Will the future submarines be built in Adelaide? Possibly, but they will most likely be built in Australia. It depends on what is deemed to be culturally feasible.
The design and construction of twelve future submarines to replace the current Collins Class fleet costing $50 billion will be the biggest capital expenditure undertaken by the Commonwealth. Will the replacement Collins Class submarines be built in Adelaide? Possibly, but they will most likely be built in Australia.
Any socio-technical problem requires that the solution is both systemically desirable and culturally feasible. One line of enquiry to assess cultural feasibility is a political analysis.
The politics of future submarine acquisition has never been fully considered by the Liberal-National Coalition. There are two political dimensions at play. One is the desire to deepen the strategic ties between Japan and Australia. The aim of which is to counter Chinese dominance. The other political dimension is to maintain an indigenous submarine construction capability created by building the six Collins Class submarines.
During campaigning for the 2013 federal election the Coalition committed to build twelve new submarines in Adelaide. A week before the election it released its defence policy, which reiterated that commitment by stating:
‘We will make decisions necessary to ensure that Australia has no submarine capability gap within 18 months of the election. We will also ensure that work on the replacement… will centre around South Australian shipyards’
By April 2014 the Coalition was casting doubt on this plan with Defence Minister David Johnston in talks with Japanese officials about possible access to its Sōryū Class submarines. By September the media was reporting that the Government was leaning towards buying Japanese built submarines.
This should not have been a problem except that the Japanese were reluctant to build their submarines in Australia. The Prime Minister Tony Abbott assured coalition MPs that the submarine project would create jobs in South Australia and the Australian industry contribution would be centred on South Australian shipyards. In November David Johnston warned that Adelaide based ASC could not be trusted to build a canoe, a statement which ultimately cost him his job.
The fear of an electoral backlash in South Australia over submarine construction caused the Coalition leadership crisis in February 2015. This lead to the new Defence Minister Kevin Andrews announcing that French, German and Japanese bids would evaluated by a “competitive evaluation process”. Although the Japanese were reluctant to build in Australia the European bidders were keen.
With the replacement of Tony Abbott the political pendulum has swung back in favour of an indigenous build, supported by the Japanese announcement that they could build their submarines in Australia.