Television Interview, ABC Newcastle

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

Media contact

media@defence.gov.au

(02) 6277 7840

General enquiries

minister.conroy@dfat.gov.au

Release content

18 April 2024

SUBJECTS: Ghost Shark; AUKUS Pillar Two; National Defence Strategy.

PAUL CULLIVER: Well, maybe you've been keeping an eye on the rise of the autonomous vehicle. Of course, private motor companies around the world racing to try to build some kind of car you can jump in at your home. It'll drive you all the way to work, it'll even park for you. That's the future of private autonomous vehicles. But of course, Defence is also getting into the market, but not just on our roads - what about in the water? The first autonomous undersea vehicle, Ghost Shark prototype, is apparently now ready. So, what can it do? 

Let's find out from the Minister for the Defence Industry, Pat Conroy. Also, of course, MP for Shortland here in Newcastle. 

Minister, good afternoon to you.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: G'day, Paul. How are you?

PAUL CULLIVER: I'm well. What is the Ghost Shark?

MINISTER CONROY: So, Ghost Shark is what's called an extra-large autonomous undersea vehicle. So, think about it as a submarine the size of about a bus or a minibus that has very long range, can carry a lot of things, and has the ability to do long-range intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance and ultimately carry weapons and provide strike. So, the idea with these things is that they can be out there for a long, long time, go very far and obviously operate cheaply without risking people's lives.

PAUL CULLIVER: And they operate autonomously, they don't need to be piloted?

MINISTER CONROY: No, that's right. So, a lot of the research is going into the algorithms, like autonomous vehicles as well, where they can have full autonomy, so you can set a mission parameter, and they go away and do that. And that's part of the over $10 billion we're investing in autonomous vehicles, whether it's aerial ones, undersea or land vehicles, as part of our $330 billion Integrated Investment Program.

PAUL CULLIVER: So, how has the development of the Ghost Shark come about?

MINISTER CONROY: It came about as an idea in the middle of 2022, between a technology company called Anduril, which is a software company, principally, and the Defence Science and Technology Group and the Navy. And from sort of an idea floating around in the middle of 2022, we signed a contract to deliver three prototypes and the first one has been delivered. It's been delivered a year ahead of schedule and on budget, which is pretty remarkable, given the challenges of how high-tech it is. And so much so that all three prototypes will be delivered by the middle of next year. And we intend to enter full-rate production straight away after that, with funding, so that we get, at first full production variant by the end of next year. So, that's only in a period of three, three and a half years, which is moving at light speed for Defence.

PAUL CULLIVER: So, just for the ADF, or will you be selling this?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, we've talked to our Allies, like the United States, about whether they'd be interested in it. They've got their own programs. Their main program is for a vessel a bit bigger than this. So, Ghost Shark could fill a niche. It's certainly world-leading technology, designed in Australia, produced in Australia, employing Australians, and so there are opportunities to share it with our allies. And it's one of the areas that we're working with our AUKUS partners, the United States and the United Kingdom, on which is autonomy. It is one of the key futures of warfare, and it's one where we need to be investing heavily to help protect the country and our people.

PAUL CULLIVER: Where are you building them?

MINISTER CONROY: I can't tell you. That is actually a secret. I know it sounds convenient, but it's somewhere in Australia. But it’s using technology developed right here and overseas. And importantly, the development's been co-funded by Defence and the company. So, the company's got skin in the game. They've put in over $70 million and Defence has already put in over $70 million. And for undersea drones and UAVs, we've got a budget over the next ten years of between five and $7 billion. So, there's certainly a lot of resources being going into the cutting-edge products here.

PAUL CULLIVER: I want to ask this question quite seriously. I do not mean to be glib at all, but should we be worried about the rise of, I suppose, rise of the robots, if you want to use the phrase? The idea that nations are going to be deploying more and more autonomous vehicles, autonomous centuries, able to compete and engage in warfare. Is there a danger here that we get things out of proportion?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I'm a big fan of the Terminator series, and obviously the rise of Skynet is something that I grew up on. I'd say a couple of things. One is there's International Law that governs how these things are deployed and operated, and we always act in accordance with International Law. And secondly, a lot of the high-tech software work is going into how to make them safe, how to operate them safely, how to make sure they work safely in congested sea lanes where there's a lot of civilian traffic. So, it's an area where people are given a lot more thought to. So, you're quite right to raise this as an issue that we have to look into really closely.

PAUL CULLIVER: How's the Chinese technology on their side?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, look, every country with a serious military is investing in this area. It's an area that complements what we're doing with our acquisition and production of the most advanced submarines in the world. And we would expect every sort of nation that's investing in Defence to be looking at this area. But this is world-leading technology, based on our advice, it's using incredibly advanced software development companies with the Boffins from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, who've been doing a lot of work on submarine research for decades.

PAUL CULLIVER: Perhaps somewhat humorously, I observed that we now have Ghost Bats, Ghost Sharks. Are there any other ghost animal, drone, robot inventions coming down the pike?

MINISTER CONROY: They're not. We've got a couple of other undersea ones or maritime ones. One's called Spearfish, which is a bit smaller, a bit cheaper, a bit more what you call disposable. You don't worry about getting it back. 

And a really great one that I was advocating for in the United States last week was called Bluebottle, and Bluebottle is sort of a small, dinghy-sized hull that floats in the ocean. It's got solar panels, so it's out there for months. It's got radar, it's got a tow to race, sonar to detect submarines. And that's been developed at the University of New South Wales, but it's being produced in Lake Macquarie at Morisset. So, it's a great example of our local skilled Defence Industry producing something that is incredibly valuable for our Navy. You can have a string of Bluebottles deployed around the coast, monitoring for submarines, for other illegal fishing and things like that. And it's an example of the high-tech work that's going on right now. We've got 100,000 people working in the Defence Industry in our country, including thousands in the Hunter, and they are really world beaters.

PAUL CULLIVER: Pat Conroy is your guest this afternoon. He's, of course, the Defence Industry Minister. He's also the MP for Shortland. Yesterday, Bob Carr, of course, former NSW Premier, but also former Australian Foreign Minister, urged New Zealand not to join up to what is, what was sort of dubbed the Pillar Two of the AUKUS pact, the idea that Canada, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand could be part of this group of shared advanced military technologies. What do you say to Bob Carr's warnings here?

MINISTER CONROY: Look, I respect Bob Carr's contribution to public life, but on this matter he is wrong. He just is wrong. AUKUS Pillar Two - AUKUS Pillar One is the construction of nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines. 

AUKUS Pillar Two is about countries like the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, sharing the most advanced technologies we have to grow our industrial bases, which produces jobs, to give sensors and platforms and weapons to our militaries that give us an advantage on the battlefield. So, it's about us sharing the brains of all three countries to make our country safer. 

And look, there was an announcement that we will be talking to Japan about whether they're interested in collaborating on individual projects. New Zealand and Canada have been talked about in the same vein. They would collaborate on individual projects rather than join the AUKUS collaboration. And look, we're open to that, but we're really focused on actually demonstrating to Australians that this is actually delivering capability that helps protect our soldiers, sailors and aviators. Because ultimately, this is about improving the safety of Australians and protecting our national interests.

PAUL CULLIVER: Just finally, obviously most of the conversation very much in the context of Defence Minister Richard Marles yesterday releasing the National Defence Strategy. The aim of 2.4 per cent of GDP being spent on Defence within 10 years. Can we afford it?

MINISTER CONROY: We absolutely can. The highest duty of any elected government is to protect the Australian people and our interests. And unfortunately, we're facing deteriorating strategic circumstances. We're facing the biggest arms build-up in our region, and we have to respond. So, increasing the share of the national economy going to defend by 20 per cent from 2 per cent of GDP to 2.4 per cent is in our national interests. It is the largest increase in decades, but it reflects our priorities.

We can protect the Australian people while investing in good jobs, while fighting climate change while building clean energy and dealing with the cost of living crisis. We have to do all those things at the same time and the Albanese Labor Government is doing that.

PAUL CULLIVER: Minister, thanks for your time today.

MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, Paul. Have a good afternoon.

PAUL CULLIVER: The Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy and of course your MP for Shortland here in Newcastle. Here on ABC Newcastle and ABC New South Wales.

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