The Department of Defence and the Chief of Navy have dismissed concerns over submariner safety amid speculation that a contract to upgrade the Collins Class fleet’s escape rescue system could be cancelled.
A Defence spokesperson and the Chief of the Royal Australian Navy, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, AO, have responded to a media report published earlier this week, in which a 50-year Navy veteran called into question thee adequacy of the Collins class Fleet’s escape rescue and abandonment system.
Captain Anthony Miller told the nation’s public broadcaster that he was “very concerned” about the Department of Defence’s reported plans to scrap its $255 million contract with Phoenix International (Australia), which was tasked with supplying a new sovereign air transportable Submarine Rescue Service capability to the Collins Class fleet in 2018 as part of the SEA 1354 Phase 1 program.
The potential cancellation of the contract would also impact the Future Submarines program, with Phoenix also tasked with fitting the Attack Class fleet with the safety system.
"Our main concern is what happens if we have a submarine sink in a depth further than 400 metres," CAPT Miller told the ABC.
"How do we rescue the submariners?
"It can only launch in very calm conditions and it can only swim or operate in currents that are benign. Here in Australia, we have some of the worst conditions".
In a statement to Defence Connect, a Defence spokesperson has confirmed that the contract is “under consideration” by the government, after being declared a ‘Project of Interest’ in June amid “delays in progressing system design activities to schedule”.
However, Defence insisted that the delays would not impact the Navy’s ability to “provide an ongoing submarine rescue capability” for the Collins Class submarines, adding that the current rescue system can be sustained into the “late 2020s”.
“The current submarine rescue system has an operating profile suitable for the conduct of rescue operations taking into account Navy’s operating areas and full consideration of the potential scenarios under which submarine rescue would be performed,” the spokesperson added.
The Chief of Navy also rejected concerns over submariner safety, adding that personnel are equipped with the skills to manage risks.
“Royal Australian Navy submariners are a professional force, trained and equipped to manage all possible eventualities related to submarine operations,” VADM Noonan said.
“Defence has an existing contracted submarine escape and rescue service provider that is certified to provide services for all likely scenarios and operational areas under which submarine rescue would be performed.
“Australia is also a member of an international coalition established by NATO to provide submarine escape and rescue services globally. This coalition was established to provide global support to submarine rescue operations.”
The Chief of Navy also noted that the rescue systems are annually tested and certified through Exercise Black Carillion, currently being conducted off the coast of Western Australia.