The government says it took Defence Department advice on board when it opted for the competitive evaluation process to select new submarines.
A spokesman for Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said Defence, in its advice to former minister David Johnston, noted that government shipbuilder ASC lacked some skills and capital to undertake this large task alone.
Defence advice to Senator Johnston, obtained by Fairfax Media under freedom of information, indicates that it preferred for most of the job of constructing the 12 advanced new submarines to be done at the ASC facility in Adelaide.
But it acknowledged that ASC, formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation, lacked the whole-boat design capability and would need some international design help.
“The government has taken this advice on board and has announced the competitive evaluation process that is currently underway,” Mr Andrews’ spokesman said.
The Defence advice, dated December 2013, was delivered early in the coalition government’s term, when there were two options for the new subs – an evolution of the 1980s Collins design or a wholly new design.
Since then, three foreign designs – the Japanese Soryu, the French Barracuda and the German Type-216 – have emerged as potentially able to meet Australia’s particular requirements for large size (about 4000 tonnes) and long range.
Under the competitive evaluation process, they have been invited to submit designs, options for construction overseas or in Australia or both, plus rough costings and delivery schedule.
A decision is expected in early 2016.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government wanted the best possible submarines at the lowest cost, while maximising the involvement of Australian industry.
“As we know, in six years, the former government did not place one single naval order with an Australian shipyard,” he told reporters.
Labor said Mr Abbott had ignored Defence advice and, ever since, had been crab-walking away from his own pre-election commitment to build the new boats in Adelaide.
“It appears that the Prime Minister is ignoring the advice of his own government experts in a desperate attempt to court Japan,” Opposition defence spokesman Stephen Conroy said.
“This has become a high farce. It is time for Tony Abbott to come clean once and for all on his secret deal with Japan.”