From fighter pilot to CEO might not seem like a logical step, but for Milskil’s chief executive and managing director, John Lonergan, it was his operational experience that helped to give him the edge over his business competitors.
Joining the Air Force in the mid-'80s, John Lonergan has seen the force evolve as technology, doctrine and government policy have each impacted the role the service will play in furthering Australia's interests.
Beginning his flying career in the premier fighter/interceptor of the RAAF, the Dassault Mirage III, prior to moving to the Air Force's new F/A-18 Hornet multi-role fighters, Lonergan would develop extensive experience throughout his service history, while also providing unprecedented exposure to the training structures and systems that provided Australian pilots and air crews with the capacity to meet the operational needs of the aircraft they were flying.
Australia up until that point, and even into the early 2000s, had relied heavily on uniform personnel to train its pilots and aircrews in the operation, maintenance and sustainment of their aircraft, which Lonergan described as "very much a closed shop, internal to uniform and that's across all the services".
It wasn't until being sent to the US as part of a pilot exchange to participate in training on the F-16 Falcon airframe and simulators that Lonergan was exposed to training contractors for the first time.
"It wasn't until I went to the US Air force, on exchange, that I was actually exposed to contractors who were doing part of the simulator training on the F-16. That's kind of where I saw the future, I guess," said Lonergan when speaking with the Defence Connect Podcast.
This exposure to the contractor heavy training regime of the US Air Force provided what Lonergan describes as "the future", particularly for him following his military career.
Founded in 1998, Milskil and Lonergan in particular would draw upon his first-hand experience and would come to reshape the operational training of Australia's air combat pilots. In the early 2000s, Lonergan and his newly formed Milskil got the chance to contract into the classic Hornet training simulator.
Drawing on his experience as both a pilot and with F-16 contractors in the US, Lonergan bought with him a company culture focused on the operational requirements as defined by both RAAF and Defence.
Heavily focused on the war fighter and with a unique insight into the capability that they need to generate, Milskil was able to prove to the Air Force that, despite the slow acceptance, "you could actually provide these services with the right contractors, operating under the right company construct ethos and culture".
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"So, from there that contract grew to supporting all the classic simulator operations and it started off originally doing the support to, what we call, the operational conversion, which is the first six months of our course and now where we find ourselves is, we provide the support all the way through to the high end post-graduate courses. We also provide all the pre-deployment simulator training for current operations," said Lonergan.
The high-end nature of contemporary aerial combat and the changing make of Australia's air combat capability, particularly with the arrival of Super Hornets and recently, the Growlers provided Milskil with the opportunity to reshape the training process and procedures which go into the operational training of Australia's pilots, prior to the arrival of Australia's future air combat capability, the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
"We've really moved ahead in that spectrum but it was a slow and steady thing because it's a very high-end area, because you’re teaching people in this case in the air combat thing, you're teaching people stuff that they are going to take in this platform into combat and we were fortunate enough then, when Super Hornet came, for us to get on-board with Super Hornet and we've just recently picked up the training for Growler. So, we cover the entire spectrum in the air combat fast jets."
Just as the Air Force's own inventory diversified to include new capabilities like the AEWC aircraft in the E-7 Wedgetail and later the Growler, Lthe Milskil workforce and company have changed and expanded to accommodate the second major capability transformation that Lonergan has experienced across his uniformed and civilian careers, with the arrival of the fifth generation F-35 later this year.
It is clear that the Air Force's transition to the F-35 will provide continued opportunity for Lonergan and Milskil to bring their industry leading training solutions to the RAAF and the pilots, crews and maintainers who will fly, maintain and sustain the F-35 throughout the airframe's projected 40-year life.
"It'll be business as usual on a constant evolution of what you're doing. So we're very focused on making sure that we get that right, and we're also very focused because it's all part of developing that sovereign capability for Australia. Which is where we want to be. And that's what we've always sold ourselves as a sovereign capability for training," Lonergan said.
"Once we're happy with that, we're looking to take our business into other areas of fifth generation. We're interested, I mentioned last time, the opportunities that may come up on things like P-8, opportunities across air warfare centre, we've just started working there, and obviously space. So these are the emerging next large business, if you like, for defence, and that's what we're positioning ourselves into."
Lonergan credits the skills he gained as a fighter pilot, which helped him chart his path to commercial success in Australia's defence industry.
"You have those tools ingrained in you being a fighter pilot in the air combat space, certainly there are some quick decision making. Does that make you a good business person? I think it gives you tools, I think there are some other things that you have to take into account to become a business person and one of those is the acceptance of risk, and moving out of your comfort zone," he said.
As the government continues to push greater SME involvement through initiatives outlined in the White Paper, the introduction of the CDIC, sovereign industry capability statements and the like, it is clear that Lonergan has leveraged the tactical skills developed as a pilot to outmanoeuvre his rivals to ensure that Milskil stays ahead of the curve and is capable of providing the Air Force and, more broadly, Defence with the capabilities need to secure the nation and its interests.
Milskil provides air combat, air battle management, electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, exercise design and control (EXCON), and opposing force (OPFOR) operations training for the RAAF and is based at RAAF Williamtown in NSW.