CANBERRA, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Australia has asked three European companies to submit designs to replace its submarine fleet at a cost of up to A$36 billion ($36 billion) in a defence buildup aimed at protecting resource exports and countering an accelerating arms race in Asia.
French naval builder DCNS, part owned by Thales, Germany’s Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft GmbH and Spanish state shipbuilder Navantia had been asked for information on conventional submarine designs, Australia’s Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare said on Tuesday.
“The Future Submarines Project is the biggest and most complex defence project we have ever embarked upon,” Clare said.
Australia plans to build a fleet of 12 submarines to enter service around 2025. That comes on top of a A$65 billion military buildup already underway, including new amphibious assault carriers, stealth fighter aircraft, tanks, helicopters and missile destroyers.
The country has also budgeted to buy up to 100 of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighters, double the size of a purchase being mulled by Japan.
The buildup is in part aimed at countering China’s military expansion and reach into southeast Asia and the South China Sea, where Beijing is involved in disputes with several other states over sovereignty.
Australia, a close U.S. ally, also agreed last month to host a de facto U.S. base in the north of the country to provide military reach into Asia and rotate U.S. marines and warships through Australian ports.
But Canberra has been keen to paint its growing military clout as directed at beefing up security for offshore resource developments and mineral exports, as well as increasing its capability to respond to humanitarian disasters regionally.
The new submarines will be larger and more capable than the navy’s current fleet of six locally-built Collins submarines, which are among the world’s largest conventional boats, but which have been plagued by manufacturing and design problems.
U.S. officials have been pressing Australia to commit to the submarine fleet, and some security and naval analysts had called for the government to consider buying U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarines off the shelf.
$1= 0.9914 Australian dollars Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Sanjeev Miglani