The Defence Minister has acknowledged the Royal Australian Navy is unlikely to assume ownership of a nuclear-powered submarine before 2030 but has again committed to exploring alternative options to fill the capability gap.
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Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles has shed new light on the expected delivery timeline for Australia’s next-generation fleet of nuclear-powered submarines promised under the AUKUS technology-sharing agreement.
The Minister has cooled speculation over early delivery, amid speculation boats could be purchased off-the-shelf, hitting Australian waters before 2030.
“I think that is optimistic in the extreme,” he told the ABC.
Minister Marles, who is currently serving as acting Prime Minister during Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s tour of Europe, said the former Morrison government set the project on a path for SSN delivery in the 2040s.
“Now, we will be looking at every option available to try and bring that time forward. I think bringing it forward to eight years from now would be extremely optimistic,” he added.
This follows former defence minister and federal opposition leader Peter Dutton’s recent backing of the selection of the US-designed Virginia Class platforms.
According to Dutton, the Virginia Class submarine — currently under consideration by the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Task Force, along with the UK’s Astute Class platforms — became the “obvious” choice.
Notably, Dutton touted the possibility of an off-the-shelf purchase of two Virginia Class submarines before 2030, in addition to a further eight vessels built in South Australia, taking the total size of the prospective RAN fleet to 10.
Instead, Minister Marles is exploring alternative options to fill the capability gap.
“[If] there is a gap which arises, we’ll have a solution to plugging it. But let’s be clear, there is a big mess that’s been left to this government,” he said.
“We will clean it up.”
He said the government is “open minded” regarding a stop-gap solution, adding “all possibilities are on the table”.
The deputy PM did not rule out proceeding the life-of-type extensions (LOTE) for the Collins Class fleet, promised by the former government.
“I think life-of-type extensions will play an important part here. But we are very open minded about whatever options there are in terms of closing the capability gap,” he said.
The Collins LOTE program would involve rebuilding each submarine once it achieves 30 years of service, with each upgrade scheduled to take approximately two years.
The submarines would reportedly be rebuilt by ASC in Adelaide, with the work to be supported by Saab Kockums, the original co-builder of the fleet.