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Australia cannot afford to skip Collins Class upgrades, says Deputy PM

HMAS Waller sails through Sydney Harbour as it prepares to berth at Fleet Base East, Sydney. Photo: ABET Jarrod Mulvihill

Australia “cannot afford not to” go ahead with the life of type extension program for its Collins Class submarine fleet despite significant engineering risk, according to Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles.

Australia “cannot afford not to” go ahead with the life of type extension program for its Collins Class submarine fleet despite significant engineering risk, according to Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles.

Earlier this week, The Australian newspaper detailed findings from an interim report on the planned $5 billion life of type extension (LOTE) to the six Collins Class submarines due to begin in 2026.

Under the report and verbal briefings delivered to the government, former US Navy deputy assistant secretary Gloria Valdez reportedly warned of major required overhauls of the submarines, extensive technical risks to the LOTE program and never-before-attempted engineering such as cutting each hull in half to replace or upgrade key systems.


In addition, Valdez reportedly questioned whether ASC, formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation, had the required engineering experience and design to complete the LOTE program. She also reportedly recommended original submarine designer SAAB Kockums be given more responsibility to ensure success.

The Minister for Defence, speaking to ABC Afternoon Briefing on 20 May, said the federal government had confidence in the LOTE process.

“The life of type extension of Collins is necessary. I mean it is necessary as we seek to evolve our capability from where it is today through until that moment where we are operating nuclear-powered submarines, the first of the Virginia Class submarines we acquire from the United States and ultimately the submarines that we will be building ourselves in Adelaide,” he said.

“Now, the former government, opened up, really, a 10-year capability gap here when it came to our Future Submarine Program capability. They were early on, in and out of a deal with Japan and then in and out of a deal with France. And all of that saw the better part of a decade pass before we started moving down the pathway that we are now, and we are in, therefore, the situation of needing to close that capability gap.

“The way in which we do that is by seeing those Virginias come online much earlier than anticipated but also through extending the life of Collins. This is the pathway that we must walk down if we are to ensure that no capability gap opens up, and this is the pathway we need to walk down if we’re going to see our existing submarine evolve to what we ultimately need when we’re operating nuclear-powered submarines.

“We are confident that we can engage in the life of type extensions. It is of course a challenge. There will be risks. But it is a process we must undertake and we are confident about our ability to undertake it.

“The simple fact is that we cannot afford to see a capability gap open up in relation to our submarine capability. And unless we undertake life of type extensions in respect of the Collins Class submarines, that’s what will occur and we are not going to countenance that as a government,” Marles said.

“(There is) 10-year capability gap that we are seeking to close, but we are going to close it. And the two ways in which we do that is through that much earlier acquisition of the Virginia Class submarines from the United States and through extending the life of Collins – and we must extend the life of Collins – so it is what going to do.

“We do accept that there is a challenge in this, we do though have a sense of confidence about being able to meet that challenge. What we will be seeing is a deep level maintenance which occurs with every Collins Class now, occurring again in order to extend the life of a given submarine, ASC are involved in the work, have been involved through the life of Collins, so they have an enormous amount of expertise and experience here.

“We are confident that we can do this process again in a way which puts a much greater capability into our Collins Class submarines and allows us to evolve that capability, to enable us to close the gap as we move towards operating nuclear-powered submarines.

“But we will be doing the life of type extensions; they are fundamentally important to making sure that we close the capability gap that we inherited from the former Coalition government.”

Earlier this year, Australian senator Jacqui Lambie 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.

At that time, Defence had 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 had not been trialled or installed and were currently in a design works phase, according to comments made at the Senate estimates meeting.

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