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Shipbuilding is sexy, but sustainment pays the bills: RADM Wendy Malcolm

While much of the focus has been placed on the $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding Plan, an elite team within CASG is working behind the scenes to ensure that the unprecedented modernisation of the Royal Australian Navy remains capable of supporting the ‘joint force’ and Navys ability to “fight and win at sea”. For Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm, the sustainment capability is critical to enduring naval capacity.

With Navy undergoing the largest peacetime transformation of capability and platform in its history, the Royal Australian Navy is well positioned within the broader development of the 'joint force' Australian Defence Force and its transition towards a fifth-generation force. 

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Meanwhile, the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, along with Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price, officially launched the Navy Industry Engagement Strategy to support the development of a long-term, sustainable naval shipbuilding industry within Australia, with a long-term focus on developing a globally competitive industry that serves as an invaluable, fundamental input to capability. 

However, the capability definition, design and acquisition process is part of the equation for ensuring that the RAN is capable of executing its mission of fighting and winning at sea when government requires. 

A critical component of the capability and platform acquisition and development cycle is often the one that is most overlooked, the maintenance and sustainment component of the defence life cycle remains critical, particularly as the Navy embarks on its record period of modernisation and recapitalisation. For Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm, Head of Maritime Systems within the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment group (CASG), the role of maintenance and sustainment is equally important.

"I have a saying within the team, that is 'shipbuilding is sexy, but sustainment pays the bills', that is that it is critical we make the right acquisition decisions, but once that is delivered to the fleet, it is equally important that we invest in the training, the infrastructure, the people and capacity to sustain and maintain the Royal Australian Navy's fleet and capabilities," RADM Malcolm told Defence Connect. 

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Navy's mission doesn't work without industry

With renewed focus on engaging industry a priority for Australia's defence establishment and government as part of the long-term pursuit of a sovereign industrial capability and globally competitive, export driven defence industrial base, collaboration between defence and industry has never been more critical. 

"One thing that I can say with confidence is that both Navy and CASG are actively seeking to break down the barriers and really engage with our industry partners in a collaborative manner," RADM Malcolm explained to Defence Connect. 

This importance is reinforced by the Chief of Navy's recent launch of Plan Pelorus 2022 and its renewed focus on Australia's immediate region, the Indo-Pacific: "We live in an increasingly complex geo-political environment, within a dynamic Indo-Pacific region. The maritime domain is central to the security and prosperity of our nation. As resources become increasingly scarce, and the competition greater, all elements of national power must work together to achieve the desired outcomes for our nation, and those of our friends. Fuelled by technological advances and availability of information, the future is increasingly unpredictable."

It is the Chief of Navy's intent that the implementation of a Navy Industry Engagement Strategy, one that directly supports Plan Pelorus, will provide an ideal opportunity to regenerate, refocus and ultimately strengthen Navy's relationship with industry and academia.

This strategy makes it clear that the Chief of Navy is focused on providing a clear direction of the RAN, and what its materiel needs and obligations will be in the future.

The Chief of Navy wants industry and academia to understand that what they are producing, no matter how big or how small, contributes to the bigger picture of Navy’s capability, and our national interest.

Together, the naval enterprise, industry and academia have an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to nation-building and, in doing so, build a maritime capability that will underpin the long-term security and prosperity of Australia and our region.

"Both Navy and CASG have taken to the calls for Australian industry content seriously, what [we] are starting to look at and discuss seriously is the need for local Australian industry content, that is where Navy has major infrastructure, like in Darwin, Cairns or at Henderson, local industry can reliably support Navy's operational and strategic requirements," RADM Malcolm explained. 

"A key part of this for Navy is seeing Australian SMEs and Indigenous participation within the sustainment and maintenance operations continue to grow and evolve and the Industry Engagement Strategy will play a key role in supporting Navy's ambitious recapitalisation and modernisation programs and ensure Navy can complete its mission to fight and win at sea, which has flow on benefits for Australian industry."

Your thoughts

Given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the RAN and the recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?

Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.

Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The full podcast interview with RADM Wendy Malcolm will be available shortly. 

Shipbuilding is sexy, but sustainment pays the bills: RADM Wendy Malcolm
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