Interview with Tom Elliott, 3AW Drive

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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

TOM ELLIOTT:  The Minister for Defence Industry joins us. Pat Conroy, good afternoon.


ELLIOTT:  Well, I’m very well, thank you. Thank you for joining us. This project to buy not one but two classes of nuclear submarines, is this the single biggest thing that Defence has almost ever done?

CONROY:  Well, it’s certainly the single biggest thing Defence has ever done. Quite frankly, it’s the single biggest thing the country has ever done industrially. It surpasses the Snowy Mountains scheme and is on par with establishing the Australian motor industry. It will enhance our defence capability and create around 20,000 jobs. So, it’s a very big day for the country.

ELLIOTT:  No doubt. We had a caller on my colleague Neil Mitchell’s program this morning who said that he was, I think, a former submariner, and he said, look, he reckons we’d be better off buying, you know, 30 or 40 conventional subs off the plan versus the much smaller number of nuclear submarines we’re going to get. Did you weigh up a bigger fleet of conventional submarines versus a smaller fleet of nuclear boats?

CONROY:  Well, we weighed up the choices between conventional submarines and nuclear-powered submarines. And to be frank, what we’re asking our submarines to do in the late 2030s and 2040s you can only ask a nuclear-powered submarine to do it in terms of being able to survive in areas where conventional-powered submarines are very easy to detect because every few days they have to what’s called snort –

ELLIOTT:  Surface, yeah.

CONROY: – which means put up a mast and suck in air. So not only are nuclear-powered submarines more survivable because they can stay underwater for months on end. Literally, the only thing that limits them, the first thing that limits them is food, but, secondly, they’re able to go at higher speed basically all the time and they can carry a lot more weapons including vertically launched payloads, things like cruise missiles.


CONROY:  So, it’s a huge capability enhancement for the Australian Defence Force, for the navy in particular.

ELLIOTT:  Now, one of the weird things that might happen – I know we’re going to try and extend the life of the conventional Collins class submarines and we’re going to buy between three and five Virginia class nuclear submarines and then be part of this jointly developed future submarine with the UK and the US and us all building it together. There is a possibility, is there not, that there could be a few years where we actually have three classes of submarines serving concurrently? And if that’s true, won’t that be complicated?

CONROY:  There could be a very small number of years. So, there’s certainly going to be a number of years where we’ve got two classes of submarines. And that’s not unusual. For example, when the Collins class came into service, we were still operating the Oberon class submarines, the old O‑boats. Importantly - and this is one of the key de-risking things that we've done - all three classes will have the same combat systems.

So, the combat system on the Collins is a joint-developed combat system we have with the American navy. That’s already in service with the Virginia class and it will go into SSN AUKUS, the new submarine, as will the mark 48 heavy weight torpedos. So, there’s a lot of commonality between the Collins, the Virginia and then on to SSN AUKUS, and that’s really important. And, in fact, the Virginias and the SSN AUKUS will have a similar propulsion system, so similar nuclear reactors.

So, yes, there’s going to be a crossover, but it is something we can manage. And ultimately, it’s the price we have to pay for the 10 years of waste and changed decisions around what submarine to get. That’s why we’ve been forced to get Virginias before we get to the Australian-made submarine.

ELLIOTT:  Okay. Now, even with the Collins class, the smaller Collins class fleet we currently have, we often struggle to crew them. What are you going to do? If we’re going to have these bigger nuclear submarines and the whole bigger industry, what are you going to do to attract more people to become submariners?

CONROY:  Well, the Royal Australian Navy has launched a recruitment campaign right now. And we’ve got a new recruiter for the entire Australian Defence Force, Adecco, that’s putting a lot of resources into this. And probably the most important thing is we’re starting now recruiting people for this endeavour. We have Australian naval personnel right now on US and UK submarines and submarine courses. And, in fact, we’ve got Australians in the US nuclear training course and they’re in the top 30 per cent of students. So, we’ve started the recruitment process now, but we acknowledge obviously one of the greatest challenges is we need to find more sailors for these boats. There’s no denying that. But we’re starting right now, and we’ve got a bit of time and we’re going to work up towards it.

ELLIOTT:  One of our – probably our biggest economic trading partner is, of course, the People’s Republic of China. And the purchase and the development of these nuclear submarines is quite possibly aimed at Chinese, or at the Chinese. Is there a problem that China might react very badly to what we’re doing here?

CONROY:  Well, I’m not going to comment on any specific country. But I’ll make the point that we’ve engaged really seriously with a whole lot of countries and briefed them about why and how we’re making decisions. Between the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, myself and the Foreign Minister we engaged with 60 countries ahead of the announcement. And ultimately, we have to acknowledge that there’s a regional arms race going on and we need to equip the ADF with the best capability we can get. And this is all about deterring any potential adversary and in that way contributing to peace and stability. Deterrence is really important because that deters anyone taking the risk of attacking another nation. And that’s why this capability is so important.

ELLIOTT:  Is there a slight risk with the amount of money that we’re spending – it is a colossal sum of money; I know, you know, some of it is decades down the track, but it’s still a lot of money – that we’re putting all of our eggs into one basket, because this defence project is so big that we sort of almost can’t tackle anything else in defence?

CONROY:  I don’t think that’s a fair characterisation. It’s a very significant sum of money; there’s no argument there. It will grow to on average 0.15 per cent of GDP. But that’s in the context of a defence budget that’s 2 per cent of GDP now and is growing to about 2.2 per cent of GDP over the decade. So that 0.15 per cent is in the context of a defence budget that is growing and will hit 2.2 per cent by the end of the decade.

So, it’s a very important capability, but we’re investing in our Joint Strike Fighters, investing in our Growler electronic attack aircraft, investing in a whole lot of capabilities to make sure that we’ve got a balanced ADF that really is regionally superior and able to provide that strong deterrence.

ELLIOTT:  In late 2021, I was at a private dinner where a then cabinet minister from the previous Morrison government said to me that one of the reasons they wanted to get nuclear submarines – they’d just abandoned the French Barracuda class for the nuclear class that hadn’t then been defined – but he said it was to get the case for civilian nuclear power established in Australia. Is that still a goal here? That if people get used to seeing a nuclear submarine in the odd port here and there that we might one day be able to have a nuclear reactor to reduce our emissions from generating electricity.

CONROY:  Well, it’s definitely not the position of the Albanese Labor government. We’re opposed to nuclear power for electricity production for the domestic industry. And, in fact, one of the pre-conditions that we made when we supported AUKUS and one the government of the day accepted was that this would not rely – this decision would not then rely on the development of a domestic nuclear power industry.

That’s really important, and that’s why the reactors are being provided to us welded and sealed shut by the United States and the United Kingdom. And they won’t need refuelling for the 30-year life on the submarine. The reactor will be fuelled for the life; we won’t need to touch it. And that’s really important because we’re opposed to a domestic nuclear industry for electricity production. It’s much more expensive than renewable energy firmed up with batteries and pumped hydro. We just don’t need it in this country. It’s very expensive and it will put up power prices.

ELLIOTT:  But it is better for submarines?

CONROY:  Well, it’s better for submarines because obviously, submarines are operating in a very confined environment. You can’t power a submarine with solar power or wind power obviously. The two classes of submarine out there are either battery-powered through diesel engines or nuclear-powered submarines. So, it’s entirely reasonable for submarines because you don’t have the benefit of having big solar farms connected to them.

ELLIOTT:  Ok. Final question. I’ve heard in the press releases a lot of talk about the benefits that Western Australia and South Australia are going to get over the coming decades with the submarine program, which is great for them. What will Victoria get out of this?

CONROY:  Well, there’ll be massive opportunities for Victorian industry. The 20,000 jobs that we’ve identified are mainly related to the industrial construction of the shipyards and then building the submarines and maintaining them and the ADF personnel and the scientists and technicians. But there will be a whole lot of Australian defence companies supplying parts and components not just to the Australian submarines but potentially the British submarines.

Just as the Collins submarine involved the supply chain across the country, so will these. I represent a seat in the Hunter Valley around Newcastle, and we built a critical part for the Collins class submarine even though they were assembled in Adelaide. And I imagine – well, not imagine, I’m certain that will be the case now that the very high-tech manufacturing and engineering industries in Melbourne will have a great shot of supplying parts to these submarines.

This really will be a national endeavour. As I said, this is the greatest industrial undertaking this country has ever attempted. The benefits and the challenges won’t just be limited to WA and SA; it will be a true national endeavour, including Victoria.

ELLIOTT:  Thank you so much for your time. Pat Conroy, the Minister for Defence Industry.


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