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Submarine scrutiny: Senate questions Collins Class spending

HMAS Dechaineux alongside the Port of Melbourne in Victoria. Photo: POIS Christopher Szumlanski

Australian senator Jacqui Lambie has raised concerns about periscope upgrades being undertaken on the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins Class submarine fleet.

Australian senator Jacqui Lambie has raised concerns about periscope upgrades being undertaken on the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins Class submarine fleet.

Senator Lambie questioned whether the Australian Defence Force was providing best value for money with the upgrades, during a Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation committee (Senate estimates) on 14 February this year.

Defence has reportedly already spent more than $48 million on upgrading the submarines from the current hull penetrating periscope to an optronic mast sensor. The new periscopes have not been trialled or installed, and are currently in a design works phase, according to comments made at the Senate estimates.

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Defence accepted questions on notice regarding how many new periscopes had already been purchased and how many have been delivered to Australia.

“We still haven't decided whether we are going to use them. That is where we are at? We have spent $48 million. We have bought others, there are probably some here in Australia, and we may not even use them. I am worried about the spend here.” Senator Lambie said.

“I have no idea why you wouldn't just bring one in and trial it. If you have others sitting there, what a waste of taxpayers' money that is. This is why we have procurement problems: $48 million. Do you know what that sort of money could do out there? Seriously.”

HMAS Farncomb, the first submarine to be completely constructed in Australia, laid down in 1993 and launched in 1995, is expected to be the first ship to receive the upgrade under Defence’s Life of Type Extension (LOTE) program.

Royal Australian Navy Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mark David Hammond, speaking at the Senate meeting, said there is additional work required on the new periscope.

“As we look at the life-of-type extension program, we are making sure we put the right capabilities into the submarines in the future,” he said.

“There are design works to be done. It requires a different cooling system arrangement and electrical power supply arrangements, et cetera. Our capability partner ASC have been working with the provider of that capability on the design work.

“The government will take a decision at some point on the exact package of maintenance and upgrade work that we will conduct on the first submarine to go through the life-of-type extension, which will be HMAS Farncomb.

“We need to understand all of the maintenance hours that are going to be involved in that package, ensure that it fits within the standard two-year availability program and then rack and stack it in terms of priority.

“As we go through the material condition assessment on HMAS Farncomb, the diesel engines may be the highest priority and consume x-number of hours. We are still going through an assessment of the scope based upon the condition of the boat that will go through that activity. We will provide that advice to government.

“The government will then decide what we will do and fund during that period. At the moment, the optronics program is part of that scope, but many other things are under consideration, including the main motors, propulsion, switchboard, diesel engines, and the associated auxiliary systems and cooling system. We don't start this activity for another two years, so we are continuing to work with ASC and the contractors on nailing down that scope and making sure that it fits in the two-year window.”

Earlier this week, the Collins Class submarine HMAS Dechaineux visited the Port of Melbourne from 10 to 12 February as part of their planned activity schedule. While in port, HMAS Dechaineux provided submarine tours to the Australian Navy Cadets as part of their ongoing learning and familiarisation.

In 2022, then minister for defence Peter Dutton announced the RAN’s Collins Class submarine fleet would be fitted with new optronic masts to replace its ageing optical periscope masts under a contract worth $381 million.

The new masts will not require a hull penetration, instead using a digital camera atop an extensible mast to display images on a screen inside the boat’s command centre.

As an operational benefit, multiple experts aboard the submarine could then scan an image simultaneously, reducing the length of time a mast is clear of the water surface and reduce space demand in the submarine by removing the command centre’s bulky optical periscope column.

The upgrade forms part of the planned Collins Class life of type extension (LOTE), a phase of Project SEA 1439, valued at around $6 billion. Australia’s Collins Class submarines are currently fitted with hull penetrating attack and search periscopes, which are extensively overhauled every seven years to confirm structural integrity and vessel readiness.

Australia’s AUKUS partners, the USA and the UK, already use optronic masts in their submarines and the retrofit would bring the Royal Australian Navy into line with its allies and familiarise Australian crews with optronic systems before the RAN acquires its own nuclear-powered submarines.

Robert Dougherty

Robert Dougherty

Robert is a senior journalist who has previously worked for Seven West Media in Western Australia, as well as Fairfax Media and Australian Community Media in New South Wales. He has produced national headlines, photography and videography of emergency services, business, community, defence and government news across Australia. Robert graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Public Relations and Journalism at Curtin University, attended student exchange program with Fudan University and holds Tier 1 General Advice certification for Kaplan Professional. Reach out via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via LinkedIn.
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