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Australians squabble over new submarine fleet

SYDNEY — Australia wants to double the size of its submarine fleet, but politicians are at odds over whether to buy 12 new ones from foreign suppliers or design and build new models in local shipyards.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith said Friday that off-the-shelf submarines from Germany or the United States would not fit local requirements, even if fitted with Australia-specific systems, and the best plan would be to re-work the design of its troubled six Collins-class boats purchased from Swedish firm Kockums AB.

"We've learned some painful lessons from the maintenance and sustainment of the Collins," Smith said. "We've come to the conclusion ... that an off-the-shelf submarine doesn't give us the strategic or the operational reach that we need for Australia's interests as a maritime country and continent."

Maintenance problems have meant the navy has seldom managed to have all six Collins-class subs working at once. There were times when only one sub was in service.

Smith said the best options were a completely new design or an "evolved" Collins design.

He said the Labor government had ruled out buying nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and indicated it would not be buying Dolphin submarines from Germany.

David Johnson, the opposition defence spokesman, said he was against re-working the Collins design.

If the conservatives win the September 14 parliamentary election — as seems likely — Johnson would be defence minister in Tony Abbott's incoming government.

"I wouldn't want to go back near Collins if it was the last thing on earth that we had to do," Johnson said. "I think Collins has been a very expensive disaster."

He did not give his opinion on the US and German options.

In an opinion piece in The Australian newspaper earlier this year, former US representative to the United Nations Robert C. O'Brien urged Canberra to consider Germany's Dolphin equipped with US armaments.

He said an Australian variant of the Dolphin would require close cooperation between German, US and Australian defence contractors in its manufacture.

"While such cooperation involving very sensitive submarine technology might have been unlikely several years ago, given the massive defence cuts taking place in Europe and the United States, it is more likely that the countries would find a way to work together today given the Australian program's big budget," O'Brien wrote.
 

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