Interview with Warwick Long, ABC Melbourne 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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(02) 6277 7840

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14 March 2023

WARWICK LONG: Pat Conroy is the Minister for Defence Industry and can join you now on the program. Pat Conroy, Welcome to Drive.


LONG: Is it worth it?

CONROY: Absolutely. This is all about increasing the capability of the Royal Australian Navy. Nuclear-powered submarines are the most advanced naval capability in the world. They are the apex predator of the oceans, as someone has put it, and they will really give us the ability to do things that diesel power submarines can't do. They can get to places we need them to get to and they can carry greater payloads of weapons, including vertically launched cruise missiles. So they really give us the ability to deter potential adversaries. And this is really what this is about, supporting peace and stability by deterring attacks on Australia. And that's why today's announcement is so important. It's also the greatest ever industrial undertaking this country has ever attempted, surpassing the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme, for example. And that will help create 20,000 jobs, modernising Australian industry at the same time as delivering this critical capability to the Navy.

LONG: And that's your part of the world here, isn't it, Minister for Defence Industry? It's going to take a lot of work to build these subs. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of man-hours. I think if one person was working on it, it would take years, or multiple decades, to try and put a sub together. Just how much, in terms of labour, are you expecting to put into building these submarines?

CONROY: Well, we're forecasting around 20,000 jobs across many activities, and that includes eight and a half thousand jobs building and maintaining the submarines. Importantly, that doesn't include the tier one and two supplies, so the supply chain providing components, so we expect even more jobs out of that. But in the shipyard, actually, building the submarines is five and a half thousand jobs and that's basically double what was forecast to build the attack class, the diesel class submarines, that the last government cancelled. So this is a huge industrial undertaking. And even more than the actual jobs is the modernisation, we'll be needing thousands of scientists and engineers, advanced tradespeople, just as the Collins-class submarine construction modernised manufacturing in the early 90s, this will do the same for another generation of manufacturing. So it's a nation-building announcement of epic proportions.

LONG: Are you prepared for it to blow out your budget? The subs could cost more than we expect, according to Associate Professor Maria Rost Rublee from Monash University. Here's her speaking to us earlier today.

MARIA ROST RUBLEE: Anytime you have a new big Defence build, it's going to be 50 per cent more. I mean, just look at the history of US big industrial projects. That's the way it happens, because you have design flaws that you don't know you have until you're in the middle of it. And so 370 billion, the fact is, Australia’s Defence budget every year is 48 billion right now. There's going to be an extra 15 billion on top. So it's just something to be concerned about.

LONG: That was her speaking on this show earlier today. Do you think the submarine, the cost of the submarines ultimately is going to be more than what the sticker price is yet?

CONROY: I don't believe so, because we've actually been very conservative in how we've approached the costings of this. We've included in the cost of this project many things that previous Defence projects haven't included. For example, the cost of sustainment, which wasn't in the attack class estimate of $90 billion, the cost of developing and upskilling the workforce, the infrastructure spend, the weapons and operations. And importantly, a very significant amount of contingency is already baked into the budget, recognising the high risks of this project. So I think we're being conservative and importantly, we've made sensible decisions to de-risk the project. So, for example, the first SSN AUKUS that we will build in Adelaide, that's due to hit the water in the early 2040s, that won't be the first of type. The first of type will be built by the British in the mid-to-late 2030s and it's conceivable that there'll be maybe even two or three British submarines in the water before we finish ours first. So that will de-risk the project. And we've made sensible decisions, learning from experience with the Collins-class submarines to really make sure that we've taken a level headed approach to this.

LONG: And oh my you're confident in terms of keeping the budget in tow, given the experience of Collins-class submarines and others in the past. I suppose then, just looking forward, do you think, you've described them as the apex predator of the ocean earlier, do you think that provides a significant deterrent to other nations in our area? Of course a lot of this discussion in this area is around China. Will the submarines alone be enough to shore up Australia's borders?

CONROY: Well, I won't reflect on individual countries, but I will say that we're in the middle of a regional arms race. There is spending of historic proportions on re-equipping militaries in our region and we've been very clear with the Australian public that we face the greatest strategic uncertainty since 1945 and that demands increased capabilities for the Australian Defence Force. And this really is the critical capability in the naval sphere. It is something that potential adversaries worry about the most. And we really are confident that it will have the ability to project power, to put question marks in the mind of potential adversaries and really raise the cost of any potential action against Australia. And that's really what this is about. These submarines aren't about making war, they're about deterring war by making the pain felt by potential adversaries that much greater. And that's why they're so important. That's why the US and the United Kingdom are supporting us to acquire them, because they realise that we need to grow the industrial base of democracies of like-minded countries to support our values and to support our values around the globe.

LONG: Pat Conroy, thanks for having the time to join us.

CONROY: Thank you. Have a great afternoon.

LONG: Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy joining you there on the programme, talking up the sale or the purchase of submarines for Australia and what it means for our defence preparedness going forward.


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