Defence minister Richard Marles says he is considering options to accelerate the development of a local nuclear-powered submarine building industry but won’t rule out entirely foreign-made vessels to plug a capability need being driven by China’s military build-up.
After war drills created tension in the Taiwan Strait, the acting Prime Minister Mr Marles said China’s military build up added a “whole lot of urgency” to the AUKUS process, which is still scoping options including vessel type.
Mr Marles defended previous comments that the government could buy the nuclear-powered submarines at the heart of the trilateral security pact, despite Labor previously pushing for a local option when it was in opposition, where it did not receive briefings on the program.
Former Defence minister Peter Dutton revealed the previous government was planning to buy two US nuclear-powered submarines over their rival British vessels and to build a further eight, disclosing usually secretive deliberations in an opinion piece.
On Tuesday, Mr Marles told the ABC Australia needs to have “an open mind about whatever needs to be done in terms of feeling whatever capability gap arises”.
The extent of this capability gap is not yet clear, according to Mr Marles, who said it is not yet known exactly when the submarines could be delivered.
“It is really important that we have an evolving submarine capability from this day in 2022 through to whenever the first of the nuclear propelled submarines comes in the water. And the situation that we were left by the former government really is that that date was sometime in the 2040s.
“Now we’re hoping to bring that forward and looking at a range of options which can see that occur,” Mr Marles said.
Mr Males said the government remains committed to developing a home-made capability which would accelerate the acquisition.
“It is going to be essential for us in terms of that future submarine capability to develop the ability to build submarines in Australia. We need to be adding to…the US, UK, Australia industrial base if we want these capabilities to come on sooner rather than later.
“So there is going to be a very significant industrial capability developed in Australia.”
Building the submarines locally based on an information sharing agreement with the US was the “preference” since AUKUS was announced last year by the former Coalition government. Australian science and industry leaders welcomed the agreement — which includes cooperation on several other advanced technologies — as a massive innovation opportunity.
But the long time frames for the platform and comments by defence officials and the government have cast doubt on how big a role the local industry will eventually play.
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