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Labor has accused the Morrison government of “losing control of the second biggest defence acquisition ever”, after officials confirmed three warships will be delivered late under a $44bn program.

At a parliamentary hearing today, defence officials were questioned about timeframes for the Hunter-class frigates to replace the eight Anzac-class frigates, which have been in service since 1996. Defence has argued the new frigates will be “one of the most advanced anti-submarine warships in the world” – but they are no longer due to begin entering service in the late 2020s.

A defence department deputy secretary, Tony Dalton, said the window for the delivery of the first frigate would close in December 2031. That is up to two years later than the “original nominal delivery date” of late 2029 – and it can’t enter service right away.

Asked whether that meant it would get clearance to begin operating by about December 2033, Dalton replied that was “probably a reasonable estimate”. But he said the department planned to be back on schedule from the fourth ship onwards: “We’re still expecting the final [ninth] ship to be delivered in the period around 2044.”

Speaking after the hearing of the public accounts and audit committee, Labor MP Pat Conroy said he was “very sceptical that the schedule in this project can be recovered”, because “once problems start, they tend to snowball”.

Conroy – who is the shadow minister assisting for defence – told Guardian Australia:

“It’s further proof that the government has completely lost control of the second biggest defence acquisition ever.”

“This is a project that has blown out by 50% or $14bn and now we learn that the first three ships will be delayed by two years. This means that our navy will be forced to run the older and less capable Anzac-class frigates longer in a region of the world which has more submarines than any other.”

The defence minister, Peter Dutton, has previously told the Australian it was “frustrating” to see delays to the frigates, but the schedule would be recovered over the life of the project. He has said did not intend “to just sit back and let these projects drift”.

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