Federal Minister of Defense Richard Marles still has some material headaches on his desk
Publicly, the Morrison government postponed announcing a winner until after the election for unstated “probity” reasons.
Morrison and Dutton disagree
In private, however, there were other considerations. Hanwha settled in Geelong and the Coalition wanted to conquer the neighboring marginal seat of Corangamite. But the Coalition was also targeting Blair, which is near the Rheinmetall plant.
A case of remaining ambiguous rather than alienating a group of voters.
But the chatter in defense circles is that Morrison and Dutton were at odds over which vehicle to use. Dutton preferred the Queensland option, with its established production line.
Morrison reportedly backed Hanwha’s offer, however, recognizing the opportunity to strengthen defense ties with North Asia’s other major democracy and industrial power amid rising tensions with China. During the campaign, Morrison took part in the land turning exercise for Hanwha.
Either way, it’s all academic. As of May 21, responsibility for procurement decisions now rests with the new Labor government and Defense Minister, Richard Marles.
The project, officially known as Land 400 Phase 3, has come under criticism that in the age of modern warfare armored vehicles such as personnel carriers and tanks are redundant and money would be better spent on other hitting abilities.
But don’t overlook some interdepartmental rivalries. The Air Force has been recapitalized with Joint Strike Fighters, and the Navy is on the long road to new frigates and submarines. It’s the army’s turn to have a new kit, the argument goes, especially since the infantry fighting vehicles are intended to replace the armored personnel carriers of the era of Vietnam War.
Airbus among the bidders
Other major multi-billion acquisition decisions are in the works. In about 12 months, the government is expected to start considering whether to acquire a fourth squadron of joint strike fighters for the Air Force, bringing the number of planes to 100.
The easiest option would be to order more of the same, the F-35A variant used by the Air Force.
But the manufacturer Lockheed Martin also offers a version with vertical take-off and landing, the F-35B, which is used by the American Marines.
The F-35B would cost about $34 million more per plane (based on the latest US price tags), but would be a tempting option for the RAAF in the event of a conflict, as they could island hop in the Peaceful without the need for tracks. .
Either way, it’s still a few billion for the defense stack.
Marles, like Dutton before him, has ambitions for higher office. Getting defense purchases right will be vital.
JP 9102 looks rather boring and costs relatively little at $4 billion, but it’s a project Australia can’t afford to go wrong with. It concerns the acquisition of a secure satellite communication system for the army.
Australia currently relies on US satellites for communications, but the limitations of such an approach were demonstrated during the 2019-2020 bushfires, when the ADF had to wait 24 hours before gaining access. . A sovereign satellite capability would eliminate these delays.
Five consortia are bidding for the project: Airbus, Boeing, Optus, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
The project – which is expected to involve the launch of several satellites and the construction of base stations on the east and west coasts – should also serve as a springboard for the development of a commercial space industry.
Marles faced with a dilemma
These are just a few of the ongoing projects. If the government has its setbacks, it should also reinstate the acquisition of armed drones, a project that was canceled under the Morrison government to fund an increase in cybersecurity in the budget.
Since cyber and autonomy will shape the battlefield of the 21st century, it was madness to rob Peter to pay Paul in this case.
But the biggest mess to sort out for Marles and his colleagues remains the submarine and frigate projects.
Dutton’s assertion last week that he believed the United States was ready to have two nuclear submarines off its production line by 2030 was met with a mixture of anger and disbelief.
The anger he had waded as the nuclear submarine task force continued to do its job in secret, disbelief given that government reports indicate the United States is struggling to keep up with the pace of submarine production for their own navy and lack spare capacity.
Even so, White House Indo-Pacific policy czar Kurt Campbell’s statement in a speech this week about an impending announcement under AUKUS on submarines shows progress.
The dilemma facing Marles is this: does he stick to defense assurances that Collins-class submarines can see their lives extended before a seamless transition to nuclear boats, or does he bite the bullet? bullet and command an interim conventionally powered submarine, most likely a “son of Collins” from Swedish defense contractor Saab?
Marles met with the Swedish foreign minister on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore last week.
The last minister who had the guts to so publicly push back against Defense on a procurement decision was Brendan Nelson, who made what turned out to be one of the best military buys of decades by ordering Super Hornet due to delays with the JSF.
While building an interim submarine would cover the risk of delays with nuclear boats, it would also please shipbuilding unions with the prospect of more jobs in Adelaide sooner.
The Navy opposes such an approach because it would amount to operating three classes of submarines. It does not make sense. The overlap between the withdrawal of the Collins class and the delivery of the first nuclear boats would be minimal.
As for the frigates, at least one ship has been chosen but the design problems caused by its weight have yet to be resolved. This may involve compromising the original specifications.
The defense portfolio has long been considered a departmental graveyard. Marles, like Dutton before him, has ambitions for higher office. Successful defense purchases will be vital to Marles’ prospects of realizing these ambitions.
Andrew Tillett writes about politics, foreign affairs, defense and security from the Canberra Press Gallery. Laura Tingle is on leave.