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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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23 April 2023

SUBJECTS: Australia’s submarine capability; AUKUS; ANZAC Day; Defence Strategic Review

ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Richard Marles, thanks for joining us.


CLENNELL: Tell me about the story of you going on a submarine.

MARLES: Well, it was a unique experience. I mean there's a few people have done it, but not many. I had 24 hours on the submarine. So got to see, if you like, the full daily cycle of life. I mean, it's just interesting in terms of the dimensions of the submarine, what life is like on there, the rhythm that people go through. So it was– and to meet the crew, not just the officers, the people in command, though obviously I did meet them, but also the people who were cooking breakfast, the people who were working on engines. To see it all was really a fantastic and privileged experience.

CLENNELL: Why did you want to do it? And when did this all occur, and where?

MARLES: Well, it was a few years ago now. I mean, I was keen to do it, I guess, as part of my education, really, as the Shadow Minister for Defence, around the kind of key platforms that we have. But I think for me, the critical question was– and I don't think there's an obvious answer to it, so it was one I was trying to search for, which is why submarines are so important. And it was clear that in all the discussion that people had about submarines, they were important, a lot of money was being spent on them. At that point in time, we were pursuing the Attack class submarine with the French. It was still a huge program, and easily the biggest program in the Defence portfolio. And for me, this was about getting an education as to why submarines mattered. And I think I learned a lot.

CLENNELL: And this was a Collins class?

MARLES: It was.

CLENNELL: Are you the only Defence Minister to have done this?

MARLES: I'm not sure. I don't think there are many, if there are others who have done it. I think people have been on a submarine, but to actually spend 24 hours, and go out to sea on one, and go down at depth as we did off the coast of Fremantle, I think that is a pretty unusual experience.

CLENNELL: They call it the silent service because when you're down there, you can't hear anything. It's not like the movies, is that right?

MARLES: It is not like the movies. I was looking for the red light and I was listening for the ping ping, which you hear in the submarine movies. But in fact, there was none of that. It was quiet. It had, to me, something like the dimensions of a being on an aeroplane, not quite the same, you don't have the field of view, but that sort of sense of you're rubbing up against things as you're walking down a corridor, everything is pretty tight. It was like that. But it was– and there are no windows obviously, so you have no sense of where you are other than what's on the instruments that you're looking at. So you know you're at depth because there's a meter which is telling you you're at depth, but there's no feeling of being at depth.

CLENNEL: Well how deep were you?

MARLES: Oh well, there’s quite a lot about submarines which are classified, so it's hard to go into that specific. But it really was an extraordinary experience. And I think one of the things that really stuck with me is the crew. I mean, the crew were just incredibly professional. It was probably, personally, the warmest working environment I've ever seen. If I could put it that way. There was an enormous amount of camaraderie. I asked a lot of people throughout the entire chain of command what was it that made them work on a submarine. What did they like most about working on a submarine. And you got the same answer from everyone. Everyone said they loved working on a submarine because they like coming to work with their friends. That was the way they put it. They like coming to work with their friends. And indeed, you would think if you're on a submarine in that environment, when you got R&R you'd be all going in different directions. They hang out with each other on the surface, you know that this was a really tight knit group of people.

CLENNELL: And we know with the nuclear deployments, the AUKUS deployments, people are going to be underwater for longer. How long a Collins class are they typically under?

MARLES: Well again, it’s hard to go into details, but I mean, they will be at sea for weeks. But under the water for, well, periods measured in days, at least to a periscope depth. So that might mean in fact that they're underwater for a considerably longer period of time than that, but you're coming up to periscope depth in order to recharge the batteries on a Collins class submarine. So you're at depth, if you like, for periods measured in days. Obviously with a nuclear-powered submarine you can be at depth for periods measured in months and so that's very different. But most of the deployments are weeks, or a short number of months. But people are spending a considerable amount of time together in a very closed environment.

CLENNELL: So you must have imagined what that was like while you were down there. Do you think you could hack it months underwater?

MARLES: Probably not. I mean, it's time away from family. Obviously, there is something about not seeing sunlight and not having the open space. But again, the thing that really struck me was the camaraderie amongst the crew. I mean, that this was a group of people who genuinely liked working with each other and enjoyed each other's company and relied upon each other. And I was quite taken by that. I found myself weeks after the experience actually thinking about what that that group of people were doing right now. I mean, it was, I've really never kind of had that experience before in terms of seeking the working environments.

CLENNELL: Was there women on the submarine as well?


CLENNELL: What kind of percentage?

MARLES: I'm not exactly sure what the percentage was on that crew. But there were definitely women on board and women are completely integrated now in terms of our submarines. And I think I'm right in saying that the 2IC was a woman on that particular crew. So quite senior women as well. Hopefully, we're getting to a point where women will be in command of submarines. But again, it was just a very tight knit group of people.

CLENNELL: So I've been reading a book by a submariner called Commodore Peter Scott about the life of a submariner. It’s just come out. And he does talk about a number of near death experiences where the crew nearly dies because the subs get flooded. And stories of Navy personnel actually dying. It is quite dangerous work isn't?

MARLES: Oh, it’s really dangerous. I mean, obviously you're working in a completely unusual environment, in a very complex machine and if something goes wrong with that machine, then you're in a very dangerous and precarious situation. And a kind of dynamic, which I wasn't across, was obviously a few are in relatively shallow waters that's one thing, if the submarine sinks as it were, if you're in the much deeper waters and the submarine loses power, or for whatever reason is not able to go up, it is literally sinking, that's a very dangerous situation. And of course, there have been a number of tragedies with submarines, and I think submariners are very aware of that.

CLENNELL: So when we think leading up to Anzac Day about our brave people in uniform, we probably think soldiers more, don't we? Commodore Scott wrote that the view is when you're at sea as a submariner, you're already at war. Is that a fair description? And do we give enough thought to our submariners? Might we be thinking more about our submariners going forward, given your policy?

MARLES: Look, I definitely think we should. I mean, and it's probably right that we don't think about submariners enough. I mean, this is a huge strategic asset. The answer to the question about why submarines matter, which really did not become apparent to me until doing this exercise, is that submarines; because of their stealth, because any adversary can't see where they are, really have of the platforms that we have are the ones the place the greatest and the biggest question mark in any adversaries mind. They give pause for thought. In that sense, that is something that we need to have right now. In a non-war environment, we need to be having deterrence in place, so that we don't find ourselves going to war. And that means giving adversaries pause for thought. And that's what submariners do each and every day. And there is a danger in what submariners do and they are projecting from our country. These are very brave men and women and we should definitely be thinking about them on Anzac Day.

CLENNELL: Should we be concerned then about the effect of Australia acquiring nuclear submarines, given what we've just spoken about, the possibility of accidents and the like?

MARLES: Well, no one takes this lightly. But we also have a highly professional group of submariners now, and obviously, we are giving ourselves the time to make sure that we train up a cohort on nuclear-powered submarines. We've always operated our submarines incredibly professionally and we will do that in the future in respect of our nuclear-powered submarines. And so, Australians can have a complete sense of confidence that these are platforms that will be managed to the highest degree of safety. Obviously, we are talking about platforms which are military capability. They go into dangerous environments. That's the nature of what military capabilities do. But these will be operated to the highest degree of safety.

CLENNELL: If Scott Morrison hadn't begun this AUKUS process, and I appreciate you had a lot to do with landing it, where do you think Australia would be at with submarines right now? Still going with the French?

MARLES: Well, I mean, it's a hard question to answer in terms of it being a hypothetical. Really the way, you know, I look at it, is that we did have a decade where we were going back and forth around a couple of submarine propositions in terms of what would be the successor class of submarines to the Collins class submarines. That’s regrettable that we lost a decade there. But where we've landed now is a really good landing. And, again–

CLENNELL: Did you think back then, including, when you're visiting a sub, that nuclear submarines were a good option, as shadow defence?

MARLES: Again, nuclear submarines have been a topic of conversation for a long time. The fact that a nuclear submarine can obviously be underwater for longer, the fact that it can go faster, obviously means that question mark that you put in an adversaries mind is much bigger when you're talking about a nuclear-powered submarine. It can be in a wider range of places and it can be underwater, as we’ve said, for longer. So it's a much bigger capability, a much greater capability. And again, I'm confident that we're going to be able to deliver this and I think it'll be a great asset for Australia in the future.

CLENNELL: And so, patrols start when? And when do we get the first sub?

MARLES: Well, we will get the first Australian flagged sub in the early 2030s. But well prior to that, in fact really from now, you'll have Australians working on nuclear-powered submarines, getting the experience of working on both the Virginia class submarine in America and the Astute class submarines in Britain. We’ll have– we are having visits of those right now to Australia and we will have a forward rotation of Virginia class submarines and Astute class submarines from Britain from 2027. And that will be based at, or actually operating out of HMAS Stirling. And so, that forward rotation is a great opportunity for Australian crew to get the experience of working on a nuclear-powered submarine. And so, that's only a few years away.

CLENNELL: And what did you make of Paul Keating’s comments and continuing comments around this? Have you ever sought to brief him about the Government's plans? Or have you had interactions with him on the lead up to the announcement?

MARLES: Look, I have. And obviously, you know, I have a high regard for Paul Keating and I've been keen to keep him abreast of the thinking of the Government and the direction in which we're going. Look, in terms of the capability that we need in the future and making sure that it matches, if you like, the capability that came from– has been there with the Collins class submarine, which you know, evolved during the Hawke-Keating years. And we saw the beginning of the commissioning of the Collins class in the late 90s through the early 2000s. Collins has been and continues to be on this day, a long-range capable submarine.

But the point is that as we go into the 2030s, it will be increasingly possible to detect a diesel electric submarine while it recharges the batteries - while it snorts, is the term of art. And that's going to reduce the size of that question mark. Because if you can track a diesel electric submarine from the last moment at which it snorted, well then you have a much closer sense of where it is. You can track it more closely, it's not as stealthy, by definition. If we want the capability in the late 2030s that we had in 2005, indeed, in 2000 then really the only path we can walk down is that of having a nuclear-powered submarine.

CLENNELL: And all of this was explained to Mr Keating by you, I imagine, but he just didn't buy it?

MARLES: Well, look, I mean, Paul has his own views and that's fair enough–

CLENNELL: When you spoke to him about it, did he straight up just say ‘no I don’t buy this’ or was he thinking about it at the time?

MARLES: Oh look, I think Paul's been pretty clear about his position on this and you know, I respect that and understand it. At the same time, the Government has a very clear position on what we need to do, so that we have, as I say, a capability in the 2030s which matches what we had in 2005 and indeed, is a capability which is growing. And this is the only path that we can take if we want to do that.

CLENNELL: So the Government just has to live with his criticisms, really? You don’t have much of a choice, do you?

MARLES: Of course. And we get that, you know, there are going to be criticisms of others and that's completely fair enough. We live in a free society and we expect that. But we will continue to make our argument to the Australian people about why it's so important that we walk down this path. We need to have this capability. A cursory glance at our geography, an island nation with a huge trading connection to the world, a lot of which comes through sea lanes, obviously has to have the most significant maritime capability that we can have. And that lies in having a highly capable long-range submarine. And going forward, that necessarily means a nuclear-powered submarine.

CLENNELL: And when we finally going to see this Defence Strategic Review? We haven’t got long until Budget.

MARLES: Watch this space.

CLENNELL: Can you tell us anything about it? And why has it been left until the last minute before the Budget? I know it has to be declassified, etc. But– 

MARLES: We've said all along that we will release this in April. We will release this in April, so it will be released imminently. And as you rightly say, there's been a bit of a job here in terms of declassifying the document that was provided to us by Sir Angus Houston and Stephen Smith. It's an incredibly important piece of work, because what it seeks to do is really restate Australia's strategic posture for the first time more than 35 years. And we obviously live in a very different world today, to the one that Paul Dibb was looking at when he wrote the Dibb Review back in 1985-86, which has really been the heart of our strategic posture since that time.

CLENNELL: Correct me if I'm wrong, but then Indonesia was seen as potentially our main threat?

MARLES: Indonesia was seen differently then, to what it is now. I mean, we obviously see Indonesia as a very close friend today. Clearly, at that point in time, we were in the midst of the Cold War, and we've lived through the post-Cold War era. But we live in a very different world now. And part of the difference of that world is our relationship to it. Trade as a proportion of our economy today is far higher than it was in 1985. That means that we're much more reliant upon those sea lanes, which in turn means we're much more reliant upon the rules of the road, the global rules-based order. If you think about the South China Sea as an example of this, the majority of our trade goes through that body of water. That's what happens today. That body of water is now clearly central to Australia's national interests in a way that it wasn't back in 1985. And so, all of that shapes the strategic landscape in which we exist, and therefore the strategic posture that we need to adopt. And what the DSR is going to do is articulate that posture in, kind of as a thesis, if you like, but then underneath that have a whole lot of recommendations around the shape of the Defence Force we need to give effect to that posture.

CLENNELL: We've had some commentators and even politicians talk about almost an inevitability– and even US military people talk about almost an inevitability of a China-Taiwan conflict. Do you have some optimism that can be avoided?

MARLES: I do, and I don't feel that's inevitable. I mean, I think we are looking at great power contest in the world today. But we seek to engage with the world, with our frontline being our diplomacy, and through that what we seek to do is to create pathways for peace. And I think that's a philosophy that the US brings to bear. And I hope China does as well. And I take some comfort from the meeting that happened between President Xi and President Biden at the end of last year, where they did look at guard rails in terms of the way in which their militaries interacted. And that's a positive step in terms of the two great powers trying to work through their issues, but in a way, which has a pathway to peace. So I, you know, I have a sense of optimism. But having said that, we live in a very complex and difficult world. And we need to be alive to that. And that implies a lot in terms of the kind of Defence Force that we need.

CLENNELL: And just finally, the Defence Strategic Review. A lot of talk about more missiles, for example. Can we expect to see that? And in the Budget then, we know we've got this increase from say 2.05% to 2.2% of GDP caused AUKUS. Is there a further rise on top of that anticipated?

MARLES: Well, again, we'll talk about that in the course of the announcing of the DSR and as we go forward. But we've made clear that the Defence budget will grow. And that, in many ways, is a function of the strategic landscape in which we exist. In a rational world. Defence spending is a function of strategic threat, strategic complexity - we have both of those, and we're rational people.

In answer your first question, I think, as we think about what posture we need, projection is much more important for Australia today than it's been before. If we need to protect our connection to the world, and if we need to play our part in providing an underpinning of the global rules-based order, these are ideas and things which are well beyond our border. And so in that sense, we need to have a capacity to project, to make our contribution to the collective security of the region in which we live and the underpinning of the global rules-based order. That, you will find, is what underpins the kind of decisions that we're making in terms of the platforms that we have. And a nuclear-powered submarine is front and centre in terms of that concept.

CLENNELL: Deputy Prime Minister, thanks so much for joining us.

MARLES: Thanks Andrew.



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