The former defence minister and now-opposition leader Peter Dutton has revealed that the previous Australian government was close to approaching the United States to purchase two Virginia-class nuclear submarines as a stopgap measure before it could build its own vessels.
Dutton urged the current Defence Minister Richard Marles to stay the course on AUKUS and not look at acquiring another submarine class to fill any capability gaps due to time and money constraints.
In an op-ed for The Australian newspaper, Dutton said he believed it was possible to negotiate with the United States to buy two Virginia-class submarines out of Connecticut; this meant the government could cut short the waiting time for the AUKUS submarines, which were due by 2038.
There have been ongoing concerns that this timeframe was too far out, given the current threat matrix in the Indo-Pacific region posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
“We would have our first two subs this decade. I had formed a judgment that the Americans would have facilitated exactly that,” he wrote. “The further eight subs (we had always said at least eight), making 10 in total, could have been built in South Australia, which honours our commitments.”
Under AUKUS, Australia is to decide whether it would acquire either the Astute-class submarine from the United Kingdom or the Virginia-class. Dutton cited the maturity of the Virginia-class and its ability to launch missiles vertically as critical to his decision.
His comments came in response to Defence Minister Marles, who said the likely delivery of the AUKUS submarines was in the 2040s and that he was considering acquiring a stopgap submarine—the “son of Collins.”
Currently, Australia fields an ageing fleet of six diesel-electric Collins-class submarines built in the 1990s. However, there are concerns that Australia could face a “capability gap” between the retirement of the Collins class and the introduction of new vessels.
“We need to look at how we bridge the gap. That’s all I can say. And my mind is open about how we do that,” Marles told The Sydney Morning Herald. “The challenge we now face is how we deal with them. There is no more important priority for me coming into this portfolio than this question.”
Dutton warned against another submarine class because it would take too long for it to be operational—considering procurement timelines.
“Defence leaders here and in the U.S. strongly advised me, Australia doesn’t have the construction workforce, let alone the crew capability, to run three classes of submarines,” he said.