A new conventional submarine should be considered as a replacement or supplementation for the Australian navy’s ageing Collins-class fleet under a wide-ranging review, according to a leading defence expert.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Dr Marcus Hellyer said the option to buy a conventionally-powered vessel to prevent a capability gap emerging under the AUKUS deal – the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines by Australia – had “good arguments” and should be looked at by the Defence Strategic Review announced this week.
“We don’t have the luxury of spending a decade designing a new conventional submarine, we have to say we’re going to go with a design that exists already,” he said.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good and the only thing that has achieved is we are now further away from having a new fleet than when we started in 2009.”
It comes after a report in the Australian Financial Review revealed French President Emmanuel Macron pitched Prime Minister Anthony Albanese a plan for France to build conventionally-powered submarines to prevent that gap, when he hosted Mr Albanese in Paris last month.
Following a visit to Madrid for the NATO Summit, Mr Albanese flew to Paris to repair the relationship with France after the previous Morrison government dumped the $90 billion contract with Naval group last year, in favour of the submarines.
Dr Hellyer said if Australia was to go down the route of completely replacing the Collins, a decision would have to be made quickly, with the nuclear-powered submarines not expected to arrive until 2040 at the earliest.
He said the “long path to transition” needed to also consider the capacity of the Australian workforce to potentially build and maintain both conventional and nuclear-powered submarines.
“These are quite difficult decisions,” Dr Hellyer said.
The Defence Department is also reviewing the nation’s submarine program and will report back to the government in March.
Former chief of the defence force Sir Angus Houston, who will lead the review with former defence minister Stephen Smith, described the global security climate as the the worst he had seen in his lifetime.
Indonesia is opposed to Australia’s plan to get the nuclear-powered vessels, with Jakarta taking their concerns to a UN conference reviewing the non-proliferation treaty.
Indonesia is arguing the use and sharing of nuclear technologies for military purposes “could run counter to the spirit and objectives” of the treaty.