Radio interview, ABC - RN Breakfast

Release details

Release type

Related ministers and contacts

The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

Media contact

02 6277 7800

Release content

21 February 2024

SUBJECTS: Surface Navy Fleet Review; leaked text from PM’s office; Yang Hengjun sentencing.

HOST, PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Albanese Government's new Surface Navy Fleet Review has been broadly welcomed by experts with the number of warships to increase from 11 to 26, and with $11 billion of funding attached. But there are still questions over a possible capability gap between now and when the first new warship will hit water; that's if it comes on time. Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, and he joined me a short time ago. Deputy Prime Minister, welcome to the program.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, hear you Patricia.

KARVELAS: The Navy will go from 11 ships to 26. Can you just explain what they'll do and where they'll be stationed?

MARLES: Well, firstly, it's surface combatants, warships, so the Navy is bigger than just those ships which have the capacity to go into war. Our service combatants will go from 11 to 26. What that will see is six Hunter-class frigates being at the heart of that; they're going to be built in Adelaide. In addition to that will be 11 general purpose frigates, and they are going to replace the Anzac frigates which are currently in operation and have been in operation for a number of decades now and really coming to the end of their life. There will be six large optionally crewed surface vessels which are in development in America, they would come into operation in the mid‑2030s. They have the option to be uncrewed, but it's our intention to crew them, and they give much greater vertical launch capacity, missile launch capacity, and would operate in conjunction with one of the larger surface combatants, so that's the Hunter‑class frigates, and then you combine that with the existing Air Warfare Destroyers, of which we have three, and you get to 26.

KARVELAS: Yeah. You mentioned, you know, the option of uncrewing them. Is that option open to you also because you don't have the personnel?

MARLES: Well, it's not about personnel, it's really about thinking of a means by which you can comparatively, cost‑effectively increase your missile launch capacity. I mean the idea of this is that in the context of a conflict you would have a ship of this kind sailing in conjunction with a major combatant. The missiles on that go first, that is able then to sail back, get replenished, and then come back into the fight. That idea is not about crewing, that idea is about efficiently getting firepower to the battle, and it's an idea that's being worked through by various Navies around the world, but America is developing this, they have a couple of prototypes which exist right now, and this is what we would want to see in our Navy come mid‑2030s.

KARVELAS: Obviously there's been, you know, more bipartisanship on these sorts of issues, but the Opposition Defence spokesman, Andrew Hastie, has said that the country won't see a new ship in the water until 2031, and you should be focused on getting it all happening by 2026. Why can't you?

MARLES: Well, firstly, what he's saying is wrong. We will have a new ship in this decade, in the 2020s. I mean it's ‑‑

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Can you be specific ‑ sorry, I don't mean to interrupt ‑ but exactly ‑ 'cause he says no new ships till 2031.’ What will be in the water and operational by then?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: The general purpose frigate, the new general purpose frigate, we have accelerated the procurement of those, and to be, you know, what we are looking at is four potential options, all of which are being built right now, all of which have ships operating right now, and where we are buying that completely off the shelf, so that we have the fastest procurement that you could envisage in terms of getting a ship into the water, and we will be able to do that this decade. I mean there is no showroom where you can go off and buy a warship and suddenly have it. What we're talking about is the fastest procurement that we have seen in our Navy for many, many years. But the fundamental answer, and the hypocrisy of Andrew Hastie's comments are astounding, is what we inherited from the former government. I mean we inherited the oldest surface fleet since the end of the Second World War; we inherited a 10‑year capability gap with our submarines; we inherited $45 billion worth of unfunded commitments. And the announcement that we made yesterday really stands completely apart from any of the announcements that were made by the former government because we're funding it. We didn't just announce where we're going, we announced that we would increase Defence spending in order to make this happen, and so this is a real plan going forward. I mean where the Opposition were at is that they wouldn't have a surface combatant in the water until 2034. By that time we will have four, so we have actually accelerated the surface combatants into the water precisely because of the mess that they left us.

KARVELAS: Minister, Defence expert, Michael Shoebridge, has warned that major international shipbuilders would be assessing sovereign risk attached to Australia's bid to acquire those 11 new general purpose frigates because of our recent history of cancelling and cutting programs. Is that a real issue; we're not trusted?

MARLES: No, I'm pretty confident that there will be countries out there bidding very hard to get our work, and that is already happening as we speak, as you could imagine. We need to get an off‑the‑shelf option, precisely for the reasons that you're asking for; we need to get on off‑the‑shelf option into the water as quickly as humanly possible, and that is exactly what we are doing. I mean when you look at where the Opposition were at, never had the courage to walk down that path; there was always variance, there was always tinkering. This will be getting an off‑the‑shelf option into the water as quickly as possible, and that is our absolute focus.

KARVELAS: How much will cutting nine frigates to six save the budget?

MARLES: Nine coming down to six is because in terms of the capability that those ships require or provide, I should say, that six will give us what we need. It gives us the room to have 11 general purpose frigates, which is the capability that we also think we need. In total obviously this is costing more, and that's the point that we've made. The allocation has been $43 billion. What we announced yesterday will cost $54 billion, but what we announced yesterday was an increase in Defence spending to cover it, and you will see that in the budget in May. And again, that's what sets this apart. It's not just making an announcement; we've made an announcement and we've announced the money with it. I mean when the former government were in power, they announced a $35 billion guided weapons enterprise for which they allocated $1 billion: smoke and mirrors, all fantasy. This is actually real, it is going to cost more, but we are going to spend more to pay for it.

KARVELAS: Minister, there's a leaked text, just changing the topic, from the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, which mentions the government entering an election year. Are you preparing for an early election?

MARLES: The Prime Minister's repeatedly said that we expect to go to full term, and we imagine the election is next year. That's where my head's at, and that's where ‑‑

KARVELAS: You don't have to imagine, you plan it, right, because the Prime Minister can make that date. Why would the Chief of Staff be referring to it being an election year then?

MARLES: Well, we're planning for an election next year, if you want to use that word. But it's 2024, next year is 2025, that means there's a year to go between now and then. That's the election year. I mean (inaudible) read into this email, which is patently ridiculous. We're planning to go the full term, that's what the Prime Minister has said, and that's where all his ministers are working to.

KARVELAS: Okay. On a very serious issue before I let you go, Minister, jailed Chinese Australian writer, Yang Hengjun, has decided not to appeal his suspended death sentence. In an open letter friends and family say this could delay medical care. Does this mean he's dependent on your government now to try and secure his release?

MARLES: Well, obviously the circumstances of Dr Yang are very concerning. We will continue to advocate on his behalf each and every day; that's in terms of the sentence that's been handed down for him, but also a day‑to‑day sense of the consulate access that we have and the treatment that he's experiencing. Dr Yang is front and centre of our diplomacy with China.

KARVELAS: Thank you for your time this morning.



Other related releases