Defence Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed that all six of the RAN's Collins-class submarines will undergo major life-of-type extensions (LOTEs) to avoid a capability gap prior to the anticipated entry into service of the first of 12 Attack-class replacements in the mid-2030s.
In an interview with The Australian, Dutton said Australia had to be realistic about what lay ahead by way of threat.
“The submarine capacity is a significant part of how we mitigate that risk and it's important that we get the programme right,” he said.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we need to pursue a life-of-type extension [for the Collins-class] and we are working on that program now. All six would be on the schedule,” added the minister.
Dutton's comments preceded a meeting set to be held in France between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and French President Emmanuel Macron in which concerns over progress on the $90 billion Attack-class programme by French shipbuilder Naval Group will be raised.
The program has been beset by delays, cost issues, and disputes over the level of Australian industry content. Detailed construction of the first of the diesel-electric Attack-class boats at Osborne is scheduled to begin in 2025/26 with entry to service expected about 2035.
Despite Defence's reluctance to respond to media questions, it’s understood that consideration is being given to extensive rebuilds for the Collins-class fleet starting in 2026, replacing a less comprehensive LOTE programme currently scheduled to begin in the same year.
This would probably involve the submarines' original designer and builder, Swedish company Kockums (now Saab Kockums) working as a strategic partner with Collins-class sustainer ASC.
This option would deliver four greatly enhanced Collins-class boats by 2032 and allow decommissioning of the first of the Collins-class fleet to be moved from 2026 to 2036; about a year after the first of the Attack-class boats is expected to enter service.
Dutton was quoted as confirming that the Swedish company “will form some part of the picture in LOTE. The extent of that is something that we are contemplating at the moment."
Saab Kockums began discussions with ASC in 2020 on interfacing its ship control system, which already equips the Collins class, with the new equipment likely to be involved in extending the service life of the class. This includes new diesel generators, main motors, switching gear, and batteries.
Other upgrades already scheduled for the Collins fleet include new bow and flank sonar arrays, modernisation of the legacy communications centre, replacement of the electronic warfare system, wideband satellite communications, and the possible replacement of a periscope with an optronics mast.
Vice Admiral William Hilarides, a member of the Naval Shipbuilding Expert Advisory Panel, told Senate Estimates on 1 June that planning for the first Collins-class full-cycle docking in 2026 would require LOTE-type of work to be undertaken 'sooner rather than later.'
He confirmed he was not trying to accelerate the start of the first LOTE but simply accelerating the work required to get to that point.
“We have reviewed the progress on planning for life-of- type-extension, and it appears to be in good shape," he stated.