Australia to be left 'strategically naked' for 20 years under nuclear submarine deal, Rudd says

© Provided by ABC NEWS Kevin Rudd has found an unlikely ally in Tony Abbott. The two agree that 20 years is “too long” to wait for the new submarines.  (ABC News)

Former prime ministers on both sides of politics are calling for a rapid acceleration in the building of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, with claims Australia will otherwise be left “strategically naked” for the next two decades.

In a deal struck with the UK and US, Australia will gain access to nuclear technology to help switch to nuclear-powered submarines. 

The fleet would be the first initiative of a newly formed trilateral security partnership called AUKUS.

An 18-month taskforce led by Defence will now investigate how Australia can become a “reliable steward” of nuclear submarines, while federal Labor said it received advice that the new submarines might not be constructed until 2040.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd told the ABC that was too long to wait, given the navy’s ageing Collins class submarine fleet.

“We are being left strategically naked for 20 years, based on what I do see to be the bungling of this new submarine project,” Mr Rudd said.

“This is leaving us I think, vulnerable for this decade, but in particular vulnerable for the following decade.”

Mr Rudd found an unlikely ally in former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott, who pursued an agreement with Japan to buy its submarines as a replacement for Collins Class fleet, before the Turnbull government awarded the lucrative submarine contract to France in 2016.

Mr Abbott later said he regretted not backing nuclear submarines in the first place.

“The challenge now will be to get these new submarines in the water as quickly as possible,” he told Sky News.

“Frankly, time is not on our side with a decision of this nature. The best time to make it was always five years ago. But the second-best time is now.”

‘Losing billions deserves a full inquiry,’ Carr says

The new partnership also spells the end of the Australian government’s $90-billion project for French-designed submarines to be built in Adelaide.

There are also growing calls for an inquiry into the billions of dollars of taxpayer money spent on the now junked contract, with about $2 billion having already been spent on the Attack-class submarines.

Former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr took to social media to call for a probe into the decision-making process.

“How we got the submarine contract fatally wrong, losing billions, deserves a full inquiry,” Mr Carr said.

“In any other portfolio, it would result in a royal commission.

“What experts stuffed up? Where did they get their advice? Can we trust their judgment on nuclear?”

South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick said that, while the cost of walking away from the project was better than the government continuing with the program, there needed to be independent oversight of the billions of dollars spent on a program that would not eventuate.

“The taxpayers are right to look back and say, ‘How did we go through this? How do we get into this situation? What went wrong with the French program?'” Senator Patrick said.

“We’ve got a bunch of very senior people in Canberra, who have guided us through a program that failed, and that can’t be left without some level of inquiry.”

Federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese also called for a joint mechanism between senior members of government and the opposition to give bipartisan oversight of the partnership.

“We need to know the full cost of the abandonment of the existing program, but we also need to know what the cost of the proposed program would be,” Mr Albanese said.

Australia to spend more on defence 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would need to spend more on defence as a requirement of the new partnership.

Vice Admiral Paul Maddison, the director of the UNSW Defence Research Institute, argued the money already spent on the French contract was not necessarily a waste.

“I think that — if you sat down with the senior naval leaders here in Australia, if you sat down with companies that have invested in the infrastructure and in the supply chain and who have been focused on a future submarine capability in Australia — that there are measurable advantages that have been … introduced over the last few years, as folks have got smarter,” Vice Admiral Maddison said.

“Let’s face it, a modern submarine is the most complex and sophisticated weapons platform on the planet and it takes a great deal of capital to develop and sustain the perishable and unique tests that go into submarine construction, operation and maintenance.

“So, I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that there was the money wasn’t just wasted.”

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