Topics: US Alliance, South China Sea, Submarines
***E&OE Check against delivery***
LIAM BARTLETT: The Federal Defence Minister and WA Senator, Linda Reynolds, has this morning had her first meeting with her US counterpart. Freshly minuted under the new Biden administration, Lloyd J Austin III is the 28th Secretary of Defense, sworn in just five days ago and he has just finished speaking be Minister Reynolds. Minister, good morning.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Good morning, Liam.
LIAM BARTLETT: What a name, what a title.
LINDA REYNOLDS: It is. And as you said, I’ve literally just got off the phone from my first meeting with the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, and it was a very warm, productive discussion between trusted allies.
LIAM BARTLETT: It’s a shame it couldn’t have been in person. But I’ve got to ask you, you know, was it business as usual between allies or do they intend, do you think, to do things differently?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, it’s very much continuity. And it was very clear from our conversation we really did get straight down to discussing our bilateral relationship. We agreed that our alliance has never been more important. We also agreed that we would continue to work together as the situation in the Indo-Pacific and our home region evolves and we face new challenges. It was a very wide-ranging discussion and we reinforced our very ambitious agenda for this year to further deepen our cooperation.
We also discussed progressing the significant outcomes from the AUSMIN dialogue that the Foreign Minister and I agreed with when we went to Washington last year. So the sorts of things I shared with Secretary Austin was my focus this year on our bilateral force posture in Australia and in the region, how we can work together to enhance regional activities, defence industry cooperation. So it was very much, we got straight down to business.
LIAM BARTLETT: When you say that, just translate for us, bilateral force posture, does that mean that there would be more, potentially more US marines coming to call Australia home in the top end?
LINDA REYNOLDS: That is quite possible. And it’s wider than that. So I signed an agreement with the previous Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, last year to guide the next 10 years of our force posture, which really means the things that we do together in the region, so where the US has operations and activities, where we do things together and how they physically – and how we can physically support and work with them. There are a lot of new opportunities. Now it’s not talking about putting a permanent American base on Australian soil, but it is doing things, as I said, like the marine rotation force. And this year we have got Exercise Talisman Sabre, which is a very large exercise that we do here in Australia with the US. So it’s really working through how we can have even closer cooperation with our militaries in our region.
LIAM BARTLETT: So when you say the Indo-Pacific was part of the conversation, was prioritised in the conversation, are you talking about things like the South China Sea problems and potential other issues?
LINDA REYNOLDS: We – as I said, we had a very wide-ranging discussion but we did discuss security issues in our region because, of course, Australia does have a really substantial interest in the stability of the South China Sea and the international norms and laws that govern it. So we did talk about issues in that region and we, again, are very aligned in our desire for the adherence to the rule of law, to freedom of navigation and overflights. All of those things we certainly did discuss.
LIAM BARTLETT: Okay. As you know, under the Obama Administration, when Joe Biden was Vice President, that began to – especially in the latter part of his second term began to pivot to the Asia Pacific, which was a good sign for us. So you’re saying that will pretty much resume under the new President?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, certainly the signs were very clear that we will continue to work very closely with this new administration. The President, President Biden, has been a great friend of Australia and has visited Australia in 2016. And, look, it is really clear to me – and I’m sure it is to my other ministerial colleagues – that our alliance is enduring, built upon shared values and we continue to work with the United States.
LIAM BARTLETT: We’re talking to Senator Linda Reynolds, the Federal Minister for Defence. Senator, speaking of Joe Biden, has he put in a call yet to your mate ScoMo?
LINDA REYNOLDS: That is really an issue for the Prime Minister. At the moment we are having – myself today and as other members of the administration are sworn in and confirmed, I know a number of my colleagues have. So the issue of the timing is really an issue for the Prime Minister.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well, we hope it goes better than the call that Donald Trump made to Malcolm Turnbull.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, look, as I said, all of the indications are that we will continue to have very strong relationships with the new administration.
LIAM BARTLETT: With your chats with the Secretary of Defense, is there any agreement on Taiwan, Minister? How the alliance would work militarily case of problems there because it’s certainly heat be up?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, look, in relation to Taiwan, as I said earlier publicly this week, the Australian Government is watching the situation and monitoring these developments very closely. We did discuss a range of regional issues, as I said, but I can’t publicly go into some of the detail of that. But I did reinforce that Australia wants to see a region which is stable, which, you know, where international law is upheld, and conflict in the Taiwan Strait is really in no-one’s interest –
LIAM BARTLETT: All right, so can I ask –
LINDA REYNOLDS: So we continue to advocate for peace.
LIAM BARTLETT: Yes, well said. Could I ask you on another related topic, the submarine contract? Are we really going to end up paying $4 billion per submarine?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Liam, let me get a few facts on the record, if you like, for your listeners. The first point that is not, I think, well appreciated is that currently we have a regionally superior and an absolutely magnificent fleet of submarines in the Collins class, which are – all six of them are based at Garden Island. And they are only half the way through what we say, is their technical life and they will be in service well into the 2040s.
So as we start to transition out the Collins class we have got a program in place now called the Future Submarine Program. Because we don’t have the capability to design submarines here in Australia we have partnered with Naval Group France to set up their headquarters in Naval Group Australia in Adelaide. So we’re at the moment designing a new submarine for Australia because there is just simply nothing off the shelf that meets our needs for distance and also for, you know, duration.
So we are now building or designing and we will build these submarines in South Australia starting in sort of 10 years. We’ll deliver the first one in 10 years and we’ll run two fleets for a while, you know, as we introduce them.
LIAM BARTLETT: Yes.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Now, there’s been a bit of misunderstanding about the cost. So when we went into contract it was $50 billion in 2016 dollars, and that takes the program out to the late 2050’s. So we’re talking 35 years. Now, of course over time that cost increases with inflation and exchange rates fluctuations. But the base cost of the contract has not increased by a single cent.
LIAM BARTLETT: That’s not changed?
LINDA REYNOLDS: It is not changed. It is still $50 billion. But, of course, over time you have to budget for inflation and interest rate fluctuations.
LIAM BARTLETT: It’s still massive. It’s still massive. I mean, our biggest concern, I suppose – I’m not being flippant – but our biggest concern here in the west is that we want to get a slice of that work here in WA because you’re in the process of hopefully making the French builders dish out work to Australians. Now, that depends on upgrading facilities down at Henderson here in WA, because the facilities at the moment couldn’t handle that work anyway. Will that ever happen?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Liam, I’ve been in discussion with the State Government now for two and a half years. So two and a half years ago we identified the work that – because it’s a State-Government owned facility – about the work that needed to happen because it is seriously constrained down there.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well, that’s a lot of talking, Minister. When is there going to be action?
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, for the Federal Government –that’s a question, really, for the Premier. But what I can tell you is about what the Federal Government has done. In that two and a half years we have now commissioned 45 ships to be built at Henderson. Eight have been delivered, eight are underway. And, in fact, this week I announced the build of another eight, taking that total to 45, which is an additional $5 billion investment. So the federal government in that time has allocated $20 billion to build 45 ships. We spend half a billion dollars on sustaining the fleet down at Henderson every year and we’ve invested $1.5 billion for work that is well underway at Garden Island and we have also started work at Henderson.
LIAM BARTLETT: So, hang on –
LINDA REYNOLDS: So we are well and truly underway federally.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well you’re saying you’ve dipped your oar in the water, but what about the state governments? Are you saying unequivocally that we won’t get any of that submarine work going forward unless those facilities are upgraded by the state government?
LINDA REYNOLDS: No, Liam, that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that again what’s not well known here in Western Australia is that we already do a lot of these Collins class submarine maintenance here in Western Australia. So what we do, over every 10 years we do three cycles of maintenance, which is called cycle of docking – intermediate, mid and full-cycle docking, which doesn’t mean much to anybody else, but what it does mean is that over those cycles we completely refurbish the submarines. So after every 10 years it is a completely new boat. The only thing that is the same is the hull.
LIAM BARTLETT: Yes.
LINDA REYNOLDS: So the first two cycles of work is done at the Australian Submarine Corporation facilities at Henderson. What the State Government is talking about is bringing the last cycle, which is what they call the full cycle docking, to Western Australia, but we wouldn’t be doing – even considering doing that for another six years. So the State Government is focusing on one tiny aspect of the submarine maintenance whereas we are already building 45 vessels here. We sustain half of the naval fleet here. The Federal Government is investing in Henderson. In fact, we’re putting $1.5 billion across Defence facilities.
LIAM BARTLETT: You’ve made that clear.
LINDA REYNOLDS: So we are well and truly doing our bit.
LIAM BARTLETT: I hope you two can get together and work it out. Two and a half years of talking is a long time, Minister.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, as I said, that’s a question for the Premier. They’ve talked – you know, they have talked a lot and we’ve been doing a master plan together, but we’re yet to see a single piece of sod turned. So I would welcome quick action by the State Government on that.
LIAM BARTLETT: Okay. And you did say magnificent in terms of the fleet of Collins class. So I couldn’t believe that because I thought you were giving a compliment there to Kim Beazley.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Absolutely. The Collins have now realised their full capability. When we came to government Navy was still struggling to get a single one of those boats to sea. They’re now meeting and beating international benchmarks, and we quite often have four of them –
LIAM BARTLETT: That’s good to hear. We’ll have to –
LINDA REYNOLDS: And can I say, we’ve got the submariners based here in Western Australia, and a huge shout out to them because they do a brilliant job on behalf of our nation.
LIAM BARTLETT: We’ll have to leave it there but great to talk to you. Thank you very much for your time, Minister.
LINDA REYNOLDS: Thanks very much, Liam. Any time.
LIAM BARTLETT: Federal Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds.