Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

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(02) 6277 7840

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17 March 2023

SUBJECTS: Tomahawk missiles; AUKUS

TOM CONNELL: Well, let's return to our story on these Tomahawk missiles. First, it was the submarine announcement, but this does show that AUKUS is more than just about submarines. Joining me now, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy. Thanks very much for your time. Just first of all, on the cost of these and how we're paying for them, is this already allocated money or will you need to find this in the budget in May?

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY, PAT CONROY: So the Tomahawk acquisition is part of the Defence Integrated Investment Program. So money has been put aside. Government hasn't made what's called the second pass approval.  It’s gone through the approval processes to this stage, and that's where we get the pricing information from the US system, and then Government will make a final decision. But the money is allocated within the IIP for what is around a $1.3 billion expenditure. This is associated with equipping the Hobart class air warfare destroyers with long range strike, to really give them a greater firepower and greater ability to keep potential adversaries at bay. Which is obviously a continuing theme of the Albanese Labor Government's Defence initiatives, which is all about improving long range strike for the Australian Defence Force.

CONNELL: And what about on our submarines? Will they go on the Virginia class submarines?

CONROY: Well, the United States Virginia class submarines have that capability. The Virginia class submarines that we will be acquiring in the early 2030s will have vertical launch tubes, which is the system that they're launched out of. So we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. But obviously we've been very clear that any future nuclear powered submarine that we acquire, whether it's the Virginia's or SSN AUKUS, will have the capacity for torpedoes, will have the capacity for cruise missiles such as Tomahawks, and hopefully as technology develops, the ability to fire hypersonic missiles. So long range strike is at the heart of this Government’s commitment to equipping the Australian Defence Force, our national security and our defence rests on keeping anniversary at bay as far away as possible.

CONNELL: Okay, so when you say you don't want to get ahead of yourself, what do you mean by that? That it might not be the Tomahawk, but it would be similar missile if it weren't that on the submarine? Is that what you’re saying?

CONROY: Well, we're envisaging a Tomahawk, but we haven't made a formal decision on that yet. And so I'm just trying to be frank with your listeners, or your viewers rather. But the Virginia class that’s in service for the United States has Tomahawk cruise missiles in its vertical launch tubes. We've been very clear that the capability we're acquiring will have the capacity to launch cruise missiles. So the Tomahawk is the logical platform. But that’s not part of what we've gone to the United States Government with – the potential acquisition of up to 220 Tomahawk cruise missiles is to equip the Hobart class air warfare destroyers.

CONNELL: Japan two weeks ago confirmed it wanted to buy 400 Tomahawks from the US. What does all this say about the build-up in the region?

CONROY: Well, we’ve been very open with the Australian public that we're facing the most significant regional arms race since World War II, and that’s at the same time as we face the greatest strategic uncertainty since 1940. So it's been incumbent on our government to invest and improve our defence capability. This is really important because this is about deterring any potential adversaries to promote peace and stability. And that's why we've made the AUKUS announcement about the acquisition of nuclear powered submarines. And that's why equipping our naval vessels with long range strike is critical to improving the capability of the ADF.

CONNELL: I was taking a look at countries with nuclear submarines the other day. Nuclear propelled submarines. I’m pretty sure every one of those countries also had nuclear weapons. Would that be a possible step for Australia one day?

CONROY: Absolutely not. We've been very clear that we will not be acquiring nuclear weapons. We are a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. We're a proud signatory to the Treaty of Rarotonga, which commits to a nuclear weapons free South Pacific. We will not be acquiring nuclear weapons. And importantly, as part of the acquisition sorry.

CONNELL: Yeah. Go and finish your thought.

CONROY: I was just going to say, as part of the acquisition of the Virginia class and SSN AUKUS, is the fact that we are acquiring a reactor that is sealed and completely welded shut. We do not have to touch the reactor. And that's critical because we do not have a significant domestic nuclear industry other than Lucas Heights and a bit of medical research, and we don't want to pursue that. And that's why acquiring a reactor through this process is so critical. We do not have to refuel it, we do not have to touch it for the roughly three decade life of our submarines.

CONNELL: What about the prospect that, as part of the deterrent, even if we don't have our own nuclear weapons, we might need to host them in some form via, say, the US. Is that on the table?

CONROY: That is not on the table. We obviously are allies of the United States and we have the Treaty of ANZUS that gives us protection and obligations, and we exist under the nuclear umbrella, as some say. But we are committed to the Treaty of Rarotonga which commits us to a nuclear weapons free South Pacific.

CONNELL: And just finally, on the cost when we get back to the submarines. 0.15% of GDP is how the cost was described. That's an average over the whole life of the project. It obviously starts very low. How high does it get? What's the highest projected annual cost?

CONROY: Well, I’m not in a position to reveal that figure. We've been very clear that the 0.15% measure is the most accurate. It's the most accurate because it demonstrates the scale of national effort that this is required for this. It's still in the order of one tenth, actually less than one tenth of our defence budget. But it's a considerable effort, on that we’ve been very clear. And importantly, those costs include things like the cost of sustaining the submarines, the workforce associated with it, the cost of the weapons, the cost of the infrastructure. And that's important, because unlike the Attack class, for example, that didn't have any of those costs. So the $90 billion figure that the last government quoted for Attack class underestimated dramatically the cost.

CONNELL: Perhaps that being this transparent, though, because you say it's the most accurate cost. Sure, that's the average. But another way to measure it is how much impulse it will put on any one budget. Do you have that figure as the government calculated the figure, how much this will cost in its most expensive year?

CONROY: Well, we've been clear about the costs over the next four years, which is $9 billion, and over the decade, which is $50 to $58 billion. We think once you go beyond there, GDP is a much better measure because you've got variations. Like, for example, the exchange rate drives a big chunk of these costs. Given parts for this submarine will come from the United States and the United Kingdom. So I know it’s a frustrating answer, but actually the most accurate answer is to use the measurement of 0.15% of GDP.

CONNELL: But has anyone done that across the life of the program? There must also be a calculation on how or when it spikes.

CONROY: Well, we've got a good idea of the cost figures, and obviously you’ve got more accuracy earlier in the process, and we understand that. But a lot of this is to be still figured out, to be honest, because the full design of SSN AUKUS is not complete. The build strategy has not been finalised. So that’s why we're using the GDP figure, because it's a more accurate measure. And we're very confident, for example, with a very significant amount of contingency in it to deal with the challenges, that will come in this really exciting nation building project.

CONNELL: Pat Conroy, Got to leave it there. Thank you.

CONROY: Thanks, Tom.


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