Interview with Gary Adshead, 6PR Morning Show

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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14 March 2023

GARY ADSHEAD, HOST: The, as I said, eye-watering announcement, in terms of the cost - $368 billion is the price tag that's been put at the top end of all of this -  AUKUS deal. To go through some of the issues, the Federal Defence Industries Minister Pat Conroy joins me on the line. Thanks very much for your time, Minister.


ADSHEAD: I’m good. So many moving parts to this. Maybe, perhaps from your point of view, you can explain some of the time frames, because some people listening might think, gee, we got to wait till 2033 before we get one of these first Virginia class submarines delivered to us that we're buying. And then, of course, way out to 2040s before we get our own homemade, British-designed nuclear subs.

CONROY: Yeah, the starting point for all this is that we have the excellent Collins class diesel-powered submarines in service at the moment. They're reaching the end of their life and even with a life of type extension, they'll start exiting service in the late 2030s. So, if we start from the end, which is building our own homegrown nuclear submarines, we will be starting work on that right now, this year. But the earliest we can get an Australian nuclear-built submarine, the SSN AUKUS, will be in the early 2040s. So, we're faced with this very significant capability gap when we came into power of what do we do with submarines that had to be retired and how do we fill it before we have the ones that we're building?

And that's where striking this deal with the United States to acquire at least three and up to five Virginia class nuclear attack submarines really fills the capability gap and deals with the fact that for ten years we had chopping and changing about what submarine we were going to get. In the lead-up to that - and those submarines will start to be delivered in the early 2030s. In the lead-up to that, we obviously have to demonstrate to our partners and develop the skills to operate and maintain nuclear-powered submarines.

And that's why, from this year, there will be increased visits to Western Australia and HMAS Stirling, in particular, of US Virginia class submarines. And the UK will increase their visits from 2026 and then in 2027, we will have a forward rotational force west, called Surf West, of four US nuclear attack submarines and one British Astute class submarine that will rotate through HMAS Stirling, where we will obviously develop the skills. We'll have Australian sailors on them to some extent and we'll be doing significant maintenance on them in Australia, at HMAS Stirling and Henderson to develop our skills. So, it's really a three stage plan where at the end of this process, we have the ability to make nuclear-powered submarines in this country and through that, improve our defence capabilities, as well as generating around 20,000 jobs.

ADSHEAD: So, before the last federal election, of course, there was the announcement down there at Henderson of a $4.3 billion commitment for a submarine dry docking facility. Is that part of all of this?

CONROY: The dry dock was supposed to serve multiple purposes, including surface vessels. We've said we'll announce the path forward for that when the government responds to the Defence Strategic Review, which is next month. Broadly, but importantly, as part of this announcement, we're committing to spending $8 billion over the decade to upgrade the infrastructure around HMAS Stirling, including $1 billion over the next four years, to enable it to receive those nuclear submarines from the US and the UK. The visits and the rotation, and to be able to perform the maintenance on them. The dry dock will be a separate announcement later on.

ADSHEAD: Okay. Because obviously one of the discussions that's being had now is how we're going to pay for it. I know that certainly the Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, was asked where the savings are going to come this morning here in WA. I think that's going to be revealed in the budget that he said. But can you give us any idea? You talk about possibly $3 billion cuts from Defence in order to make up for this?

CONROY: Well, what we've said is there's $9 billion of cost over the forward estimates over the next four years. $6 billion will be offset from the money that was put aside for the French attack class. And we've said that the other $3 billion will be found by reprioritising projects within the Integrated Investment Program, which is the gigantic investment programme for Defence. We'll announce that within the budget context of which projects have been reprioritised. That happens all the time, to be quite frank, and that's something that we'll manage through the Defence portfolio and as part of the Defence Strategic Review, which has identified projects that just make less strategic sense than they did previously. But we shouldn't lose focus on the fact that this is a great day for Western Australia and a great day for Australia as a whole. This is a significant enhancement to our Defence capability and a massive jobs and investment boost to Western Australia.

ADSHEAD: What would you say to people listening who might think, well, now we are categorically a significant target, if Australia was to be drawn in some sort of conflict here in the Indo-Pacific. What do you say to West Australians? Because you well know that Garden Island is basically a causeway bridge away from the mainland.

CONROY: Well, what I'd say is we face the greatest strategic uncertainty since 1945 and we need to increase the ability to defend ourselves and to deter attacks on Australia. This is ultimately why we're acquiring these submarines, is to promote peace and stability by the threat of inflicting more harm on anyone who might have negative intentions to us. So that's really important - to point that out. We've already obviously got a large naval base at HMAS Stirling. We've already got shared facilities with the US. We've already got force rotation in Australia, for example, we have US Marines that rotate through Darwin every year. So, this is an additional obviously rotation of forces in the build up to us having our own sovereign nuclear submarine capability.

ADSHEAD: But do you think it escalates the chances of an arms race with China in relation to this? Because they're not just going to sit back, are they? They're going to get bigger and bigger. So, where's the end game?

CONROY: Well, what I can say to you is that there's a regional arms race that's occurring already. There's a regional arms race that is happening right now and we're acquiring nuclear-powered submarines to increase our capability to defend our nation. The alternative is basically to sit on our hands and to have the Collins class submarines retire from service in late 2030s and either not replace them, or replace them with diesel powered submarines that, in our assessment and based on the best advice, will not be able to do the things we need them to do in the areas we need them to do them in. The only course of action for a responsible government is to invest in the defence and security of our nation. Because you're absolutely right, there is a regional arms race going on already. We have an obligation to respond to that, to protect the people of Australia.

ADSHEAD: Can I ask you just as part of this, obviously here in Western Australia we talk about sort of Air Force capability as well and we don't have the joint strike fighters here or any of them in Western Australia. In fact, we don't have anything that could go out there and defend us from Western Australia right now. Because of all of this activity that will start to happen off Garden Island, is that the next step that we're going to need to see that kind of level of Air Force protection as well?

CONROY: Well, the Defence Strategic Review, which has been handed to government provided a thorough analysis of what's called ‘force posture’, which is where our force is based. So, you can expect us to address questions like the one you've just posed us when the government responds to the DSR and releases a public version of the DSR before the budget which is scheduled for early May. So, your question is really understandable, but you can expect the response as part of the DSR process.

ADSHEAD: Minster Conroy, thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate your time on a busy day.

CONROY: Thanks, Gary. Have a great morning, bye.

ADSHEAD: That's the Defence Industry's Minister federally, Pat Conroy.


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