19 September 2023
SUBJECTS: Triton aircraft purchase, defence spending, surface fleet review, New Zealand navy fleet review, AUKUS pact and support in the US, Hunter offshore wind zone, nuclear energy.
GREG JENNETT: Pat Conroy, welcome back to the studio. Now, the purchase of this additional fourth Triton unmanned aircraft is raising a few eyebrows among defence analysts and observers for a number of reasons: one is the US is getting out of them. So from an Australian perspective, what is the expected lifespan of these aircraft when they arrive, and have you ensured guaranteed full-life service while ever Australia is operating them?
MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: Well, whoever is arguing that is wrong. The US intends to deploy them. In fact, they achieved what’s called initial operating capability for a platform only yesterday. So the US will use them. We will use them, and we’re using them because they are the most advanced long-range maritime patrol aircraft in the world. They’ll give us the ability to monitor our northern approaches 24 hours, seven days a week. And it’s a great capability that complements our P-8 Poseidon crewed aircraft.
GREG JENNETT: Yeah, I think the suggestion is that they are placing no additional orders through the US – that is correct, isn’t it? So, we’re among the last to get off the production line then?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, that may be the case, but the US is using it, and they’ll continue to use it. These aircraft typically have lifespans in the decades. It’s a very advanced capability that will complement our crewed platforms. And it will be a really valuable asset to the ADF.
GREG JENNETT: So much of it is software dependent in these systems though. Is there any risk that it becomes a legacy platform, not continually updated beyond, say, a decade of its life?
MINISTER CONROY: No, no. That’s not a risk. This platform will be in service for decades with us, as it will be with the United States. It provides a critical capability. What may change is the number of aircraft deployed by other nations, but that’s sensible. You might identify the number you want when you start a project – and this project started in 2008 – and as you get more data you realise you can do more with less.
GREG JENNETT: All right. I don’t want to deconstruct all of the excoriating piece of commentary run in The Australian newspaper by Greg Sheridan, but there is one point worth picking up – he’s described this as an opportunistic purchase because, he alleges, Defence will underspend its budget this year. A response to that?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I don’t – it’s not clear what the factual basis is for those statements.
GREG JENNETT: Well, let’s break it down. Is Defence undershooting on its spend thus far through the financial year?
MINISTER CONROY: Not to the best of my knowledge. We’re less than a third – less than a quarter of the way into the year. We do things in financial years, obviously. And we’re working very hard to deliver on the DSR. We’re spending a record amount on defence because the strategic circumstances dictate that, and we’re getting on with delivering those projects.
GREG JENNETT: And how long was this fourth additional purchase of a Triton under examination before this announcement?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, the decision was actually made a number of months ago. It was made well into the last financial year. So it doesn’t fit this whole conspiracy theory that we’re only making a decision now because we’re not spending enough money. Like, there was no factual basis for those claims.
GREG JENNETT: All right. Let’s move on to the surface fleet review. Are you still on track to receive that work by, roughly speaking, I think it’s the end of next week?
MINISTER CONROY: Yes, we’re on track to receive the report by the end of next week. And then Government will be responding to it. It will be a very significant report, so we’ll take our time working through its recommendations and come forward with a response.
GREG JENNETT: It is a very significant piece of work, because tied up in it is billions – tens of billions of dollars worth of naval ship work. When will you make those decisions? Will it be this calendar year?
MINISTER CONROY: We expect the Government response to be in, at the latest, in the first couple of months of next year – at the latest. But this is very important that we work through it methodically. It is very important. This work, as you said, tens of billions of dollars. It’s about the future structure of the Royal Australian Navy and how it complements the acquisition of nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines.
GREG JENNETT: Would public scrutiny and discussion of this be helpful such that you could release a public version of it before the Government’s response?
MINISTER CONROY: No, our intention is that when we release the response that we will publish as much of the report to Government that is appropriate. It’s highly classified in nature and looks at threat environment, threat scenarios and different capabilities. It would be very irresponsible to release that report at all especially in advance of the Government’s response.
GREG JENNETT: All right. I notice some parallel, Pat Conroy, to this surface fleet review here in Australia. The New Zealand government is doing a wholesale re-examination of its surface fleet, some of which like for like with Australia’s current naval vessels as well – frigates, offshore patrol vessels. Had Australia given any thought to integrating New Zealand’s needs with Australia’s ship building requirements in the years ahead?
MINISTER CONROY: No, we haven’t so far. The New Zealand process is they’re still looking at their fleet. That is due basically to reach the end of life in mid-2030s. So they’re looking at what their options are. We’re very focused on where we can operate together, so interoperability is a critical feature. If there’s opportunities to build platforms together, if they eventuate, then we're happy to look at it. I'm really proud that Australia built the ANZAC Class frigate for both Australia and New Zealand, and that was a very successful project.
GREG JENNETT: Okay, quick one on AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines. Republicans in Washington DC continue to hold out against the transfer of Virginia Class boats until the US industry program is bolstered. That seems to be their requirement. The longer this goes on the longer it starts to intersect with a domestic political election year in the US. It gets more risky as a proposition for Australia, doesn’t it – AUKUS subs?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I was in the United States and Washington in particular in June and there was very strong bipartisan support for the AUKUS pact and getting those pieces of legislation passed as soon as practical. What we’re seeing is the normal argy-bargy of Congressional negotiations, but we are very confident it will get passed. I was talking to Ambassador Rudd only a few weeks ago about it and I’m in regular contact with Congressional representatives, and we’re working towards the same goal.
GREG JENNETT: And what’s the back marker there? By when would you like the reassurance of having seen the necessary legislation passed in the US?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I’m hesitant to put an exact timeline on it, but we are seeing momentum and the reports coming out of the various Senate and Congressional committees are promising. And we’ll just let it work through its normal processes. But I’m very confident that the legislation will pass because there is complete bipartisan commitment in the United States to AUKUS and it’s a genuine shared purpose that we all hold for this project.
GREG JENNETT: All right. Well, just to demonstrate that all politics are local, I also want to take you to a couple of questions as member for Shortland. Are you completely relaxed about clusters of wind turbines which form part of a Hunter offshore wind zone being visible some days off Nobbys or Swansea Headland or any other prominent piece of the coastline in your electorate?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, the closest point to land is 35 kilometres, so if you’re able to see them, they will be very tiny in the distance. I make the point that from my front window I can see the biggest power station in the country. I was at the beach on Saturday with my kids and I saw a good 10 or 15 coal ships a lot closer than 35 kilometres. We’re the powerhouse of the country. We’re proud of that, and when you are the powerhouse you have to energy infrastructure, and that’s what we’ve got here.
Importantly, the consultation with the community was very effective and it moved the zone further offshore. At one point it was to be 10 kilometres offshore. It’s now 35 kilometres. This is the best way of getting cheap, renewable energy to re‑industrialise our nation. And I welcome the 1,500 jobs that are associated with the project.
GREG JENNETT: All right. I’ll take it that you are, you know, pretty relaxed about that. Just one more that I suppose intersects with your defence responsibilities and the political argument ongoing with the Coalition. Do you feel conflicted in any way arguing for small nuclear reactors in the back of submarines but not onshore to provide civilian power?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, I was actually going to make the point that the thing my constituents don’t want to see are nuclear power stations on the shores of Lake Macquarie or Lake Munmorah. That’s what they’re very earnestly opposed to. And I’m very comfortable supporting nuclear-powered submarines but being opposed to a civilian nuclear industry, and that’s because of the cost of civilian nuclear power.
GREG JENNETT: Although the numbers put out by Chris Bowen are roughly comparable to the numbers you put out for AUKUS submarines.
MINISTER CONROY: Well, one is a Defence platform over 30 years; the other is orders of magnitude. We’re talking about producing electricity three or four times the cost of renewable energy made completely reliable with storage, whether it’s batteries or pumped hydro. What the Coalition is arguing for is power stations on the coast of my lakes that puts up power prices massively, and my community is very opposed to it, as am I.
GREG JENNETT: It sounds like you’re saying bring it on. Pat Conroy, thanks for sharing your thoughts on all those matters today. We covered a few. We’ll do it again soon.
MINISTER CONROY: My pleasure.