Mon. Nov 29th, 2021

It is “very unlikely” that the fleet will opt for a hybrid nuclear submarine design that combines both British and American technology, as it appears to be replacing Australia’s aging Collins-class fleet.

A Senate estimates that the hearing on Wednesday examined the government’s recent decision to scrap a French submarine deal in favor of acquiring nuclear-powered boats with the help of its AUKUS partners, Britain and the United States.

The head of the nuclear submarine’s task force, Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, has told the committee that Australia intended to choose a “mature design” for its nuclear submarine to be built under the AUKUS safety partnership.

“It is our intention that when we start the construction program, the design will be mature and there will be a production process that already exists,” Admiral Mead said at the defense assessment hearing in Canberra.

“All options are on the table, but the plan is for the design to be mature at the start of construction.”

A blueprint-style illustration shows two submarines with tails painted with the American and British flags, respectively.
A hybrid submarine made of American and British design has been rated as highly unlikely.(ABC News: Emma Machan)

During questioning by Labor Senator Penny Wong, Defense Secretary Greg Moriarty said a unique hybrid design was “very unlikely”.

Barely between British and American companies for Australia’s future nuclear-powered fleet is well underway, and there is an early debate as to whether a submarine of the American Virginia class or the UK Astute class is the best base model.

During the hearings, defense officials downplayed proposals for a looming “capacity gap” as Australia’s Collins-class submarines soon embark on a series of “life of type extension” (LOTE) upgrades.

The commander of the fleet, Vice Admiral Mike Noonan, said the aging submarines would have their capabilities improved in LOTE upgrades from 2026, which could not be revealed to the public.

The government is dropping local construction in favor of overseas purchases

During the Senate’s assessment hearing, it was also revealed that the government had also quietly made a long-standing promise to build a “large hull” vessel in Western Australia to strengthen its ‘Pacific step-up’ program.

During questioning, defense officials confirmed that plans for the local construction of a Pacific support vessel had been dropped in favor of an overseas purchase, but not publicly announced by the government.

Doubts about the project, which was first announced by former Defense Secretary Christopher Pyne in 2018, began to emerge earlier this year with concerns that naval shipyards in Adelaide and Perth would not be able to accommodate the work.

Three ministers look at a model of a shipbuilding facility.
Former Secretary of Defense Christopher Pyne announced the long-awaited large hull vessel, which has now been scrapped.(ABC News: Nick Harmsen)

The opposition seized the concession and accused the Morrison government of “abandoning its commitments” and prompting a temporary suspension of the committee following a heated exchange of views between Labor’s Penny Wong and Secretary of State Marise Payne.

Senator Wong demanded that Senator Payne explain the amended plan.

“This is another message from the Morrison government that was not delivered, is it?” Senator Wong asked.

Senator Payne defended the offshore purchase, saying it would mean the large-hull vessel would be delivered to the Pacific earlier.

“The fastest way to do that, given the speed of shipbuilding currently underway in Osborne and Henderson, which after all are limited physical areas of shipbuilding capacity … is with this purchase, to deliver it to the Pacific next year.” .

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