Malcolm Turnbull

PM says new subs always expected in 2030s

Malcolm Turnbull says he always expected Australia's new submarines to arrive in the early 2030s. (AAP)

Tony Abbott is flabbergasted that new submarines will be delayed but Malcolm Turnbull says defence always expected they would arrive in the early 2030s

Australia's new submarines will arrive years later than initially planned and the government and defence both say that's always how they expected it would be.

The new Defence White Paper says acquisition of the 12 new subs will start this year, with the first entering service in the early 2030s.

But Tony Abbott says he's "flabbergasted" at this delay as their delivery date was set for the mid-2020s when he was prime minister.

Pushing delivery of the new subs out this far will require upgrades and life extensions for some or all of the six Collins boats to ensure they can remain in service for as much as a decade longer.

This sparked a fresh submarines row.

The Defence Department called in the Australian Federal Police to investigate how sections of an early draft of the White Paper came to be leaked to The Australian newspaper.

This leak reveals it was planned for the first of the new subs to enter service in the late 2020s.

Launching the competitive evaluation process to select a new sub designer in February last year, former defence minister Kevin Andrews said the first had to be delivered in time to avoid a capability gap in the mid-2020s.

Mr Abbott told The Australian he wasn't just disappointed.

"I'm flabbergasted at this decision," he said.

Mr Abbott said the Collins subs, constructed between 1990 and 2003, were a fragile capability at the best of times and keeping them operational was difficult.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, asking Labor's first defence-related question since the launch of the White Paper last Thursday, demanded Mr Turnbull declare if Mr Abbott was wrong.

Mr Turnbull said the delivery date would depend on the outcome of the competitive evaluation process, set to announce the winning submarine design later this year.

"Their (defence's) consistent advice to the government since 2013 has been that it was highly unlikely the first of the future submarines could be delivered by 2026 and an extension of life for the Collins class submarine would most certainly be required," he said.

Three bidders - German firm TKMS, French firm DCNS and the Japanese government - are participating in the evaluation process.

The experience of Collins sub construction suggests around a decade from decision to delivery. This project was launched in mid-1987, with the first HMAS Collins laid down in 1990, launched in 1993 and commissioned into the navy in July 1996.

There were numerous technical problems and later boats took much longer.

The Defence White Paper outlined big plans for construction of new subs, frigates and offshore patrol vessels but none of these projects will start soon enough to halt job losses from shipbuilders running out of work.

The latest is 110 workers laid off from ASC in Adelaide.

Mr Turnbull blamed the former Labor government.

"Labor failed to commission a single naval vessel from any Australian yard during their entire time in office. They failed to make the decisions needed to avoid the valley of death in our ship-building industry," he said.

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