Kevin Andrews warns of growing regional submarine forces
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Kevin Andrews warns of growing regional submarine forces

Half the world's submarines will be in Australia's region by 2030, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews will warn on Wednesday in a speech underscoring the gravity of choosing the right boats for the nation's next fleet.

At a major submarine conference in Adelaide, Mr Andrews will stress the need for Australia to boost its maritime capabilities. He will also push back against criticisms of the government's process for buying the new submarine fleet, insisting that an independent panel of experts will ensure the process is "fair and defensible".

"We are a maritime nation and we need maritime security," Mr Andrews will say according to speech notes provided by his office.

"By 2030, half of the world's submarines will be in Australia's broader strategic region. The Indo-Pacific region has some of the fastest growing economies in the world and the demand for defence technology to safeguard the region's prosperity and security is ever-increasing."

Defence Minister Kevin Andrews.

Defence Minister Kevin Andrews.

Photo: Glenn Hunt
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Mr Andrews will go head-to-head with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who will also speak at the conference and announce that Labor would spend about $44 million to thoroughly vet international offers to help build the new fleet.

Mr Shorten will commit Labor to a two-stage process, lasting 12 to 18 months, inviting proposals from the four major nations that design and build conventional submarines – Germany, France, Japan and Sweden.

The Abbott government recently announced Sweden would not be invited to bid for the work, though the other three countries will.

Mr Shorten says each of the four countries' shipbuilders would be given $7 million to submit a proposal. This would be narrowed down to two shipbuilders who would receive a further $8 million each to provide more detailed tender bids.

"We are talking about a project that will be essential until the halfway point of this century – beyond the life of any government," Mr Shorten says.

"One early error, committed in haste, would be compounded and magnified over the life of the project," he says.

He will stress that any tenders will need to ensure that "the next generation of submarines must be built, maintained and sustained in Australia".

The Coalition committed before the last election to build 12 submarines in Adelaide, but has since walked away from that promise, though it stresses the life-long sustainment of the fleet will be done in Australia and will create jobs.

Labor's proposal would constitute a competitive tender process. The government, by contrast, is using what it calls a "competitive evaluation process" – which has come under fire because of its opaqueness.

But Mr Andrews will seek to quell those concerns on Wednesday by announcing that an independent panel will oversee the process, "ensuring its probity, managing any conflicts of interest, and ensuring that confidentiality is maintained in relation to all sensitive information received during the process".

"This oversight will provide the government and the public with confidence that the evaluation process not only is, but is seen to be, fair and defensible," he says.

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David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House