A 21st Century Defence Strategy for Australia: Shaping a Way Ahead

By Robbin Laird

I am back in Australia for the latest Williams Foundation Seminar. Given the title of this article one might except a discussion of last year’s Defence Strategic Review or of this year’s fleet review.

But I have dealt with the DSR at length in two books last year, and the amount of criticism and comment on the fleet review suggests an unsettled state in Australia about just what is the most effective way ahead. Many of the leading analysts with whom I have talked about the cumulative effects of the government’s actions to date will be to reduce the ADF combat potential for several years before there is growth in that potential. What one might call the valley of long term expectations before a climb back on the mountain of desired capability.

But my focus during this trip is precisely what can be done to create a more effective ADF in the next 3-5 years. I really am not interested in 2030 or 2040 given our total demonstrated inability to forecast the future.

I worked with Herman Kahn and Zbig Brzezinski at the beginning of my career on planning and forecasting and learned a great deal about we could not forecast. The debate about the way ahead for Australian defence as with American defence needs to shift decisively to whole of nation approaches and a much broader focus on security and defence than simply sending our troops somewhere.

It is akin to turning an aircraft carrier around at sea and heading in a different direction. And the way ahead for Australia needs to be worked in terms of compressive defence not simply the number of launch tubes at sea available someday.

But what should be the strategic re-design?

It must be built in my view on the ability to directly defend Australia out to its first island chain and to become a more credible strategic reserve for its allies in the region.

I discussed this strategic shift recently with Stephen Kuper of Defence Connect. The challenge of turning the aircraft carrier around and sending it in a different direction is a huge one.

And as Kuper put it: “The Australian experience is one of followership. What is needed now is a much more proactive approach to the direct defense of Australia and a 21st century one as well. Defence in the 21st century is much more than the question of lethality of your armed forces. It is about sustainability, durability, industrial capacity and the ability to mobilize the nation in defence of its interests.”

We discussed the various challenges involved in a shift from followership to proactive direct defence. But throughout our discussion we focused on the seed corns for such a shift which are already in place which can be leveraged now to move further ahead.

We ended up focusing on the building of national industrial capacity to support both the ADF and allies in the region. By building out support capacities in Australia for the ADF but at the same time for allied forces in the region it was a win-win for Australia and the allies.

Kuper noted: “Too often build programs in Australia are seen primarily as jobs programs rather than national security efforts. This is both short-sided and counter-productive. The establishment of production facilities in Australia building capacity simultaneously for the ADF and allies underscores the national security dimension of what we are doing and moves us in the right direction.”

His first example was of the South Korean company building a regional hub in Australia. This hub builds capability for the ADF but also serves as a strategic reserve for South Korea itself. It is a partnership not just in defence production but mutual re-enforcement of a defence partnership.

Australia needs a diversified defence partnership in the region, not simply a myopic focus on AUKUS whatever that is. AUKUS in fact is something like a Rorschach test, in that one sees one one wants to see in this vague concept.

For example, this is how the partnership has been described in an article published by the Australian government in 2022:

On 8 April 2022, Hanwha Defense Australia started construction on a new Armoured Vehicle Centre of Excellence at Avalon, Victoria. The occasion was marked by a groundbreaking ceremony attended by Hanwha Defense CEO Son Jae-il, Hanwha Defence Australia Managing Director Richard Cho, defence industry representatives, and officials from Korea and Australia.

The centre is part of a A$1 billion defence contract awarded to Hanwha Defense Australia in December 2021. It will be the first major manufacturing base for a South Korean defence company.

The centre is expected to create 300 jobs in design, engineering, manufacturing and corporate support over the life of the project.

State-of-the-facility to manufacture defence vehicles

Hanwha Defense Australia is a subsidiary of Hanwha Corporation, South Korea’s largest defence company. It was formed in 2019 and is headquartered in Melbourne.

Hanwha Defense Australia will manufacture 30 self-propelled howitzers and 15 armoured ammunition resupply vehicles at the centre of excellence.

The 32,000-sqm centre will be built at Avalon Airport in Greater Geelong. The A$170 million, two-year construction will create around 100 jobs.

The facility will include:

  • multiple assembly lines
  • a 1,500-metre test track
  • a deep-water test facility
  • an R&D centre
  • an obstacle course to test capability.

There is an opportunity for Australian defence industry partners to co-locate on site to streamline the manufacturing process.

How Austrade helped.

Austrade has supported Hanwha Defense Australia intensively since 2017.

The agency has:

  • shared information on Australia’s defence procurement tender process, manufacturing capabilities and prospective site locations
  • provided introductions to local Australian suppliers and R&D partners
  • supported site visits in Australia
  • facilitated meetings with state and territory governments.

Austrade is seeking opportunities for Australian businesses to participate in Hanwha’s global value chain. The agency will also work to facilitate exports of Australian products and services to Korea, and other international markets.

The second example Kuper cited was the F-35 regional maintenance and sustainment and overhaul facilities in Australia.

He noted: “Any F 35 that’s operating in the region will eventually come here to Australia for their midlife maintenance sustainment upgrades without having to go back to the U.S. So that’s a big feat in and of itself. And it doesn’t matter if it’s an American one or Japanese one or a Singaporean one – they all can be maintained in Australia.”

A January 2, 2024 Australian Defence Magazine discussed this development as follows:

The Government recently signed stage two of a facility services deed with BAE Systems Australia worth $110 million, which is in addition to its initial first stage commitment of $100 million announced in 2022. Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy said that the government’s doubling of its initial investment with BAE Systems Australia will secure the Hunter Valley’s future as an F-35 sustainment hub in the Indo-Pacific region.

The funding boost will enable BAE Systems Australia to build seven more maintenance bays to increase overall capacity to 13 bays to help service the growing F-35 fleet in the Indo-Pacific. 

Newcastle Airport could potentially be used by other nations to sustain and service a global F-35 fleet that’s expected to reach more than 3,000 aircraft…. 

Australian defence industry is already a vital contributor of maintenance and sustainment services for the global F-35 fleet, which is expected to reach more than 3,000 aircraft. Establishing the Hunter as an Indo-Pacific hub for F-35 repair and maintenance is a testament to the high level of skills and knowledge among our defence industry workforce.

I have worked on the standup of the F-35 fleet since 2004 and have written about that enterprise in my recent book entitled: My Fifth Generation Journey. And I am working on a companion book which looks at the global enterprise more directly. I suggested that such a capability would be built in Australia in an article I wrote in 2014 while in Australia attending the Williams Foundation Seminar at the time.

Kuper noted that something similar is being done with the Romeo fleet as well. As Kuper underscored: “All of Romeo maintenance and sustainment work for aircraft in the region will be done in Australia.”

An Australian Department of Defence article published on June 22, 2023 highlighted this development as follows:

The first ever deep maintenance activity on a US Navy MH-60R Seahawk ‘Romeo’ helicopter in Australia has been completed at Sikorsky Australia’s facilities in Nowra, NSW.

The US Navy aircraft arrived in Australia in October 2022 to undergo the deep maintenance activity, known as a planned maintenance interval (PMI), which was completed this month.

Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite marked the milestone with Australian and US Defence and industry representatives at the Sikorsky Australia facilities on June 26.

Commodore Darren Rae, Director General Navy Aviation and Aircrew Training, said the induction of the US Navy MH-60R into Australian facilities was a “strategically significant milestone” for Australia and the United States, who share priorities to strengthen supply chain resilience in the Indo-Pacific.

“The principal aim of this activity was to demonstrate to the US the capability of Australian industry and the pathway available to perform maintenance, repair and overhaul of this helicopter in our region,” Commodore Rae said. 

“This demonstration of Australian industry’s support to US Navy helicopter maintenance is a hallmark for the steady progress being made in the US-Australian alliance.”

Captain William Hargreaves, US Navy H-60 Multi-Mission Helicopters Program Manager, said the activity was important in strengthening ties between the two countries and allowing Australian industry to conduct maintenance as if the aircraft was on US soil.

“Demonstrating successful PMI on a US Navy MH-60R in Australia is a testament to our two nations’ shared trust and commitments in our century-long partnership with the Royal Australian Navy,” Captain Hargreaves said.

“Achieving this maintenance event expands our aircraft’s footprint, ensuring the fleet is ready to fight tonight.”

Sikorsky Australia, a Lockheed Martin company, is the Royal Australian Navy’s industry partner for delivering comprehensive deep-maintenance services and intermediate-level maintenance support for the Romeo helicopter.

Commodore Rae said Australia “has a world-class industry capability in Nowra that continues to be highly successful in supporting the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet of Romeo helicopters”.

“The Sikorsky Australia team can now add the highly successful completion of this US Navy Romeo deep maintenance activity to its list of achievements,” he said.

Lockheed Martin Australia and New Zealand’s Chief Executive Warren McDonald said: “Sikorsky Australia was honoured to be entrusted by the Australian-US navies as their industry partner to execute this inaugural proof-of-concept service on a US Navy MH-60R Seahawk ‘Romeo’.

“Sikorsky Australia’s skilled aircraft maintenance engineers have completed 46 PMIs on the Royal Australian Navy’s MH-60Rs. This experience combined with the Romeo configuration alignment and interchangeable maintenance procedures between our two navies enabled seamless integration of the US Navy Romeo into Sikorsky Australia’s maintenance program.

“Congratulations to the team, the Australian-US navies and Sikorsky Australia, on this exemplar PMI achievement. It underlines our shared commitment to advancing military interoperability, strengthening the MH-60R global supply chain, and showcases Australia’s world-class industrial capability to sustain the most advanced maritime helicopter, the MH-60R.”

The collaborative effort and dedication from teams in the Australian and US Navies have been recognised at the highest levels this year.

Australia’s former MH-60R Seahawk Romeo Helicopter Assurance Program Co-Lead, Commander Andrew Newman, was presented with a Conspicuous Service Cross in January 2023 for his outstanding achievements and devotion to pursuing this activity.

Similarly, the US Navy’s PMA-299 Special Project Team was awarded the NAVAIR Commander’s Business Innovation award in May 2023 for their innovation, attention to detail and expertise, resulting in the first ever US Navy aviation deep maintenance activity by an Australian industrial partner.

A final example we discussed was the Naval Strike Missile. This missile was designed and originally built in Norway but with its global success Konigsberg has stood up global production facilities. Australia is acquiring the NSM but by building support facilities for the ADF in Australia, they can support the region, providing strategic depth of the NSM users in the region

An August 25, 2023 article in Australian Defence Magazine highlighted Konigsberg activity in Australia as follows:

South Australian based Aerobond and Kongsberg Defence Australia have announced a new contract for the production and provision of launcher canisters for the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile (NSM). 

The NSM was selected in 2022 to replace the Harpoon Anti-Ship Missile capability under Project Sea 1300. The contract between Aerobond and Kongsberg will result in domestically produced launcher canisters to be employed on the Royal Australian Navy’s Anzac Class Frigates and Hobart Class Destroyers…. 

Aerobond will manufacture the NSM launcher canisters in a new 3500 square metre facility in Adelaide from January 2024, creating an additional 35 roles. 

“The contract with Kongsberg is a recognition of the deep skills, experience and expertise that we have cultivated within Aerobond and across our workforce. It is an important milestone in our pathway to becoming a leading supplier in the Defence industry supply chain,” said Justin Struik, Aerobond’s Founder and Managing Director. 

“We look forward to working with the team at Kongsberg and delivering exceptional quality to support the Royal Australian Navy and its protection of Australia.”

In effect, this activity can be understood in Kuper’s language, “as building a mini-arsenal of democracy in the region. We have to break out of the old and antiquated view of defense whereby national security is purely things that exploit the advent of fifth generation warfare. Gray zone warfare means everything is fair game. If they’re going to leverage the whole of nation against us, we must leverage the whole of nation in return.”

Graphic credit: Hanwha Defence Australia