19 September 2023
SUBJECTS: Maritime surveillance boost, Triton acquisition, upgrades to the P-8 Poseidon Fleet, surface fleet review, opportunities in Southeast Asia, Australian Development Investments
ANDY PARK, PRESENTER: Australia’s Maritime surveillance will receive a $1.5 billion boost. The spending includes an upgrade to the P‑8 Poseidon fleet, so the aircraft can eventually fire anti‑ship missiles up to 1,000 kilometres away. The package also includes the controversial decision to purchase a fourth long‑range high‑altitude Triton drone despite the US Navy ceasing production.
Federal Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy joins me now. Welcome back to the program, Minister.
MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: Afternoon, Andy.
ANDY PARK: Critics say it's not wise to buy this Triton drone because of the US Navy halting production, although I understand the US is still using this drone. So why has Australia bought another one?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, the US Navy hasn't made that statement. What they made a decision on was to reduce their purchasing this financial year to two aircraft, which brings their total purchasing at the moment to 27 aircraft. The Triton is the only high-altitude aircraft in the world that's able to perform maritime surveillance reconnaissance 24 hours a day seven days a week. It's a great capability, and that's why the Australian Government has made a decision to increase our number from three to four.
ANDY PARK: When will this aircraft arrive, and what will its expected life span be?
MINISTER CONROY: The first one will arrive in 2024, and the life span is expected to be decades. This is a unique aircraft that really is necessary to help patrol our northern maritime approaches, and the Defence Strategic Review was very clear that we needed to increase our reconnaissance of our northern maritime approaches, invest more in long-range naval strike, and invest more in undersea warfare to detect and destroy submarines. So today's announcement aims at gaining all three of those requirements.
ANDY PARK: Isn't there a risk that its systems won't be updated and maintained, that it becomes unusable if it continues to fall out of favour with the US Navy?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I wouldn't characterise it as that. What happens is as these aircraft come into service, Navies and Air Forces understand more what they can do, and then they adjust the numbers accordingly, but this aircraft only achieved initial operation ‑ initial operating capability last week in the United States, so it's not as if it's an old technology, it's using very advanced technology, and for example, the US has budgeted to put $1.3 billion into more research and development on the platform over the next five years. So they're investing in this platform to make sure that its leading capabilities remain leading edge.
ANDY PARK: Dr Marcus Hellyer, from the Strategic Analysis Australia says we've been pursuing this capability for well over 20 years, and we've been contributing financially to this program for a very long time. He says it will all cost more than originally forecast. Can we expect a cost blow‑out with this latest acquisition?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I disagree with Mr Hellyer's characterisation of this program. The platform is proven. What is leading edge is the advanced technology that goes on to it, the sensors that provide the surveillance and reconnaissance requirements, and they're the critical part of this platform, and that's why it is really leading edge, and really will improve our maritime surveillance, which is critical as the Defence Strategic Review characterised. All projects require close oversight by government, that's why we're ramping up our defence procurement system, to make sure that taxpayers get value for money, and we take as much risk out of the process as possible.
ANDY PARK: It's 11 past 5 here on RN Drive. You're hearing from the Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy. Let's talk about the upgrade to the P‑8 Poseidon fleet, Minister. What is their current capability, and what will these upgrades achieve?
MINISTER CONROY: Yeah, so the P‑8 Poseidon aircraft is the most advanced crewed maritime patrol aircraft in the world. It currently has a very advanced sensor suite, which allows it to detect both surface vessels and submarines at long distances, and it can currently fire, it uses sonobuoys to drop into the ocean to help it detect submarines, it currently can fire a harpoon anti-ship missile which has been in service for a number of decades, since the 1980s, and Mark 54 lightweight torpedoes.
The upgrade that I'm announcing today will give it better underwater detection capabilities, which means it can search bigger areas for submarines and at a longer range, and that's critical given we're seeing a very high number of submarines deployed to the Indo-Pacific. Secondly, it upgrades the combat system, and we've signalled, or we've announced in fact that we will equip it with the long-range anti-ship missile from 2025 onwards, which is the most advanced anti-ship missile in the world. This will give us greater maritime strike capability, which is what the DSR, the Defence Strategic Review also recommended. We need these platforms to be able to detect and destroy submarines at greater distances.
That's what today's announcement does, and we also need these aircraft to be able to fire missiles that potentially sink adversaries' ships from greater distances. And again, this announcement will result in us having missiles that have tripled the range of the current missiles for that task.
ANDY PARK: I just want to ask you about the independent analysis into the Navy's surface combatants fleet, it's due to be submitted to you at the end of this month; you'll correct me if I'm wrong. It's shaping up to be a very complex piece of work. Is that report still on track to be delivered on time, and can we expect the government to respond to this by the end of the year?
MINISTER CONROY: Yes, it's on track to be delivered to government next week, and then we'll work through its recommendations. As you said, it's an incredibly complex piece of work, detailing recommendations around platforms that cost tens of billions of dollars. It really will drive the structure of the Royal Australian Navy for 30, if not 50 years to come, and government will take our time working through its recommendations, and we will respond to it, and we're aiming to release a response in the first couple of months of next year at the latest. So that's really important to get this work done properly, and that's what we're doing right now, or will when we receive it next week.
ANDY PARK: Okay, gotcha. Just lastly, Minister, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Leaders Summit recently, the Australian Government launched its Southeast Asia strategy. This paper more or less acknowledges Australia's need to invest in the region with Australia representing just 4.3 per cent of the ASEAN bloc’s goods trade. What does this strategy say about Australia's defence industry, this is a merge between the two parts of your portfolios. I mean AUKUS aside, what partnerships could we be forming in this region?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I think that there are significant opportunities, we're seeing more cooperation with India, for example, both on military exercises, but also exploring where we can work together in a Defence industrial base, so there's a great opportunity there. In North Asia, and I know that's a separate part of ‑ it's not directly related to your question, but we're doing more and more work with Japan, so there's great opportunities there. Singapore, for example, have very large training areas in Australia, and participate in training exercises.
So there's great opportunities for greater military cooperation, but the paper by Nicholas Moore really points to the need to do more work in terms of getting greater business links with Southeast Asia, but also impact investing, and one of the things I announced at the Minister for International Development a few weeks ago was the establishment of the Australian Development Investments Fund, which is a $250 million fund to stimulate private impact investing, so that's investment in activities to provide a social good. They might be to advance gender equality or fight climate change, and the pilot project for that ADI fund found that every dollar we invest, we would stimulate $5 of private sector investment. So that $250 million will be targeted at doing work in Southeast Asia and the Pacific to drive impact investment.
So that's a good example of where the Australian Government is working with the private sector to advance social good and improve our relationships in the region.
ANDY PARK: We'll have to leave it there, Federal Minister for Defence Industry and the Minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy. Good to talk to you, good afternoon.
MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, Andy.