weeks to hand over classified technical data about its Soryu-class boats, something it once would never have contemplated doing.
The other obstacle with Japan is its internal politics. Abe will have to secure political support to export submarines when many Japanese are wary of his attempts to wind back the countrys pacifist postwar constitution.
These domestic political obstacles coupled with the opaque nature of the Japanese bid and its untested military export culture ultimately may combine to sink Japans chances.
We accept that if the Japanese are going to get over the line it will be about politics, says one senior member of one of the European bidders, who asked not to be named.
So all we can do is put forward the strongest possible bid and hope that politics does not dominate the process.
Germanys TKMS is proposing to build a 4000-tonne Type 216, a concept design based loosely on an enlarged version of its successful existing Type 212 submarine.
It is offering fixed-price contracts, saying previously that it could build 12 submarines in Australia for $20bn, far less than an earlier estimate by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that the submarines could cost as much as $36bn.
It is also proposing that it effectively re-create its German submarine operations in Kiel in Australia.
TKMS is prepared to invest in Australia to replicate its Kiel capability in Adelaide, TKMS says in its fact sheets on the future submarine project.
Frances DCNS is proposing to build a non-nuclear powered version of its 5000-tonne Barracuda submarine.
It also will propose an option to build all the submarines in Australia on a fixed-price basis, knowing this is the option that will be most attractive to Canberra.
For now, Defence experts in Canberra are waiting to see what these three countries produce for what one official describes as the end-of-year beauty parade.
It sounds logical in theory, but major defence procurements in Australia rarely have been played out on a level playing field.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was chosen from the US before a competition was even completed, while other large procurement decisions too often have reeked of politics.
Yet the choice of Australias new submarine is arguably the most important strategic decision of all. The question is whether the government will choose the winner on merit.
Who should Australia select for their new sub? Politically speaking, Japan has the upper hand due to similar concerns over China. But concerning technical, experience, and cost, how do the three compare? Not sure how exactly they compare to each other. Also I don't think specific design proposals have been made yet but I don't know for sure.