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23 Jun 2022

Australia’s $270 billion investment in next-generation defence capability

Minister for Defence Richard Marles has indicated the Albanese government’s ambition for early delivery of nuclear-powered submarines, in addition to pledging to maintain Defence spending above 2 per cent of GDP and launching a “posture review” in response to the changing geostrategic environment.  An announcement on Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine program is expected ‘shortly’.  

Closing a 20-year submarine capability gap is the Albanese government’s priority, according to the Defence Minister, who has also touted news of Australia’s $270 billion investment in next-generation defence capability. 

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles has shed light on the Albanese government’s nuclear-powered submarine procurement strategy, revealing he wants boats to hit the water “as soon as possible”.  

The Labor government is reportedly aiming to close a 20-year “capability gap” from the initial announcement of the AUKUS agreement in September last year to expected delivery in the 2040s.

“We really need to be doing everything we can in terms of the timing of the next generation of submarines to close that gap as much as possible,” Marles told The Daily Telegraph.

Marles’ comments come just days after Dr Kurt Campbell, the Biden administration’s National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, lauded the progress of technology-sharing negotiations as part of the AUKUS agreement.

In an address to the Center for a New American Security, the White House adviser hinted an announcement would be made “shortly”.

The United Kingdom’s Astute Class vessel and the US’ Virginia Class platform are currently under consideration by the Commonwealth government’s Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce to replace the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins Class fleet.

The taskforce’s considerations include requirements for design, construction, maintenance, infrastructure, industry capacity, nuclear safety, environmental protection, crewing and training.

The group will also advise on building timeframes, costs and supply needs.

Earlier this month, former defence minister Peter Dutton threw his support behind the acquisition of US-designed Virginia Class submarines, which he claimed was the “obvious” choice.

The federal opposition leader made particular note of the platform’s “mature design” and vertical missile launch capability.

Notably, Dutton touted the possibility of an off-the-shelf purchase of two Virginia Class submarines before 2030.

He said the two initial submarines would be in addition to a further eight vessels built in South Australia, taking the total size of the prospective RAN fleet to 10.

Posture review in the offing

In addition to sprucing early delivery of the nuclear-powered submarines, Minister Marles has pledged to maintaining Defence spending above 2 per cent of GDP and launching a “posture review” in response to the changing geostrategic environment.  

“The former government … was all about developing its bark and did nothing in respect of the nation’s bite,” he said.

“We are pretty well the opposite of that … we’re all about making sure we develop that bite.”

This, he added, would involve looking at the $270 billion investment in new capability with “fresh eyes”.  

“Broadly our defence force is about Australia being taken seriously in the world,” he said.

“It’s right to be where we are now, much more focused on our region, but we need to be thinking about all of those elements in the way we conceive what the Defence Force is for.”

This is a reaffirmation of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s commitment prior to the election, with the then opposition leader expressing concern over delivery timelines and program delays associated with a range of major Defence projects, including the Hunter Class frigate program.

In an address to the Lowy Institute, he said the review would include:

  • considerations of whether Tomahawk missiles can be fitted to the Collins Class submarines;
  • reviewing progress of the Future Frigates project;
  • exploring potential upgrades to weapons on the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels or through additional Hobart Class air warfare destroyers; and
  • advancing Australia’s strike weapons procurement program.
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