The next defence white paper – the third in seven years and due for official release tomorrow – will reportedly commit to the acquisition of 12 new future submarines, matching the number Labor governments promised in their strategic plans in 2009 and 2013 and defusing a potential electoral flashpoint in SA.
The paper will also outline major acquisitions including nine new frigates and a number of offshore patrol vessels.
But State Defence Industries Minister Martin Hamilton-Smith says without a guarantee of a continuous local build, the document will be meaningless for the SA industry.
He reiterated his fear that if Western Australia snagged the Offshore Patrol Vessel deal – with senior Coalition figures understood to be spruiking the merits of the state’s shipbuilding industry – SA’s workforce would diminish significantly, potentially compromising its bids for the subsequent frigates program – and the submarines.
“I’m hearing that the white paper will be equivocal on where the OPVs will be built,” Hamilton-Smith told InDaily.
“It needs to be about not mere promises – we’ve had the promises before – the absolute core issue tomorrow is where the offshore patrol vessels will be built.”
Federal Labor is adopting a cautious approach to revelations the White Paper aims to increase by 5000 the number of uniformed personnel in the defence force.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the paper, which he described as a “very substantial piece of work”, would focus on securing the nation and would be fully costed.
The 5000 new uniformed personnel will be spread across all three armed services and take Australian Defence Force numbers to 63,000.
But a decision on where the subs will be built is not expected until mid-year after the Government considers bids from Japan, Germany and France.
The Opposition wants to see more details, especially on troop numbers, before offering bipartisanship support.
“We want to look behind that headline and see what is proposed,” defence spokesman David Feeney told ABC radio.
Labor was willing to support a “plausible plan” to spend two per cent of GDP for defence spending.
“The challenge has always been for this defence white paper to set out that trajectory,” Feeney said.
Feeney was critical the white paper was being released so close to an election, but acknowledged Labor was guilty of the same thing while in government.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten questioned the timing of the paper’s release, noting it was already 12 months late.
“Is this about the defence of the nation or the defence of the Turnbull government,” he asked reporters.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale said it made no sense to have arbitrary targets for defence spending while the government was cutting funding for health and education.
The white paper was looking like the sort of “blueprint you would expect from Tony Abbott”, he told reporters.
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