HMAS Stirling (photo : Naval Technology)
Defence Minister Stephen Smith says key decisions will soon be made on Australia's next generation submarine to replace the ageing Collins class boats.
With the backdrop of the USS Michigan, a visiting nuclear-powered guided missile submarine moored at HMAS Stirling navy base in Western Australia, Mr Smith told reporters all options remained on the table, except that of nuclear propulsion.
The minister said if Australia was to acquire nuclear-powered submarines all maintenance and sustainment would have to be outsourced to another country because of the lack of a local nuclear industry.
Mr Smith said defence was working on the array of options for the boats which will replace the navy's six Collins class vessels, provisionally set to retire around 2025.
"We are not too far away from making an announcement about the first stage of what will be the single largest capital works program the Commonwealth of Australia has ever engaged in," Mr Smith told reporters.
"That is why we have been proceeding very sensibly, very methodically and very diligently before we start the design and construction stage of the program."
The 2009 Defence White Paper calls for 12 new advanced submarines to provide Australia with a formidable defensive and offensive capability. These vessels would be built in South Australia.
Defence has moved to test the current submarine market, inviting three European builders to submit details of their latest designs.
There are four options - buying an existing design, an existing design with some Australia-specific systems, an existing design with modifications to meet Australian requirements and an all-new design.
Mr Smith said interoperability with the US was an important factor for the new submarines.
"It doesn't make sense for us to have a submarine fleet that is not interoperable with the US fleet so far as communications and weapons systems are concerned," he said.
But that doesn't mean Australia would aim to buy US submarines.
"The US only has nuclear submarines so that option is not open to us," he said.
Mr Smith said he'd had talks at the highest level about the need for Australia and the US to cooperate on Australia's new submarine fleet.
"And that's occurring. There is support at the highest level and support at officer level and the US has indicated any assistance they can give so far as design is concerned, they will do that readily," he said.