Senators from across the political aisle have criticised Defence’s timeline for the delivery of fully-operational Attack Class Future Submarines.
Appearing before the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation committee (Senate estimates) on Monday, Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds, and former Rear Admiral of the Royal Australian Navy, Gregory John Sammut, were questioned over Defence’s timeline for delivery of the 12 Attack Class Future Submarines.
Sammut — who currently serves as the Department of Defence’s general manager, submarines — revealed that, based on a “nominal drum beat” of one submarine delivered every two years from 2036, the full fleet would not be fully operational until at least 2054.
Minister Reynolds added that the funding profile for Naval Group’s construction of the $50 billion fleet would extend to 2057.
Senate opposition leader Penny Wong, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and independent senator Rex Patrick criticised the timeline, questioning Defence’s decision to select a new design for the Future Submarines.
“If we bought off the shelf, when would we have had delivery of these submarines?” Senator Fierravanti-Wells asked. “It certainly wouldn't have been 2054.”
In response, Sammut dismissed the question as “hypothetical”.
“It's difficult for me to give you a definitive answer of how long it would take to build an off-the-shelf submarine,” he said.
“It would depend on which shipyard we went to, what their current capacity was, what capacity they had in the yard in terms of workforce.
“A number of those issues would have to be understood to give you a definitive answer on how long a particular shipyard would take to build an existing design.”
He continued: “Off the shelf is an existing design, it's not necessarily a slot in a production line, such as it might be for other sorts of defence assets.”
Senator Patrick then interjected, pointing to the timeline for the delivery of off-the-shelf Type 218 submarines for Singapore’s Armed Forces.
He noted that Singapore expects to receive its first Type 218 submarines next year, just four years after the order.
However, Sammut went on to add that Defence had not proceeded to consider an off-the-shelf submarine design after determining that they did not meet capability requirements.
Hunter Class delivery
Senator Wong also cast doubt over the key milestones set by Defence for the delivery of the Hunter Class frigates under Project SEA 5000 Phase 1.
She questioned whether Defence would meet its commitment to commencing ASC Shipbuilding’s construction of the frigates in 2022, pointing to delays raised by the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) and risks flagged by the Naval Shipbuilding Advisory Board.
“I don't think the evidence to date, or what has been said publicly by Defence and CASG, suggests that you are on track to meet the 2022 timetable for commencement of construction,” Senator Wong said.
In a statement to Defence Connect, Shadow Minister for Defemce Industry Matt Keogh echoed Senator Wong's sentiment, adding: "The frigates are already delayed by two years, and now the defence minister can't guarantee the work will begin before the end of 2022.
"These are the same frigates which had a cost blow out of $10 billion that the government wouldn't tell us about for two years."
However, Minister Reynolds told Senate Estimates that the program was on track to hit the 2022 milestone, despite disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
“We have always acknowledged and have always known that in a project as complex as this, there are risks to manage, but these risks are being managed, [and] we are on track to deliver and to start construction in 2022,” Minister Reynolds said.
Last month, ASC Shipbuilding was given the greenlight to commence prototyping in December 2020, following the Prototyping Readiness Review, which assessed the Hunter program’s preparedness across a range of areas, including safety, quality production inputs, processes, tools, workforce and facilities.
ASC Shipbuilding is now in the final stages of the formal handover of the Osborne South Naval Shipyard from Australian Naval Infrastructure.