Tim Owen interview on the recent submarine agreement and what it could mean for Newcastle

Chair of the Hunter Defence Task Force, Tim Owen, spoke with Paul Turton, host of ABC Mornings about the nuclear-powered submarine deal and how Newcastle can capitalise on the deal, along with the opportunities and challenges it could present.

Paul Turton: Well after striking the historic nuclear-powered submarine deal with his American and British counterparts in San Diego yesterday, Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese declared the agreement marked a new chapter in the nation’s ties with Britain and the US. But could the deal also mark a new chapter in Newcastle’s maritime tradition? Can our city – with our long history in shipbuilding and defence – get in on that $368B deal? Well someone well placed to know what the opportunities and challenges are for Newcastle in being part of the subs project is former defence force member and now chair of the Hunter Defence Task Force, Tim Owen. Tim joins us now from Tokyo.

Tim Owen, good morning.

Tim Owen: Good morning Paul, how are you?

PT: Yeah, brilliant thanks, what takes you to Tokyo by the way?

TO: We’re here at a major Japanese defence exhibition which essentially is a… a partnering opportunity for Australian defence industry and Japanese defence industry based on, clearly, a lot of strategic circumstances we’re facing. So, yeah, very interesting and it should be a really good few days.

PT: Tim I presume that you chose aeroplanes rather than submarines for a reason but we want to talk about subs today. How transformative do you believe this submarine agreement could be for Australia’s defence capabilities?

TO: Well clearly as has been articulated in the press and by the prime minister it is a very significant, you know, change and capability upgrade for Australia’s defence force. I mean, it’s still a long way off clearly, but when you look at the capability of the submarines be it the Virginia class or the new follow on to the Astute class with the British, it’s a capability that we’ve never had in that context before. So yeah, to answer your question, it’s simply a very significant upgrade, yes.

PT: Alright, it’s a long-term project of course, it starts with more visits from US and UK submarines, it’ll have us purchasing existing US subs and then of course building this new AUKUS class submarine, which is way over the horizon, decades away. How likely is it that we’ll stick with this deal, because it has been quite changeable hasn’t it? Change of government can mean change of approach to defence and we’re talking about multi-billion dollar investments. So, I mean, we’ve got to be committed and stay committed, haven’t we?

TO: Well yes we do I think and clearly the AUKUS agreement is along those lines for, you now, it’s a very, very strong relationship between the UK the US and Australia and clearly the strategic circumstances we face in the world currently and what we foresee in the near- to medium-term future, the US needs strong and committed allies, so I don’t see us backing out of this deal, but as you say it is a very, very long-term opportunity, we’re just going to see how that evolves. I think we’ll acquire a Virginia class capability and then there will be some decisions, I’m sure, following that. As it stands today, all three countries are very, very committed to it.

PT: Tim Owen, what does this mean for Newcastle? Are we guaranteed a seat at the table?

TO: Um, guaranteed a seat at the table is an interesting way to say it Paul. I think, you know that when you look at the [building] of the capabilities such as this, it’s really a national effort rather than something that’s going to be done, you know particularly in South Australia. So, as you mentioned in your introduction, we have a very, very strong maritime history in both construction as well as long-term through life support, and when you look at the capabilities such as Civmec, Thales, UGL, Varley, and our history of ship-building I think there’s going to be some real opportunity for Newcastle industry, in terms of the manufacturing support side, and a perfect example of that would be Forgacs building the blocks for the air warfare destroyer a number of years ago. So, you know, there is a recognition that we as a region have a very, very strong maritime system and maritime capability. And in addition to that when you look at what happens at the RAAF base, with the bigger primes, like the Locheeds, the BAEs, the Boeings, and all of the industry that support that, you know we have a very, very strong, combat system support capability, so, I would be very surprised if we don’t get a significant share of the opportunity to contribute to that national effort.

PT: It seems like Port Kembla is the front-runner for an east coast submarine base, again. How much has the involvement of China played into them becoming favourites, and given geopolitical tensions that are present in the world at the moment, is the Australian, or the Newcastle, specifically, relationship through Newcastle ports with the Chinese consortia is that going to impede our potential?

TO: Um, I mean we certainly have put a lot together for government with regards to that. My personal view is you know, if I can be frank, we don’t have, you know, hundreds of Chinese running around the port of Newcastle. Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that it did and can have some effect, but I don’t think that’s a main driver. Really, we’ll share that opportunity I think, with Kembla, as I said before, you know there may be – and it’s bigger than submarines as well, it’s east-coast basing for the Royal Australian Navy – so I think there’ll be an opportunity, certainly in Newcastle for some level of support should it go to Kembla, but the issue is no decision has been made as yet. I mean, there’s a lot of talk about Kembla as the favourite, but certainly we put a strong foot forward in that context, and you know, we are a big manufacturing region where Kembla, to a large degree is not, it’s a port and it’s a port only, and it will be a substantial amount of money required to actually activate a major east-coast basing opportunity down there.

PT: One of the other challenges, we’ve got surely, is that we’ve got such a substantial air-force base here. Will that be a disadvantage to us, having two strategically important defence capabilities in close proximity to each other?

TO: In my opinion, no, Paul, I don’t think so. Probably the key thing there is major defence industry in this region already, and it could support a lot easier than at Port Kembla for instance the establishment of new facilities, and new industry bases down there, so I don’t think it’s a disadvantage in that context, you know when you think about the air force base and the F-35s that are there, primarily, they would provide protection, for any other industrial capability and obviously the protection of the port of Newcastle as well, so I don’t see that as a disadvantage, in fact, I actually see the industrial capability of our region an advantage in that context.

PT: Part of what you’ve done with the Hunter Defence task force of course is galvanise capability, and given the secretive nature of defence, and defence capability, how much real opportunity is there? Are we dealing with a strictly controlled proprietary system, or is there, you know, the broad base of work that we’d see associated with other major projects available to other Newcastle firms?

TO: Ah yes, there’s no doubt, I mean we have a broad reach all over the world, from the Hunter hence one of the reasons I’m here in Tokyo, I mean we go to a number of these international exhibitions and when you look at [sound cuts out] systems, etc, etc, that we have in our regions, we are one of the region – you know a small region of Australia, but a very, very significant capability in terms of defence industry. So yes, to answer your question Paul, we really do have a very good opportunity around the world and internationally, in terms of the industrial capability in the Newcastle and Hunter region.

PT: Sinead in Mayfield asks an interesting question, she says, “Good morning Paul, since we are having this conversation, could you please clarify that Newcastle has long held commitments as a nuclear-free city?” Commitments that were re-established as recently as last year. Will determinations by Newcastle City Council play much of a role here Tim Owen?

TO: I think they will. But you have to remember, you know, when you talk about the capability that exists within these submarines, and it’s projected to be, it’s a fully contained … system, so there is not a requirement for a nuclear industry, to enrich a nuclear capability, and there won’t be any nuclear weapons obviously, so you know I think, when you look at it, we’re really looking at a self-contained propulsion system that lasts the life and type of the vehicle. So in that context, it is not anywhere near what people would have thought it may be or when you look at the US capability or UK capabilities and that’s one of the major significant advantages as we move forward in technology and these sort of ah, these sort ships, or if you like, underwater capability.

PT: Tim, what’s the workforce availability like with the firms that you work with – we’re going to talk employment challenges in just a little while on this program, we know that with the with the renewable energy zone that there’s going to be opportunities in renewable energy – are we going to run out of skilled people, if we’re going to add people in defence industries into the market, what sort of impact is that going to have?

TO: Well it does have a very significant impact, Paul in fact, you know around Australia, skilled workforces is the major determinant for a lot of industrial capability and no difference in the defence space. We’re doing a lot of work at the moment in terms of that, to actually help see if we can generate workforce all the way through from young men and women, or boys and girls from school, through to tertiary and vocational young men and women at both the universities and the TAFE, and also transition workforce our of industry, so we’re talking to BHP Billiton who you know are closing Mt Arthur in the next couple of years, and they have a very significant workforce, we’re working closely with them at the moment to sort of say, how will we look to transition some of the skilled workers who want to remain in the region into defence industry. So there is a lot of work going on in that area but to answer your question again, succinctly, workforce is a major issue around this country, but we’re working as hard as we can, to generate and sustain and transition workers into that industry.

PT: Tim Owen, I appreciate you making yourself available today, thanks.

TO: Alright, no problem at all, Paul. Have a great day.

This interview was originally broadcast on March 15, 2023 at 10am.