Cloud over SA subs build amid overseas purchase reports

Premier Peter Malinauskas says that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has given him “assurances” the federal government remains committed to building nuclear submarines in Adelaide under the AUKUS security pact, amid reports that Australia will buy up to five from the United States.

Mar 09, 2023, updated Mar 09, 2023
Premier Peter Malinauskas at a media event with fellow Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in June 2022 Photo: Morgan Sette/AAP

Premier Peter Malinauskas at a media event with fellow Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in June 2022 Photo: Morgan Sette/AAP

Unconfirmed media reports from the US and UK today suggest Australia will purchase up to five American submarines for the initial part of the AUKUS partnership.

Reuters reported that the deal involves Australia purchasing three Virginia class submarines in the early 2030s with the option to buy two more.

Bloomberg reported that the new fleet will be based on a modified British design with US upgrades, which would put Australia on the path to acquiring two types of nuclear submarines.

The speculation has put a cloud over South Australia’s role in building eight nuclear-powered submarines initially mooted to be constructed at the Osborne Shipyards.

In September 2022, Premier Peter Malinauskas said the Albanese Government committed “without equivocation” to building nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide, amid reports the Commonwealth could move to buy submarines from the US.

Today, Malinauskas reaffirmed his position, telling parliament: “I don’t think South Australians have any reason for any apprehension that the Commonwealth won’t deliver on its commitment to build nuclear submarines here in Adelaide ASAP.”

Opposition leader David Speirs asked the Premier if he had “received assurances from the Prime Minister that at least eight AUKUS submarines will be built at Osborne”.

Malinauskas responded: “I have sought assurances from the Prime Minister of Australia regarding the building of AUKUS submarines here in Adelaide.”

“That’s the short, without equivocation answer.

“In respect to the response of the Prime Minister, yes, he has given me assurances that the federal government is committed to building AUKUS submarines here in Australia.

I’m in receipt of no information that suggests for one moment that the federal government is not committed to building nuclear submarines here ASAP.

“I will be completely astounded and totally blindsided if the Commonwealth has a departure from that policy.

“And should they depart from that policy, which I don’t believe they will – not for a moment – but should they depart from that policy, then I will be rather forthright in my advocacy on the behalf of South Australia if that occurs.”

A US Navy Virginia-class fast-attack submarine at Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Photo: US Navy via AP

The full details of the AUKUS submarine arrangements will be unveiled by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden at a trilateral conference on Monday (US time).

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Malinauskas said the “media speculation” about the deal today related to “the prospect of what the Commonwealth is doing to plug the capability gap”.

He argued that South Australia “shouldn’t be preoccupied about what the Commonwealth do to plug the capability gap”.

“There is a capability gap from when the Collins Class Submarine will no longer be able to meet the requirements of the Australian Navy, versus when the new AUKUS submarines will start coming off the production line here at Osborne.

“I think it would be irresponsible for anybody, not least of which the Premier of the State, to not acknowledge that that is a gap that is worthy of being addressed,

“Particularly in the context of the geopolitical uncertainty that now exists not just globally, but right here within our region.”

Questions over whether Adelaide’s Osborne Shipyards can construct eight nuclear-powered submarines have long surrounded the AUKUS deal.

In October 2021, it was revealed that the federal government had not undertaken a safety assessment or planning study for the prospect of docking nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide.

Asked by Speirs whether it was his understanding that “we will still have eight submarines built in South Australia”, Malinauskas did not provide a specific number

“We will wait for the details that are important out of the AUKUS announcement that we understand the prime minister will make in the not too distant future,” the Premier said.

“And we will keenly observe the details of that announcement, particularly around construction timelines.

“In respect to the number of submarines that the leader of the Opposition refers to… what matters here is that the production line starts, because once it starts there’s no evidence of them ever stopping.

“Certainly we’d like to see construction of the yard down and Osborne to build those submarines commence sooner rather than later.

“And that will be a key detail that I’m waiting to hear from the Prime Minister, but in terms of the number of submarines that get produced, what matters is the first one.”

-With AAP

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