1 September 2022
RT. HON BEN WALLACE, U.K. SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DEFENCE: Welcome Richard Marles to Barrow-in-Furness. We are having a completely comprehensive visit today, not only seeing the construction of the Dreadnought submarine but also the Astute‑class, obviously with the commissioning of HMS Anson. And I think what’s really amazing to me, I’m a North-West MP, I don’t live very far away, but to see the incredible complexity that the people of Barrow-in-Furness deliver in making some of the most advanced engineering projects on earth and delivering it to the Royal Navy ready for operations is a real milestone and a real achievement for this part of the world (inaudible). So I was delighted that we could show our Australian friends what’s on offer, what we do, and how we manage to make these (inaudible) pieces of machinery. And then we had a number of chats around AUKUS. Obviously, there are two pillars to AUKUS, but the main one being, obviously, the submarine issues and the next generation of submarines, and then wider issues around the Indo-Pacific as well, and (inaudible) Australia, as well. Thank you.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Can I just, first of all, thank the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, for hosting me. Over the course of the last two days, we’ve been really generously received. We had a fantastic dinner, I think, at your favourite pub last night, which was great, and it’s been an honour to be here today as well as obviously being with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and to see the commissioning of HMS Anson.
Over the past two days, we’ve been able to see BAE’s operations in Govan, where the Type 26 is being built, the reference ship for the Hunter-class, which Australia is building. And it was great to actually see the ship and to see the program here is getting back on track, just as we are seeing the program in Australia get back on track. And, of course, today to see the enormity of what it is to have a capability of building a nuclear-powered submarine. It is a huge decision for our nation to walk down that path. It’s one we are not taking lightly but we are really determined to do. We’ve had a really productive conversation today about AUKUS and taking that forward. The decision about which submarine we go with and how quickly we can get that, the cost, and how we make sure we’re doing this in a way that does not give rise to proliferation, all of that work is happening at a pace. We look forward to being able to make the final announcements on time in the first part of next year.
What’s really clear is that it is not just about the hardware. It’s not just about the submarines, as important as that is, but there’s also a question about building the human capability. Something that is really clear at this facility when you look at the training which is done here by BAE in terms of their construction staff, but also, of course, building a submariner fleet. Which is why we’re very keen to work with the United Kingdom around how we build that submariner crew, the future crew for the nuclear-powered submarines in Australia. We’re really pleased to have the ability to do that through HMS Anson and the Astute fleet. And we are looking forward to replicating that in terms of having Australians participate here in respect of learning the skills to build submarines, just as we are seeing Australians on the job in Govan building the Type 26 frigate.
I think it’s fair to say that for Australia this is our oldest relationship, but through AUKUS, with these really critical defence procurements, what we are seeing is a new life being breathed in to our oldest relationship, and there’s never been a point where we have been more engaged, where we have been closer with the United Kingdom than we are right now. We look forward with an enormous amount of optimism to the very rich agenda that our nations have going forward.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you think any of the Australian submariners who do this training on the Astute‑class will ever actually serve on an Australian-operated nuclear sub? And does that mean perhaps that Britain will be stepping in to provide some sort of capability in the near term?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the answer is yes, I do see it. I mean, we need to develop the capability of having the physical hardware of having a nuclear-powered submarine as the next generation of the Collins‑class submarines that we have right now, but we need to build the crew of submariners and that’s exactly the point. And I guess inherent in your question is a sense of timing. We need to be doing this as soon as we can. We have seen a wasted decade in terms of the decisions that Australia has needed to make in relation to the next generation of submarines after Collins. So, we have no time to waste. And that’s why, in thinking through the decision that we need to make about which submarine we run with, how we can get that hardware in place as soon as possible, we also need to be working through how we can get the human equation right as well and that is why this is such an important part.
JOURNALIST: Is Britain in a position to supply Australia with an Astute‑class submarine? How soon would that be and what would it cost?
SECRETARY WALLACE: Well it’s not in a position to provide an Astute here and now. Just out there five have been commissioned, and six or seven are still in the assembly hall. But I think what’s absolutely the case is I need seven. Once I’ve got seven, the ability to pulse, base and potentially be more permanent over in the Pacific becomes very much a greater reality. The Collins‑class comes out in the mid-2030s, I think the answer to the former point is a Navy career is longer than that, so the people training now, looking at the software, the experience of co-locating or pulsing, patrols out in Australia’s waters - we already had an Astute visit Perth last year. That will continue. But also, what’s really key here is we’re in the same cycle for the next generation. So, there Astutes that were launched; some of them are 10 years old, if not longer, so we have the same time - mid-2030s. That’s when we have to start delivering the next generation of Attack submarines. Same for the Australians. So, hopefully, we’ll get it in a place of convergence. So by the time we get to it, hopefully, a truly UK–US–Australian enterprise, we get to a position in the mid-2030s where we have people with the knowledge. Places like this, we’ve got 1,000 young people from Cumbria going through this from September, building on the hundreds already from last year, producing a skills base so we’ll be in the right place to be actually all at sea at the same time.
JOURNALIST: Minister, in terms of supporting for Ukraine, how many more Bushmasters are you going to send and when? And do you think that it’s time for Australia to send trainers to the UK as well? An international program training Ukrainian soldiers, like New Zealand has done.
And for Minister Wallace, in terms of red lines on foreign ownership of critical national infrastructure, do you think it’s wise that Landbridge have got a 97 year – or 92 years left on the lease of Darwin?
SECRETARY WALLACE: Darwin? Well, I think first of all it’s a matter for Australia (inaudible). I think first of all both of us have powers (inaudible) to make decisions about protecting our infrastructure. We’ve obviously (inaudible) last year through (inaudible) legislation (inaudible) here in the UK. On the training, We’d be delighted to be joined. Australia has already been engaged with us on a number of occasions (inaudible) expertise. New Zealand (inaudible) 105mm artillery training. When that’s complete, there will obviously be lots more opportunities. We’re doing quite a lot together. We structured the international training for Ukraine to allow as many people as possible. The Lithuanians have agreed last week (inaudible) - Canadians Lithuanians, Norwegians, Swedish, Danish, British, and the Dutch are doing it right now, we’d be delighted if Australia wishes to join us. It is the same type of army, it is the same (inaudible) we need to help the Ukrainians with, I think (inaudible).
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Obviously, we’re very (inaudible) to Ukraine. We’re the largest non-NATO contributor to the support for Ukraine, and whilst Ukraine is a long way from Australia, we’re doing that because we see the issues at stake, the principles at stake in Ukraine resonate all around the world and are very relevant to Australia’s national interests. Sixty Bushmasters to answer your question, and we’re in the process of getting them to Ukraine. We’re actively considering the question of training and we really do see that that is an important capability that needs to be worked through, so we are looking at this in a very active way and we hope to be able to talk more about that in the future.
JOURNALIST: Deputy Prime Minister, you mentioned the workforce perhaps (inaudible) as well. Can you elaborate on what that would involve? And in terms of the submariners, can you give an indication of how many Australian military personnel or submariners will be working with Royal Navy?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: The answer to that question is no, in the sense that we’re working through all of those details. But what’s important is that we are growing a crew of submariners for the future. So, we need to be doing this with a significant number of, I know that’s not specific, but that’s the sort of problem that we’re trying to address, to resolve, and that’s the conversation that we’re having. This is a really important statement of principle that we can walk down that path.
In terms of those shipbuilders, again, we’ve had something like 80 people go through the – shipbuilders – go through the program at Govan in terms of the Type 26. That’s really important in building a critical mass of people who will be go back to Adelaide and use their skills in building the Hunter-class. We need to be doing a version of that in respect of submarines as well, and it needs to end up being a significant number. At the end of the day, the great benefit of AUKUS, the great benefit of our relationship with the United Kingdom, is that we are able to have not just a transfer of technology in respect of hardware, but the transfer of skills with respect to people, and we’re really focused on making sure that dimension works as well.
JOURNALIST: Defence Secretary, the implication is that AUKUS impacted France and hurt France. Do you still see France as a viable partner in the Pacific, particularly if you’re looking to send British submarines to the Pacific? And Deputy Prime Minister, you’re going to France. You’ve been speaking to Secretary Wallace about AUKUS, but how have you managed to, and can you and have you salvaged that relationship with France considering there are French troops in Australia right now?
SECRETARY WALLACE: I think much has been made of the French displeasure of AUKUS, but they’re aware, like all of us, that the basic logic was it was a strategic decision by Australia. They wanted capability, which meant they needed a nuclear submarine, to hold your adversary to that distance. Once that decision was strategically made, it was military (inaudible), it was obvious that one of the Five Eyes partners - or more than one of the Five Eyes partners - was the logical group of people. No‑one ever did this out of anything other than we wanted a strategic step-change, it was a natural partnership choice. And the French understand that. I visited my French colleague only a few weeks ago.
On the point about are they reliable; totally reliable. They are absolutely our key European ally. Britain and France, similar size military, similar expeditionary capabilities and ambitions, the other nuclear power – nuclear weapons power - in Europe. We exercise together. We train together and, you know, that didn’t miss a heartbeat. Military to military – there’s politics and there’s military cooperation and that doesn’t miss a heartbeat. I met my French counterpart recently and I proposed we could explore doing more together in the Pacific. We could go on joint patrols or joint deployment. It’s absolutely key that we send a message in the Pacific that there’s the US voice, but there’s also a European voice, and there are only two or three big countries in Europe that can deliver that voice - and that’s Britain and France. And when we’re together we’re quite formidable allies.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Prime Minister Albanese recently met with President Macron a couple of months ago, and it was a really important meeting which was characterised by goodwill and there’s absolutely a sense that the relationship is on the right track. I met my counterpart Sébastien Lecornu in the Shangri‑La Dialogue in Singapore back in June. Looking very much forward to spending tomorrow with him. I’ve been in contact with him in the lead-up to this. In fact, we both committed to each other back in June that we needed to have a meeting as quickly as possible and to do that in France would be optimal, and that’s what we’re looking forward to tomorrow.
France is actually our closest neighbour. We don’t think about it enough like that, but France is actually Australia’s closest neighbour, in the sense that the closest overseas population to Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney is in France. It’s in Noumea. The longest border that France has with any country in the world is the maritime border it shares with Australia. France is present in the Pacific. And it’s really important for us as a neighbour and in terms of pursuing the interests that we jointly need to do, amongst Pacific Island countries in the Pacific, but in the Indo–Pacific more broadly.
So, France matters. It’s something I’ve been saying over a very long period of time and a sentiment I expressed when I met with Sébastien back in June, and it’s at the core of everything we are doing with France. So, I’m really confident about where the relationship with France is going. And you’ve rightly said there’s French air crew are right now in Darwin participating in Exercise Pitch Black. It’s been headed by a two-star, probably the most senior military officer at Exercise Pitch Black in terms of those who are commanding air crew. That says something about the commitment that France has made to that exercise. I met with him and met with their air crew, they’re doing a fantastic job and contributing so much to that exercise. I think this is a relationship which is getting back on track, which is heading in the right direction.
JOURNALIST: Deputy Prime Minister, you said that the decision is to be made on who will provide the subs early next year. How much of it comes down to cost or are there other factors at play as well when deciding who will be building them? And Secretary of State, just talking about the relationship with France, also the relationship with the UK has had its troubles with Australia. Liz Truss made some disparaging comments about Australia’s Trade Minister during the free trade negotiations. Is that all back on track now?
SECRETARY WALLACE: I can answer that. I mean I went on AUKUS - the UK–Australian bilateral only a few months ago with Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary before the change of government. It was a perfectly good, strong relationship. And, of course, I think in trade negotiations you expect feisty negotiations, I wouldn’t expect anything less than Australia.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I think the relationship with the United Kingdom is really as close as it’s ever been, and that’s a terrific thing to say given the history between our two countries. I met Liz Truss at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali. We had an excellent bilateral meeting there. So, there is a good relationship that we have with Liz Truss. So, I think that the relationship is in an excellent place. The first part of your question?
JOURNALIST: Sorry; with choice of submarine provider, how much of it comes down to cost?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, cost is clearly a factor, obviously, but it’s not the only factor. We need to be thinking about capability and that is what is driving this process in the first place. We need a long-range highly capable submarine, and what that means going forward needs to be nuclear power. So, capability is fundamental. But also, we need to be thinking through the solution of how we can get this capability as soon as possible, given the lost decade that we have had. So, the timing, capability, costs – they all factor in to the decision that we need to make. It is a huge decision for our nation, but the process that we are going through right now to make that decision is (inaudible).
JOURNALIST: Deputy Prime Minister, just wanted to know is there a timing for when Australian submariners will be able to work with the Royal Navy? I know you mentioned that the decision will be made (inaudible) early next year, but could this be seen as a bit of a leaning towards, you know, the United Kingdom providing those submarines in the future?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: We’ve got a process to go through. So, I do not want to pre-empt the process by, in a sense, answering your question in that way. We need to work through exactly what ultimately is the platform that together we will, as three countries, seek to move forward with. I think in answer to the first question we’ll work through the details of the timing on when crews can – when Australians can start participating in HMS Anson, but we need to be developing that capability amongst our submariners as soon as possible.
SECRETARY WALLACE: We’ve already got some from Australia and the fact will be that HMS Anson, when she’s in operation, she’ll have Australians on board.
Just one thing on AUKUS, because I think people seem to pose a question as if it’s an either/or. As if buying an American one off-the-shelf, or one of these ones off-the-shelf – it’s not that. AUKUS is a collaborative program between three nations and the question is how do we all get to 2035-2040 in our deliveries, which we all need for our cycles, and how collaborative can we be. So, I think there’s a confusion as to somehow this is me trying to sell that submarine and the Minister will go off to the United States and buy that, but actually the ultimate is to get all of us to get through the 2030s where we produce a submarine that is in my view, truly collaborative, might have a bit of all three on it. And in the meantime, we’ve helped contribute to building a skills base, and a workforce, and an operating Navy to deliver that new strategic capability. So, it may not look like a submarine that none of us have on our stocks, and I can tell you that because when boat seven is out of the Astutes, that’s it. We are onto our next design and our new one, and that might well be fully shared with all three nations as a collaborative design.