Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine taskforce has assured visiting US officials about its commitment to the highest safety standards, as the new Albanese government faces the task of putting the Aukus deal into practice.
The ongoing talks come as the new government must finalise the settlement over the cancellation of the original conventional submarine contract – a decision that sparked a damaging rift in the relationship with France.
The Department of Defence said the negotiations with France’s Naval Group were “ongoing” and it was seeking to “progress them fairly and equitably”.
Labor gave bipartisan support to the Aukus partnership, under which the US and the UK have offered to help Australia to acquire at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines and cooperate on other advanced technologies.
But it will be left to the new government to make key decisions, including opting for a British or American design and determining what level of domestic construction is possible.
An 18-month joint study with the US and the UK is due to be completed by early next year, but staffers from a high-powered US Senate committee have been visiting Australia for talks this week.
“Defence representatives, including members of the Nuclear Powered Submarine Taskforce, have met with United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff members, who are currently in Australia,” a Defence spokesperson said.
The topics they discussed included Australia’s commitment to nuclear safety and security and the “workforce development and training requirements to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines”, the spokesperson said.
“Australia is committed to implementing the strongest possible non-proliferation standards as part of this initiative,” the spokesperson said.
They added that the 18-month consultation process would “include consideration of technology transfer and export control requirements”.
The former US ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse, believes US export controls are a “major impediment” to improved defence cooperation.
Culvahouse has previously argued Aukus would be “slowed and frustrated without a corresponding top-all-the-way-down rethinking and reform of the US technology export controls regime as it relates to close allies such as Australia and the UK”.
The head of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine taskforce, V-Adm Jonathan Mead, admitted to a conference in Sydney last month that the task ahead was “very significant”.
Mead believes Australia must give “an unwavering commitment to safely and securely stewarding nuclear propulsion technology from cradle to grave”.
Newly tabled responses to Senate questions on notice show the nuclear-powered submarine taskforce has an approved budget of $120m for the 2021-22 financial year and $180m for 2022-23.
That would include funding for technical studies and travel. It would also cover contributions to other government entities which are supporting the taskforce, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and nuclear agencies Ansto and Arpansa.
But the costs of actually building the submarines are yet to be allocated in the budget.
その間, the cost of scrapping the French conventional submarine project remains unclear, with negotiations yet to be completed by the time of the election.
The Department of Defence reiterated in a response to Senate questions that the deal was “terminated for convenience” due to “a change in Australia’s strategic circumstances, not because of poor performance by Naval Group”.
The department said under the now-axed strategic partnering agreement, the Australian government was “required to pay for all work performed prior to the date of termination and reasonable costs incurred by Naval Group that are directly attributable to the termination”.
It said Australia “may also negotiate payment of additional amounts”.
“Termination and transition out activities with Naval Group remain ongoing and the department continues to progress them fairly and equitably.”
Naval Group has not revealed publicly how much it is seeking as part of the settlement.
The widely reported figure of $5.5bn is the Australian government’s total approved budget funding for the French submarine project. Officials had considered this to be a maximum “envelope”, but the figure includes about $2.6bn already spent on the French project as of March.
The new government has begun the process of repairing the diplomatic relationship, after the French ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thébault, told Guardian Australia he had “huge hopes” for a reset after problems caused by the Morrison government’s “deceitful attitude”.
総理大臣, 「非常に無礼」, said he had a warm conversation with the French president, エマニュエルマクロン, 先週. The French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, spoke with her Australian counterpart, ペニーウォン, on Wednesday and said she hoped to welcome her to Paris soon.
The new Australian defence minister, Richard Marles, who was sworn in on Wednesday, has said his first priority would be addressing Australia’s capability gap before the first of the new submarines were ready, widely speculated to be around 2040.