The latest round of Senate estimates has seen Defence confirm that a partnership between ASC and Naval Group for the $50 billion Future Submarine project was proposed by the French designer, with accusations from crossbenchers that the government has deliberately sought to exclude ASC.
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Under questioning from Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick, Defence officials confirmed that Naval Group did engage with ASC and propose a partnership with the sovereign shipbuilder for the $50 billion project.
Despite these proposed partnerships, Defence is currently working on the Strategic Partnership Alliance (SPA), which Defence officials confirmed would commit Australia to using Naval Group Australia for the build of the 12 submarines.
"There was talk of involvement with ASC in various forms and also the arrangements in which Naval Group would put in place to deliver the submarines," Rear Admiral Greg Sammut told Senate estimates.
"I think we need to think about partner as being many things ... it doesn't necessarily mean one form of an arrangement.
"We have often made this point that the design and build of the submarine is a very complex process, ships are very hard, submarines are even more complex. We do not foresee a situation whereby the submarine can be designed by one entity and passed to another for its build, particularly for a new design."
Without going into the detail of Naval Group's proposal involving ASC, RADM Sammut said various risks were considered by government before commencing the program with Naval Group.
"The manner in which Naval Group were proposing to partner not only talked about how it could be done but it would talk about also the particular terms and conditions depending on the way Naval Group was permitted to proceed with the build," the Head Future Submarine Program said.
"We had to consider all of those factors to make sure that we understood what risks the Commonwealth was inviting upon itself as it proceeded with this complex program noting of course that the decision was there to build all of the submarines in Australia with an Australian workforce."
While the extent of the proposed partnership with ASC remains uncertain, speculation is rife that it would have seen ASC act as the builder, with Naval Group committing to transfer of technology and 'know-how'.
A redacted version of Naval Group's Australian Industry Plan (AIP) was recently released under Freedom of Information, with sections relating to technology transfer methods and build scenario proposals blacked out.
The AIP includes a bar graph explaining how the company planned to utilise ASC staff, listing 1,700 employees as part of its anticipated employment outcomes.
Also available in the public domain is a document titled 'Establishing a rolling acquisition program - a choice between two options', where Naval Group proposed a 'Two Shipyards as One' strategy in which the company said it was prepared to work with ASC for the project.
"The 'Two Shipyards as One' strategy comprises a dedicated program of work to prepare ASC in every respect for the build," the document said.
Former submariner and defence contractor Senator Patrick said the responses at Senate estimates confirmed the government did not want ASC involved in the project
"The Defence Minister, the admirals and the bureaucrats weren’t all that forthcoming, but eventually they admitted what people in the shipbuilding industry have suspected for some time – that the Coalition government doesn’t want the Adelaide-based ASC to build the new subs," Senator Patrick told Defence Connect.
"Indeed it became clear from the Senate estimates hearing that the government and the Defence Department have never wanted ASC to build the new submarines. They set up the entire procurement process to exclude ASC in what they claimed to be a risk minimisation strategy.
"Even when the French designers, Naval Group, proposed to work with ASC, Defence told them to go another way."
Senator Patrick said the evidence given today has reignited long-held fears that the Liberal Party does not trust ASC to build navy vessels.
"In no other Western industrialised country would the government actively oppose the involvement of its own shipbuilder in a key naval construction project; but that’s what has happened here. They want to scrap all the accumulated expertise, skills and knowledge built up at ASC and have a foreign shipbuilder start from scratch," he said.
"The Canberra Defence bureaucrats simply don’t trust Australian workers. They don’t trust Australian managers. They have no faith in or commitment to our own industry. They want Australians to be employed, but only under close foreign supervision.
"It’s clear the Coalition government’s position has not changed one iota since former defence minister [David] Johnston infamously said he wouldn’t trust ASC to build a canoe. They have betrayed ASC, they have betrayed Australian shipbuilders, and they have betrayed our country."