Australia’s opposition leader has warned his government not to buy British submarines for its future nuclear fleet because of potential production problems in the UK.
Peter Dutton, a former defence minister in the coalition government which was defeated in last year’s general election, said he favoured America’s Virginia-class nuclear submarines because they were the best and most practical option.
Speaking just days before an expected announcement on which submarine Australia will choose under the country’s AUKUS partnership with Britain and the United States, Mr Dutton said that while he was defence minister he had been advised that the UK did not have the capacity to fulfil an Australian order.
“The advice to me at the time was very clear – that Rolls-Royce didn’t have any production capability left,” he told reporters at the Avalon Air Show in Victoria on Thursday.
“The beauty in my mind with the American model of the Virginia class was that it was a proven design, it gave us interoperability with the Americans and there will be more American subs in the Indo-Pacific than there will be British submarines,” he added.
Asked about speculation that Britain’s SSN R submarine, which is still in development, was tipped to be chosen, he explained that Rolls-Royce has “no headroom” and didn’t have the ability to “scale-up” production to meet Australia’s needs.
“I worry that if the government has taken the decision to go for a cheaper design that it will delay the delivery of these submarines,” he said.
The comments have fuelled a bitter national security debate and were described as “irresponsible” and “mischievous” by Pat Conroy, the defence industry minister.
“I just find it completely unhelpful in the public debate for him to be injecting this stuff when he knows that there are security reasons that mean that we can’t detail information until we make the announcement,” he said.
Australia’s nuclear submarine policy is designed to counter any future threat from China in the Indo-Pacific region.
The new, nuclear-powered submarines are due to replace Australia’s ageing fleet of Collins class diesel-electric submarines, but the programme has been plagued by indecision.
With the cost of each submarine estimated at more than £5 billion, expense has been a dominant factor in the selection process.
First Japan and then France were frontrunners to replace Australia’s submarines, but both of those plans were abandoned in favour of a joint initiative involving the UK and the US.
Canberra’s final decision may well involve both of its AUKUS partners, but Mr Dutton’s last minute intervention threatens to cast a shadow over the final deal.
The Telegraph has contacted Rolls-Royce for comment.