14 September 2010
Collins class submarine (photo : RAN)
THE new defence minister will come under pressure to scrap Australia's most expensive defence project - the plan to build 12 new submarines at a potential cost of $36 billion.
Defence sources have told the Herald that the change in the leadership of the Labor Party and the new government's reliance on the Greens and independents have given some people within Defence hope that the controversial submarine plan could be sunk and replaced with a more modest version.
The sources say there is likely to be a stringent review of the most recent defence white paper - in which the submarine plan was announced - and a new white paper could be drawn up ahead of schedule.
The plan to build 12 submarines is widely considered to have been the baby of former prime minister Kevin Rudd, to the extent that some with the Defence community refer to them as ''Rudd's subs''.
There were initial suggestions that Mr Rudd might be given the defence portfolio in the imminent reshuffle, but he is now almost certain to be the next foreign minister, which would remove one potential obstacle to the ditching of the submarine plan.
''One of the big issues for whoever ends up as defence minister in the Gillard government is going to be whether to write a new defence white paper, and if so, how soon. The 2009 white paper did leave a lot of big questions unanswered, and it did commit a lot of funds to some very big capabilities without adequate strategic argument,'' said Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.
The independent MP Andrew Wilkie, a former army lieutenant-colonel and intelligence analyst who gave his support to Labor to form government, said he would need to study the case for the submarines in detail before commenting on whether he believed they were affordable. But he said he fully supported a review of the white paper.
''There does need to be a fresh look at the white paper; there are clearly question marks over the document. For example, we can't even crew the submarines we've got, so it is arguable that we can double the fleet from the current six Collins class submarines.''
The Greens leader, Bob Brown, said his party did not have a concrete position on the submarines, but is keen to see large projects reviewed as soon as a new defence minister was appointed.
''There are clearly differing opinions as to whether those projects are the best way to spend the defence dollar. It's a matter of real public interest,'' Senator Brown said. ''I think this will be a matter for the whole of Parliament to discuss, including the opposition.''
Sources say there is a growing belief within the defence force - including the navy - that the money could be better spent.
The 2009 white paper was heavily criticised for focusing on large defence projects - particularly ships and submarines - but without an accompanying clear explanation of why they were needed and how they would be paid for.
''Nowhere in this white paper are we told how particular numbers of submarines, surface ships or fighter aircraft have been determined,'' the defence expert Paul Dibb said after the paper's release. ''This leaves us with a highly unsatisfactory picture about why we need to have what some are touting as the largest expansion of the Australian Defence Force since World War II.''