Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin and Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Lauren Larking
By David Wroe/Sydney Morning Herald
There is no national security need to build the next fleet of submarines in Australia, Chief of the Defence Force Mark Binskin has said, putting a dent in the case for a local build.
Air Chief Marshal Binskin said on Tuesday that it was more important – in both economic and defence terms – that the life-long upkeep of the submarine fleet is done locally rather than actually building them at home.
His comments come amid a fierce debate over the project to build the replacement fleet for the Collins Class submarines after the government announced a "competitive evaluation process" for the contract to design and build the boats.
A ship under construction at the ASC headquarters in Adelaide. Photo: David MariuzDespite widespread belief that the Abbott government favoured outsourcing the submarines to Japan, it announced the competitive process amid a political backlash in South Australia, the home of the government's own shipbuilder ASC.
Asked if there was a national security argument for building the submarines at home – as many advocates of a local build say – Air Chief Marshal Binskin said it was more of an "emotive argument".
He said Australia could still do the more important upkeep work – known as sustainment – without actually building the submarines at home.
"I don't believe you have to build to be able to sustain in the country. You have to know the system and you have to know it well to be able to do it," he said.
By integrating the systems such as sensors and combat systems into the boats at home, and testing the boats and their systems locally, Australia would get the know-how to do the sustainment work over the next 30 or 40 years, he said.
"To be honest with you, if you're looking at an economic proposition here, two-thirds of the costs throughout the life is sustainment. That's where the best investment is, because that gives us the wherewithal to adapt the platform over the 30-year life."
Asked to clarify whether Defence actually needed the boats to be built in Australia, Air Marshal Binskin said: "No, from my point of view, I want to manage the risks and I want to make sure I get the capability that we need as a defence force to be able to look to the future … That's where I come from as a commander."
While it is widely accepted that Australia needs overseas help to design its submarine, some experts say there are strategic and defence reasons to build the boats at home.
Former submarine commander and past president of the Submarine Institute of Australia Peter Briggs wrote last month that a local build would give Australia better sovereign control over the project, ensuring qualities such as the submarine's stealthiness were improved.
"Do we want a foreign government in control of the design and construction of such a critical national capability?" he wrote in a paper for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Labor Defence spokesman Stephen Conroy said: "Labor's policy is to have a competitive tender process for our new submarine fleet, including a funded definition study. This will ensure that we get the best defence capability at the best value for taxpayers and not another failed captain's pick by the Prime Minister."