Months out from a federal election, prime minister Scott Morrison is warning of the growing threat from an "arc of autocracy" as China and Russia look to reshape the global order.
After sensationally scrapping a deal to acquire French-built submarines in favour of nuclear powered vessels from either the US or UK, Mr Morrison is set to announce a new at least $10 billion submarine base for Australia's east coast.
Defence officials have been tasked with talking to the NSW and Queensland governments on setting up the base for Australian and visiting nuclear-powered submarines, Mr Morrison will tell a Lowy Institute forum on Monday in a major foreign affairs speech.
The multi-billion dollar project – ostensibly about pushing back against China's growing military assertiveness in the region – is slated for either Brisbane, Newcastle or Port Kembla.
Fleet Base West in Western Australia will remain home to the current Collins class and future nuclear-powered submarines, given its strategic importance on the Indian Ocean.
"(But) establishing a second submarine base on our east coast will enhance our strategic deterrent capability, with significant advantages in operational, training, personnel and industrial terms," Mr Morrison will say.
"An optimal east coast base would provide home-ported submarines with specialised wharfs, maintenance facilities, administrative and logistics support, personnel amenities, and suitable accommodation for submarine crews and support staff.
"It would also enable the regular visiting of US and UK nuclear-powered submarines."
With initial work to be completed by the end of 2023, the three potential sites have been chosen because of their proximity to industrial infrastructure, large population centres, deep water, maritime training and weapons storage and loading facilities.
World facing new 'arc of autocracy'
Keen to keep national security front and centre during the impending election campaign, Mr Morrison is warning Australia is facing its most "difficult and dangerous security environment in 80 years".
The prime minister will tell the forum the "unprovoked, unjust and illegal war" launched by Russia in Ukraine was a sign of a "new arc of autocracy" seeking to challenge and reset the world order.
"We face the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency," he will say.
"The implications of the Ukraine crisis would not only be felt in Europe but inevitably stretch to the Indo-Pacific.
"Militarisation is expanding and evolving rapidly ... The challenges we face continue to mount. They require us to increase our resilience, expand our capabilities and harden our defences."
Nuclear sub deal leaves Australia vulnerable, critics say
The Morrison government's dramatic move to pursue the nuclear-powered submarines without a clear timeline or price tag has also been met with fierce criticism.
Independent senator Rex Patrick labelled it a "national security failure" on Monday morning.
"We’re 13 years and $3B into a future submarine project and what do we have to show for it? We’ve got a study into getting a nuclear submarine and, now, a study into where we might put them. A complete national security failure," he tweeted.
Meanwhile former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the plan makes Australia more reliant on allies and thus reduces Australian sovereignty.
"Given the uncertainty in the world, we should be more self-reliant, we should be more self-resilient," he told ABC radio on Monday morning.
"The proposal to acquire nuclear powered submarines from the United States or Britain ... if it ever comes to pass ... [will leave us with submarines] that we not only can't built, but can't maintain and will not be able to operate on our own – it is an abandonment of sovereignty and absolutely the worst thing we could be doing."
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