Defence Minister David Johnston says a defence white paper will re-examine what the government wants its new submarines to do and how many are really needed.
Senator Johnston says he will take a plan to cabinet later this year.
He says there has been debate about whether Australia really needs 12 new submarines – a figure first cited in Labor’s 2009 defence white paper and repeated in the 2013 white paper.
But the primary focus now was not on numbers but on capability and availability of vessels to meet the tasks set by government.
“As part of the white paper process we will re-examine the strategic objectives of the future submarine programs including the number of submarines required at sea and therefore the total number of submarines,” he said.
The navy operates six Collins class submarines, which will start to be retired from the early 2030s.
The program to build their replacements will likely be Australia’s most complex and costly defence acquisition program, with a price tag put at $36 billion to $40 billion.
Addressing an Australian Strategic Policy Institute submarines conference in Canberra, Senator Johnston said the primary objective of the new subs program was to give Australia a regionally-dominant conventional submarine capability.
New submarines had to be able to operate independently over large distances of our maritime region. They must also be able to operate in secrecy and destroy other submarines and surface vessels.
They had to be affordable and Australia needed to be able to sustain the capability.
There must also be no submarine capability gap between retirement of the Collins boats and the arrival of their replacements, he said.