October 2021

Defence Equipment

I want to speak this afternoon about the decision taken last month as part of the AUKUS agreement for Australia to acquire nuclear powered submarines, which I think is an exceptionally important decision for our long-term strategic and defence interests. We're spending some $270 billion in upgrading our defence capabilities over the next decade, acquiring new platforms and new weapon systems, and a key part of that is the acquisition of a new class of submarines. Part of it as well has been the acquisition of 72 fifth generation fighter craft, the Joint Strike Fighter, at the cost of some $20 billion. But the submarine project, which, under the old system, when we were going to acquire the attack class submarines, was going to cost at least $100 billion. So the sums of money are quite eye-watering, and the submarine capability will be the most expensive part of this defence upgrade.

There has been a long discussion within Australia about what is the best submarine for our strategic circumstances, and to my mind I think it's important that we've now put nuclear powered submarines in the mix. The main reason that we've always struggled with conventionally powered submarines is our unique strategic circumstances. Generally speaking, we haven't been able to acquire conventionally powered submarines off the shelf because we've needed a longer range—our strategic circumstances demand it—which means we require bigger fuel tanks, and we have other limitations as a result. The requirements of our submarine force in defence planning and strategic documents are that it be regionally superior and, as part of our overall Defence Force, it be able to deter actions against Australia's interests and respond with credible military force when required. It's no secret that conventionally powered submarines have significant limitations when compared to nuclear submarines. They are slower to transit. They cannot sustain high speeds. They need to surface more often. Their range is more limited. And they are less able to loiter undetected. This is simply the result of physics—the differing properties and the characteristics of the two propulsion systems. This means that, as opposed to nuclear submarines, conventional submarines are less effective at antisubmarine warfare, less effective at antisurface warfare, less effective in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance roles.

This comes especially to mind for a geography such as ours, in which submarines are likely to be called on to serve a long away from their home port. The defence strategic documents assess that by 2035 around half the world's submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific region, and Australia, as everyone here would know, has one of the largest maritime domains in the world, and we need the capacity to defend and further our interests from the Pacific to the Indian oceans and from the areas to our north all the way to the Southern Ocean. There are a number of countries who already build and operate nuclear submarines: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France. They're considered so superior, in fact, in terms of capability that the United States, the United Kingdom and France do not operate conventional powered submarines. India, Brazil and Korea are all considering or are in the process of acquiring nuclear submarines, and I think that's why Australia is right not to have ruled this out and, in fact, is right to have gone down this path. All other elements of our Defence Force, be it the Army, the Air Force or the Navy, we do not shy away from embracing the best technology. Indeed, we know that our qualitative military edge and our ability to sustain a regionally superior military, notwithstanding a relatively small standing Defence Force, depends on doing exactly this.

Some have argued and will argue that we lack the necessary expertise to sustain such a submarine, but I would point out that Australia does in fact have much nuclear scientific and engineering expertise in ANSTO and its predecessor the Australian Atomic Energy Commission dating back over 70 years. ANSTO currently has some 1,200 staff, including over 200 engineers with nuclear experience. During the life of ANSTO and the AAEC, we have designed, procured, built and operated a series of world-class nuclear facilities, including three small reactors. Our current research reactor, the OPAL reactor, has very many common elements with a modern small nuclear reactor such as that which would be used for naval propulsion.

It's clear to me that Australia's regional strategic environment is becoming more contested, that Australia will need to be increasingly self-reliant when it comes to defeating and deterring attacks on our sovereignty and that if our submarines are to play a significant role in deterrence and response, and they must, then we need to be open to the best technology available, and that is nuclear powered submarines.