Television interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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(02) 6277 7840

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21 February 2024

SUBJECTS: Australia’s Naval expansion, HMAS Anzac, PNG tribal violence.

GREG JENNETT: Pat Conroy, it's good to have you joining us from HMAS Canberra, the pride of the Royal Australian Navy's fleet on what is a really big day for Naval shipbuilding announcements in this country. I'm not sure we'll entirely do it justice in the time available, but why don't we start with the general purpose Frigate, an all new class of Frigate that will be at least initially built overseas.

When you contract a builder in Germany, Spain, Korea or Japan, will you specify in that contract that only three ships are to be built in their country, or will you leave open the possibility that more might be built there if required?

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: The government's intention is that three will be built overseas to bring forward their delivery. This is critical to getting ships in the water as soon as possible, and that's how we can deliver four new warships by 2034 when the last government would have only delivered one. So this is a critical part of the plan. But the government is also announcing today that ships four onwards will be built in the Henderson Maritime Precinct in WA, as we consolidate that shipyard as it focuses in the short‑term on building landing craft medium and gigantic landing craft heavy for the Australian Army.

So the government's been revery clear that we'll be building ships four through 11 in Australia.

GREG JENNETT: But that's set in stone, is it? I mean the obvious reason for me asking this question is the history of projects slipping, Henderson not being ready, and yet your requirement for pre‑built ships or rapidly built ships will still be there. Is there any wriggle room to construct overseas beyond hull number 3?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I'm confident that the Henderson consolidation will be successfully achieved. The companies there are working very hard and looking to be producing the landing craft and the patrol boats that we've got going on.

So I'm very confident that the circumstances will be there that will match the government's commitment.

GREG JENNETT: All right. As of today, the ageing Anzac Class of Frigates which have done, you know, a power of work for the Royal Australian Navy over the years, the fleet has shrunk from eight to seven ships. What size will the Anzac Frigate fleet be in 2030 when you take delivery of the first of these new general purpose Frigates?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, we've been very clear that we inherited the oldest surface fleet in the history of the Navy since World War II, and whoever was in power now would have been faced with having to retire the HMAS Anzac. It's done sterling service, 2024 was its planned service life, the end of its planned service life, and we are sticking to that plan, and any other government would have been faced with the same situation.

We've also flagged that HMAS Arunta will be evaluated in 2026 to see what condition it is in. That was the third of the Anzacs that was built, the second one went to New Zealand, and we've been very clear that we'll evaluate it in 2026, but they've been working very, very hard, and we're working with the Navy on that.

We're going through their mid‑life assurance process now, we're operating them with Naval Strike Missiles now, and we'll assess Arunta in 2026. But that's why we're very focused on delivering four new capable lethal warships by 2034, which is much faster than the last government, and in fact we'll be making a decision on the general purpose Frigates next year and cutting steel in 2026.

This will be the fastest acquisition of a Naval combat vessel in living memory, such is the urgency of the task.

GREG JENNETT: All right. But is it possible that when the first of these general purpose Frigates arrives the Anzacs have shrunk down to, you know, a working fleet of perhaps as few as four or five?

MINISTER CONROY: Look, I don't know that's a realistic scenario. We've made it clear that we'll monitor HMAS Arunta as the second‑oldest Australian Anzac after HMAS Anzac, but we've been very clear that our intention is to retire the other Anzacs later on as the general purpose Frigates come online.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Pat Conroy, can you explain the logic of buying six potentially autonomous state‑of‑the‑art ships but then crewing them? What's the logic behind that?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, the vessels are called Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels, and as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear today, our intention is to crew them. At this stage we think that's the right decision. These vessels offer a very exciting supplementation of our missile inventory. Our plan will deliver a Royal Australian Navy with 702 missile cells compared to the plan under the last government of 432, so almost doubling the number of missile cells available for the Royal Australian Navy.

So the LOSVs are an important part of that plan, and not the only part of that plan, but we do they are a very exciting opportunity to follow the lead of the United States.

GREG JENNETT: Do they currently exist beyond drawings on a board, and when do you anticipate that the first one would arrive?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, they're more advanced than that, and the development process is being led by the United States, so it's probably best to ask them, but they are certainly more than what you've characterised, and we flagged that we are looking at building them from around 2035 onwards.


MINISTER CONROY: So that's the sort of timetable they're working on. They're very ‑ they're designed to be relatively simple ships to build, so we expect to churn through them very quickly while they hold the 32 vertical launch system cells, the missile cells.

GREG JENNETT: Okay. And they would be built ‑ is this you’re plan ‑ they would be built from go to whoa in Australia, you wouldn't buy them in from the US?

MINISTER CONROY: No, our intention is to build them at the Henderson Maritime Precinct in WA. The workload there is a really ‑ the first time ever a government's committed to continuous Naval shipbuilding in Henderson, near Perth, and we'll be building landing craft medium, then landing craft heavy, then general purpose Frigates, then the Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessel.

So this is a length of work that will deliver decades of certainty to the welders, the electricians, the pipe fitters in Perth. They know that they can start their careers and have work for decades to come working building vessels for the Royal Australian Navy.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Now one ship Australia has proven fairly efficiently able to deliver are Cape Class Patrol Boats. You're going to get more of those, but at the same time you're cutting the offshore patrol vessels known as the Arafura Class. Will there be penalty costs incurred with Leurssen or other partners in the Arafura Class as you cut that program in half?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, we'll obviously talk to Leurssens about the implications of the Government accepting the recommendation from the surface fleet review around reducing the Arafura Class to six. We'll work through that in a normal process. Those six will be an important element of our minor vessel fleet for the Royal Australian Navy, complementing the evolved Cape Class that will be the foundation for not just the Royal Australian Navy's patrol fleet, but also the Australian Border Force. That 25 vessel fleet will be critical for constabulary work, and we'll work with Leurssens about how we deliver that project.

GREG JENNETT: All right. We'll keep across that one with you. And I know you've got a lot on your plate today. You into he had to move on. I can't let you go though, Pat Conroy, without a question in your Pacific portfolio. After the massacre in the Highlands Enga Province in Papua New Guinea. Has the PNG Government engaged the Australian Government at any level over a possible request for security assistance?

MINISTER CONROY: Oh, look, as a matter of rule, and I've said this on your show before, Greg, I don't disclose confidential discussions I have with other governments, or the fact that I have had them or have not had them. But what Prime Minister Albanese said yesterday afternoon is we stand ready to assist if the PNG Government calls upon us. We're proud to be the biggest security partner for Papua New Guinea.

I, like everyone else, was shocked by the violence in Enga Province. We're supporting the Royal Papua New Guinean Police Force as part of our bilateral security agreement and the $200 million implementation package we announced late last year when Prime Minister Marape visited. We stand ready to support them more, but I won't disclose if requests have been made or not been made.

GREG JENNETT: Okay. I understand the sensitivity around that. We'll watch that space, and thank you, Pat Conroy, on a busy day. I believe you do have other places to be. Really appreciate you sparing a little time for us today.

MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, Greg. Have a great afternoon.


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