Before coming into power, the Abbott government pledged to support the country’s defence sector by manufacturing 12 new submarines in South Australia for the Royal Australian Navy.
The country’s next generation of submarines would follow the Collins-class vessels built by the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) between 1990 and 2003.
Last year, then Shadow Defence Minister David Johnston said: “We will deliver those submarines from right here at ASC in South Australia. The Coalition today is committed to building 12 new submarines here in Adelaide.”
However, since then, the government has looked increasingly likely to renege on pre-election promises, and is instead considering offshore production of the $40 billion submarine project.
Prime minister Tony Abbott has already faced criticism for refusing to bail out the nation’s automobile manufacturers, and outsourcing the construction of Australia’s submarine fleet could further create problems among industry organisations.
The Department of Defence’s ‘Defence Issues Paper 2014’ raised the issue of whether the country’s submarine-building capabilities are up to international standards.
“There is significant debate emerging about the future submarine and whether it should be built in Australia,” the document said.
“This debate must consider the cost, risk and schedule as well as the benefits of the different options.”
Abbott defends stance
Earlier this month, Mr Abbott tried to alleviate concerns that offshoring Australia’s submarine construction would create problems for SA manufacturing.
During a doorstep interview in Adelaide on Friday (August 22), the prime minister said there would be a “massive amount of work” completed on the project in the SA capital, regardless of where the submarines are built.
However, he added that it is important for the defence force to have the strongest capabilities possible, adding that the the government is committed to developing only the best submarines.
“We have got six Collins-class boats that were built here in Adelaide; they are good boats. It took us a long time to get them right, but they are good boats,” Mr Abbott stated.
The current Collins-class submarines have received bad publicity in the past, with a 1999 report slamming the performance of the vessels.
Commonly known as the McIntosh-Prescott report, the paper outlined various technological failings, manufacture delays, managerial problems and contractual issues.
The government has hinted that problems such as this could be remedied by offshoring many elements of defence construction to more technologically advanced companies abroad.
“Working internationally with partners, as we do now in all our major projects, including AWD (Air War Destroyer), will remain a feature of our industry,” Mr Johnston said at an event last month.
“Where domestic industrial capability is scarce; where ought it be directed? To what priority and to which ADF (Australian Defence Force) needs?”
Japanese technology deal
Should the Abbott government decide to offshore the submarine-building initiative, Japan is considered one of the countries most likely to benefit.
Last month, Australia and Japan penned a new agreement that will see the two nations working more closely on military equipment and transfer deals.
Japan has only recently eased trade restrictions banning the export of defence goods overseas, which could pave the way for submarine manufacture on Australia’s behalf.
Critics claim the move could put Australia in a politically difficult position – experts believe such a partnership would cause friction with China, one of Australia’s biggest trading partners.
Acting Shadow Minister for Defence Gai Brodtmann said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has already admitted talks have already occurred between the Australian and Japanese governments regarding submarine manufacture. Other countries being consulted on the project include Germany, Sweden and the UK.
“Australia deserves a government that keeps its promises, and is prepared to stand up for our strategically vital shipbuilding industry and its thousands of highly skilled workers,” Ms Brodtmann stated.
Peter Horobin, President of the Submarine Institute of Australia will lead a panel discussion on “Safeguarding and securing maritime trade in the north” at the 2nd Annual Northern Australia Defence Summit, taking place on the 15th and 16th October in Darwin.
To find out more about how the maritime infrastructure, including the future deterrent of submarines will impact Australia’s border security, join us at the Northern Australia Defence Summit.