Future submarines will need lengthy trials: Navy chief
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Future submarines will need lengthy trials: Navy chief

The chief of Australia’s navy has revealed that the first of the new fleet of submarines will likely not be fully operational until 2035 - three years after it is due to be in service - and that all six of the existing Collins Class submarines may need to have their life spans extended.

The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mike Noonan, told Fairfax Media he was expecting the first of the new fleet to be delivered to the navy in about 2032, but they would need to go through extensive testing.

Previously Defence has said that the first of the new fleet, which is being designed and built by French firm Naval Group, will come “into service” in 2032.

The lifespan of the existing Collins Class submarines will need to be extended.

The lifespan of the existing Collins Class submarines will need to be extended.

“The process between delivery, declaring initial operating capability and final operating capability will require further testing and timing after that," Vice Admiral Noonan said.

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“For a new, complex submarine, that could be in the vicinity of up to three years."

It was normal for complex new naval assets to go through this testing, as was the case with the latest Hobart class destroyer, the first of which was commissioned 18 months ago but is still undergoing trials. This usually meant the overall fleet had fewer problems down the track.

The questions surrounding the timing of the new submarines, which will sit at the frontline of Australia’s defence strategy, go to the heart of growing debate about whether the increased maritime clout Australia will be able to project in the 2030s and 2040s will be adequate for what most strategy experts say will by then be a highly contested region.

The 2016 Defence white paper stated that the first new submarines were “likely to begin entering service in the early 2030s”.

The need to extend the life of the Collins submarines is receiving increased scrutiny as it becomes clear they will play a key role for decades to come.

Marcus Hellyer, a former defence official now at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the Submarine Institute of Australia conference on Wednesday that keeping more Collins boats going through a major overhaul would guard against the risk of the new submarines being late and also help the navy train the submariners needed to crew the fleet as it grows to 12 boats overall.

Defence has previously discussed extending three of the Collins submarines but Vice Admiral Noonan made it clear it more might be needed.

“We continue to look at options to ensure that we’ve got both a capable and a lethal submarine for the Australian Navy but also ensuring we’ve got a growth path for training our current and future submariners in preparation for the introduction into service of the future submarine,” he said.

“If it needs to be more than three submarines, that’s the advice I’ll provide to government. And if it needs to be all six Collins Class submarines, that’s the advice I’ll take to government.”

He said he expected to advise the government in the first half of next year.

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The latest clarification about the timeline for the new fleet does not necessarily represent a slippage to the schedule. Although Defence and French firm Naval Group continue to haggle over the main contract that will guide the program, they are only a few months behind and this is unlikely to affect the final delivery date.

But many experts believe that there is significant risk of delays.

“Having watched defence projects pretty closely for over a quarter of a century now, I’d put this one in the top 10 percent for risk,” said Andrew Davies, a respected defence scholar

“History hasn’t usually been kind to projects with that level of ambition. It might be that it’s not as risky as it looks, but my gut says otherwise.”

David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House