Choose Australia for submarines, union pleads with government

Australia’s peak manufacturing workers union is calling on the government to honour its plans to build the next generation of Australian Defence Force (ADF) submarines in Australia.

[Image, right: The ADF's Collins class submarines, courtesy of navy.gov.au.]

According to the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) acting secretary, Paul Bastian, the plan is a “strategically critical opportunity” for Australia’s defence and manufacturing industry.

Bastian says it is not too late to build the next class of submarines in Australia, contrary to a new report released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), criticising the way the government has handled the project thus far.

The AMWU says not only does Australia have the capabilities to deliver the project now, but it will be in the best interests of the country, helping to ensure the viability of a long-term industry and defence capability.

The ASPI claims to be an independent, non-partisan policy institute set-up by the government to provide fresh ideas on Australia's defence and strategic policy choices.

A new whitepaper called ‘Strategic Insights 57 – Mind the gap: getting serious about submarines’, provides analysis on the government’s ‘Defence White Paper of 2009’, which promised to deliver ‘Force 2030’, a plan which included the delivery of twelve new long range submarines in Australia. 

“That’s not going to happen. One way or another, Force 2030 will have a submarine fleet that is a compromise on the original vision,” said the whitepaper authors, Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson.

“We’re already past the point at which a force of that size and capability can be in place even by the mid‑2030s.

“So where do we go from here? The Collins class fleet reaches the end of its currently planned life between 2022 and 2031.

“Based on Defence’s own planning figures, new‑design replacement submarines can’t be delivered fast enough to even replace the Collins as they leave service.

“If current plans are adhered to, a capability gap is inevitable sometime in the late 2020s, and a period of no submarine capability at all is possible.”

The AMWU begs to differ, claiming Australia currently has the capabilities to deliver the submarines. The union also claims that the submarines are critical to the longevity of these capabilities, as the project would help keep these skills in the country.

"We must not lose the technical ability, skills and industry growth opportunities of making submarines in Australia,” said Bastian.

“We think the ASPI report is a bit jaundiced. The Collins class submarines were built whilst the manufacturing infrastructure was also being built around them.

"The infrastructure, the skills and the research and development capacity to get the next project started now exist.”

Bastian also says we currently have the capacity to maintain and repair the existing fleet of Collins Class submarines, extending their life where necessary.

"Not only do we have the skills and capacity, but we have a public which sees investing in Australian industry and know-how as critical to the nation's future. They expect tax dollars to be spent in ways that support and promote jobs and industries that provide genuine long-term benefits,” he said.

“This project has the potential to build our defence and industry capacity. It will enhance our high-end science and technology, design and engineering capability right through to fabrication, construction and maintenance.

“The alternative of buying off-the-shelf, Ikea-style submarines, and bolting them together will not build our long term capability.

“We agree with the ASPI report in that the Government needs to reaffirm its White Paper commitment to build the fleet here – and to start letting the contracts as soon as possible.”

Defence manufacturing in Australia has suffered greatly under the high local dollar. Just last month, Thales announced it would sack 60 workers at its Bendigo plant, representing nearly 20% of the 350 workers at the site.

At the time, AMWU regional organiser Damian King blamed the government for the redundancies. 

“These redundancies are the direct result of the Federal Government decision in December last year to buy all the new military utes from a German supplier rather than award Thales a significant amount of this work,” King said.

“Thales missed out on this ute contract, not due to the quality and performance of the Bendigo vehicle but due to the high value of the Australia dollar versus the low Euro.”