CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Australia’s new defense minister on Wednesday expressed the prospect of Australia acquiring US nuclear-powered submarines by the end of the decade, describing such a timetable as “optimistic to the extreme”.
Defense Secretary Richard Marles, whose party came to power in the election last month, said his priority was to close a naval capacity gap expected to arise when Australia’s aging fleet of six Collins-class diesel-electric submarines will be retired from 2038.
The United States and Britain have agreed to provide Australia with a fleet of submarines powered by US nuclear technology. But when the deal was announced in September, the first submarine wasn’t expected until 2040.
Former Defense Secretary Peter Dutton said this month the United States could be persuaded to supply Australia with two Virginia-class submarines from its Connecticut production line by 2030.
Marles, who is acting prime minister while Anthony Albanese is abroad, doubted Australia would have a single nuclear-powered submarine by 2030.
“I think that’s extremely optimistic,” Marles told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., saying the previous government had expected a delivery date in the 2040s. But he added: “We will be looking at every available option to try and bring that time forward.”
Dutton, who is now opposition leader, said China would have the technology to detect Collins-class submarines in the South China Sea by 2035.
Unlike nuclear submarines, diesel-electric submarines must surface and run on diesel propulsion while charging their batteries. China is developing technology that could detect submarines on the surface, Dutton said.
Prime Minister Albanian plans to visit French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week to restore bilateral relations that had soured in September when the previous Australian government tore up a 90 billion Australian dollar ($62 billion) contract for a French state-owned company to build a fleet of 12 diesel-electric submarines.
The Albanian government recently announced that it agreed to pay the French naval group a EUR 555 million ($583 million) settlement for breaking the contract.
Legislators from the previous Australian government said the new government had paid too much.
But Albanian pointed to estimates from bureaucrats ahead of an April Senate hearing that breaking the contract was expected to cost AU$5.5 billion ($3.8 billion).
Albanian said his government had reduced those costs to AU$3.4 billion ($2.3 billion) through the collaboration of Macron and the French government.
French anger at the canceled contract had delayed negotiations on an Australian free trade agreement with the European Union.
New Australian Foreign Secretary Penny Wong is visiting her native Malaysia to allay fears that Australia’s switch to nuclear propulsion could lead to a regional arms race. She said on Tuesday that her government is committed to ensuring that the region remains peaceful, stable and prosperous.
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