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Want to truly build local industry capability? Begin as a regional MROU hub

An F-35A Lightning II aircraft outside of the BAE Systems maintenance hangar near RAAF Base Williamtown (Source: Defence)

Australia’s defence industrial base stands at a crossroads amid new policy frameworks and broader initiatives, like AUKUS, designed to boost the participation, capacity, and competitiveness of our defence industry, but we have an overlooked path for growing our defence industrial base and regional partnerships.

Australia’s defence industrial base stands at a crossroads amid new policy frameworks and broader initiatives, like AUKUS, designed to boost the participation, capacity, and competitiveness of our defence industry, but we have an overlooked path for growing our defence industrial base and regional partnerships.

For much of the last four decades, Australia’s comparatively small defence industrial base has faced a number of major challenges that have hindered the scale, competitiveness, and resilience of this increasingly critical sector of the national economy.

Whether at the hands of declining post-Cold War budgets, as a result of the “peace dividend”; small, seemingly arbitrary acquisition numbers; feared “valleys of death” caused by delayed decision making; global supply chain constraints or the impact of review-induced delays, Australia’s defence industrial base has been expected to move mountains but has been fundamentally prevented from hitting the gym for leg day.

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One area Australian defence industry has been a quiet achiever is in the maintenance, sustainment, and complex through-life upgrade and overhaul life cycle of not just our platforms, but common platforms in use with our allies – like the MH-60R Romeo and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – have provided some consistency for Australia’s defence industrial base.

Further enhancing this model is the industry opportunities emerging from the trilateral AUKUS agreement, which will see Australia field a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and support the increased basing of both American and British nuclear-powered submarines in Western Australia.

Yet as the Indo-Pacific continues to undergo the largest period of military build-up since the Second World War, Australia seems to be missing a step when it comes to leveraging both our geographic location, our increasingly skilled workforce, our raw resources, and our relationships to become the Indo-Pacific’s “go-to” partner for defence industry capability.

But what do I mean?

A tried-and-true model

Australia already has two standout and successful models to draw upon as “proof of concept”, the first being the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky maintenance hub for both Australian and US Navy MH-60R Romeo helicopters at Nowra on the NSW south coast.

Indeed, beginning in October 2022, the first US Navy Romeo helicopters began their deep maintenance activity, part of a planned maintenance interval (PMI) which was completed in June 2023, while the 50th successful PMI for Australia’s own Romeo fleet was completed at Nowra in late-2023.

At the time of the first successful completion of a US Navy Romeo PMI, 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, which share priorities to strengthen supply chain resilience in the Indo-Pacific.

The importance of this model was reinforced by US Navy Captain William Hargreaves, the US Navy’s H-60 Multi-Mission Helicopters Program Manager who said, “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.”

This facility currently employs more than 200 people and has seen more than 70 helicopter components repatriated to Australian industry production. This supports additional capacity for growth to support Australia’s own growing fleet of Romeo helicopters, and potential scope to be expanded to support the Army’s new fleet of UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, or have a similar model established in Townsville to support Australian, American, and other allied Black Hawk-model helicopters in the Indo-Pacific.

Shifting to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the BAE Systems Australia state-of-the-art facility at Williamtown is emerging as the “go-to” regional maintenance, sustainment, and upgrade facility for F-35 aircraft operating throughout the region, whether with the United States, Singapore, Japan or South Korea.

The Newcastle facility is expected to support nearly 750 direct and indirect local job opportunities in the Hunter region and builds on Australian industry’s deep integration in the multi-billion-dollar global supply chain program that has benefited from more than AU$3 billion worth of contracts that contributes to the F-35 program.

Highlighting the potential of the facility, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said in August 2023, “Importantly, this (BAE Systems Australia) stealth coating facility will not just be important to Australia’s fleet of F-35s. It will support F-35s in the region, whether it’s visiting US Marines aircraft; it could be F-35s from Singapore or broader in the Indo-Pacific. So this is all about advancing the most advanced capability in the world, building a facility well in excess of $100 million, creating 25 well-paid secure jobs, adding to the 360 jobs already here working on maintaining and upgrading the F-35.”

So what other options are available to us in the Indo-Pacific?

A regional ‘audit’ of common capabilities

Let’s take a quick walk through the Indo-Pacific to take a closer look at other opportunities there for Australia to actively target, pursue, and secure to help expand our domestic defence industrial base and workforce.

Common platforms across partner nations ranging from the United States, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and of course, rotational deployments from the United Kingdom and other European powers present the easiest “entry to market” and value-add proposition for our partners.

On the US front, separate to the aforementioned areas, we have platforms like the F/A-18E/F/G and E/A-18G-family of fighter aircraft, there is also the AH-64-family of Apache helicopters, CH-47 Chinook family of helicopters, the Abrams-family of main battle tanks, M142 HIMARS rocket artillery, M777-family of howitzers, to name a few, and the future E-7C Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Command aircraft to be operated by the US Air Force.

Three of the biggest opportunities by far is the development of an “Aegis Centre of Excellence” to support the US Navy Aegis warships operating in the Indo-Pacific, the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft fleet and of course, the in-country Guided Weapons & Explosive Ordnance (GWEO) maintenance, sustainment, certification, and storage opportunities across common munitions used by the US Armed Forces deployed under Indo-Pacific Command.

Shifting to Japan, the opportunities are a little more limited, but there is still exciting opportunities including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, AH-64 Apache, H-60 family of Black Hawk and Sea Hawk helicopters, CH-47 Chinook family of helicopters, and the “Aegis Centre of Excellence” to provide support, maintenance, sustainment, and upgrade capabilities for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Australia’s burgeoning relationship with South Korea is already yielding results with the recent selection of the AS21 Redback and AS9 Huntsman for the Australian Army. Korea also shares the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, CH-47 Chinook family of helicopters and their own fleet of H-60 family of Black Hawk and Sea Hawk helicopters, KC-30A multirole tanker transport, P-8A Poseidon, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the E-7 Wedgetail, respectively.

Additionally, Australia’s burgeoning relationship with South Korea is of increasing importance given mounting tensions between the North and South and the potential for open hostilities requiring a secondary, reliable, and secure supply chain that can provide the South Koreans with both a qualitative and quantitative overmatch.

The small city-state nation of Singapore, with which Australia already has a robust defence relationship with, provides further opportunities for industrial expansion, collaboration, and domestic industry development through common platforms like the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, CH-47 Chinook family of helicopters, H-60 family of Black Hawk and Sea Hawk helicopters, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and KC-30A multi-role tanker transport aircraft.

Granted this is a relatively simplistic list and all nations would wish to maintain some domestic capacity, Australia provides the security, reliability, and stability these partners look for in a central geopolitical and strategic partner, close enough to the action to provide rapid support but far enough away to provide heightened safety in a contested environment.

Even just off this short list, the sky is clearly the limit if we have the audacity and foresight to embrace the opportunities proactively.

Final thoughts

Defence industry is an increasingly fundamental input to a nation’s capability, particularly in the era of great power competition and multipolarity.

Embracing the novel and actively pursuing opportunities in a proactive manner provides the opportunity for Australia to rapidly scale up the nation’s defence industrial base and capability of the workforce, while providing generations of Australians with lifelong career opportunities.

Expanding and enhancing the opportunities available to Australians while building critical economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, should be the core focus of the government because only when our economy is strong can we ensure that we can deter aggression towards the nation or our interests.

This also requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers, elected officials, and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need to break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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