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Why the Future Submarine Program needs a truly national supply chain

The Future Submarine Program is the biggest defence procurement in Australian history, and their construction must be a truly national endeavour, writes Naval Group Australia chief executive John Davis.

The Future Submarine Program is the biggest defence procurement in Australian history, and their construction must be a truly national endeavour, writes Naval Group Australia chief executive John Davis.

The Future Submarine Program is the biggest defence procurement in Australian history, and their construction must be a truly national endeavour. This mission requires new and expanded supply chains right across Australia, as we build sovereign capability to achieve excellence in execution. 

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The COVID-19 experience has shown us that unexpected and dramatically disruptive events do occur, with little warning. The pandemic has up-ended assumptions about the reliability of just-in time supply chains, and that important goods are always freely available for instant purchase. 

In critical areas like medical and defence equipment, there is now a growing public understanding that being able to rely on your own country’s collective capability is a highly valuable commodity.  

Naval Group Australia last year called for expressions of interest to our $900 million local manufacturing package, and sought Australian businesses to help us deliver 23 highly-complex pieces of equipment for the Attack Class submarines. This is an important step forward for our program, and Australia’s wider manufacturing and defence industries. It will position Australian industry to exploit new design and manufacturing capabilities, both nationally and internationally. 

The items have been designed by our teams, by adapting components and capabilities which have been applied by Naval Group to projects in France and around the world. This equipment will be essential in the operation of the 12 new and advanced submarines to be delivered to the Royal Australian Navy, which are purpose-designed and built for its unique operational requirements. 

Naval Group’s local manufacturing package includes sophisticated and mission-critical items for the Attack Class submarines such as the steering gear, weapons handling equipment, main shaft line, air induction mast, bridge deck, heat exchangers and bulkhead doors. 

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The 13 Australian companies that have been shortlisted to join our local manufacturing package partner panel come from every mainland state. They have significant existing capacities, which we are confident can be developed to create an even more advanced Australian submarine supply chain.  

The partnership between Naval Group and the companies which build these complex local manufacturing package items will not only involve the transfer of the designs they are to fabricate. It will transfer fundamental aspects of know-how and know-why which are required to succeed. 

We will help develop the people and the businesses that build these pieces of submarine equipment. 

Australians will receive unprecedented access to Naval Group design and build experts, and facilities in France. We will also provide support on the ground here in Australia to help guide and mentor local suppliers. This will allow for the quickest transfer of technology, and also provide Australian industry with the confidence to meet the complexities of the requirements. 

Together we can build on Australian manufacturing’s proud history, and create new resilience for the future, while also meeting the exacting standards that the Future Submarine Program demands. 

Giving the Future Submarine Program a truly national footprint will have obvious benefits for jobs and investment in the communities where our local manufacturing partners are based. 

Just as the automotive and related industries became the cornerstones of regional economies in past generations, the major defence investments being made today are creating emerging areas of opportunity and security for Australian workers which can last for decades to come. 

But the impact of the local manufacturing package has the capacity to go far beyond the direct benefit to those businesses and workers in the Australian Future Submarine supply chain. It has the ability to make Australia more self-reliant and more capable, in a world that is rapidly changing. 

Defence investment is a proven primer for further research, innovation and product development.  

For instance, much of the modern commercial telecommunications industry has its origin in the popular application of defence-related inventions like early internet and GPS. 

This multiplier effect has certainly been witnessed in France, where a continuous sovereign shipbuilding program has become a bedrock for the growth of other advanced industrial capabilities.  

Many Australian policy makers and communities have already identified the force multiplier opportunity presented by the Commonwealth’s increasing projected defence spend, and are putting policies in place to aid the parallel development of industries including space, cyber and AI. 

The Commonwealth’s commitment to $270 billion in new capabilities across defence in the coming decade also provides Australian business with confidence to tool-up for growth and invest in accreditations, equipment or workforce development to have the fullest possible involvement.  

Naval Group Australia’s head offices are in South Australia. The workforce there has already grown rapidly as we advance the Attack Class design through important milestones, engage with suppliers and partner with local business to train apprentices in readiness for the start of construction. 

The progress made by Australian Naval Infrastructure on the new and modern Attack Class program submarine construction yard at Osborne has cemented South Australia as the home of this national endeavour. Lockheed Martin Australia’s combat systems facility on the Osborne site is taking shape, as works advance on the fabrication and assembly halls for Naval Group’s activities. 

We look forward to the exciting day when our staff in South Australia enter the gates of a new and modern submarine construction yard, to start work on building a hull qualification section. We  forecast that Naval Group Australia will directly employ around 1,700 people in SA during the construction phase. Those local employment benefits will last across multiple generations. 

Workers in areas where we require particular skills are also getting the opportunity to travel to  France and work alongside our experts there, gathering knowledge to bring home and share with their colleagues. This will continue growing the skills base required for sovereign submarine design and build capabilities, as Naval Group also collaborates with other primes and suppliers in Adelaide. 

But the scale of this program – delivering 12 new and advanced submarines with regionally-superior capability in a changing contemporary environment – means that all of Australia must be involved. 

It is hard to overstate the complexity of a machine which includes over one million separate  components, and which must deliver high performance in the most challenging environments.

By creating sovereign supply chains that spread right across Australia, Naval Group is able to draw  from the very best of the country’s existing manufacturing expertise. This can ensure we meet the  high standards demanded by this project, and deserved by the future submariners of the RAN.

The volume and quality of responses to the local manufacturing package offer have been  unprecedented. More than 2,000 Australian businesses having registered their interest in the Attack Class program through the Naval Group Australia portal on the Industry Capability Network. 

The enthusiasm of Australian industry for this multi-decade program is clear.  

As the Future Submarine Program continues to make progress leading into construction, we will  spread the benefits of this major investment. The program will access, and support, the very best of Australian manufacturing to ensure that we build an enduring sovereign defence capability.  

A diversified and expanded supply chain will be one that is even stronger.

John Davis is the chief executive of Naval Group Australia. 

Why the Future Submarine Program needs a truly national supply chain
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