US primes urged to share secrets for local missile production


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Joseph Brookes
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Next month’s federal Budget will earmark more than $4 billion for Australia to acquire more long-range missile strike systems and manufacture guided weapons, Defence Minister Richard Marles announced on Wednesday.

Experts say the two-year timeline for local production of munitions makes it an ambitious plan that will need the US to continue directly supplying missiles while also leading Australia’s local manufacturing push.

The local defence industry is urging the government to incentivise the companies to share intellectual property and technical knowledge so the move creates a genuine local missile manufacturing capability. But it warns a new speed to capability imperative could give foreign suppliers ammunition to lock local suppliers out of local production.

HMAS Sydney fires a Harpoon surface to surface missile. Image: Department of Defence

In the wake of a Defence Strategic Review that called for an “immediate focus” on consolidating the military’s guided weapons and explosive ordnance (GWEO) needs, Mr Marles on Wednesday more than doubled the government’s investment in missile acquisition.

The review recommended the local manufacturing capability be rapidly established but also for defence forces to move more towards rapid procurements “off the shelf”.

The Albanese government has set aside $2.5 billion for an investment in GWEO that includes both the local manufacturing of guided weapons and the acquisition of more stock from overseas.

The split is yet to be determined, with options to be presented to the Albanese government by next year.

Another $1.6 billion will go to accelerating the delivery of existing strike capability with additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), Precision Strike Missiles (PRISM), and associated battle management and support systems.

University of Tasmania associate Lecturer and missiles expert Dr James Dwyer said the Ukraine conflict had been a wakeup call on defence forces’ reliance on partners to provide weapons systems — in Australia’s case through a lengthy procurement not well suited to modern warfare.

The Defence Strategic review released this week reflects this, he said, in backing faster procurements of “minimum viable capability” bought off the shelf where possible, while prioritising longer range precision strike capabilities for a defence strategy focused on threats well beyond Australia’s border.

“The issue now is that if you were in a high tech conflict that would require the use of long range strike against a state adversary that seeks to do Australia harm, you would very quickly expend your stores and munitions,” Dr Dwyer told InnovationAus.com.

“And if there was a conflict requiring us to defend the Australian continent or our trade routes… that’s where the resupplies would be coming from.”

Australia currently imports its missiles from overseas, mostly from the US. The investment in GWEO announced on Wednesday is significant and aims to accelerate local missile manufacturing by several years.

The Morrison government initiated a $1 billion commitment to GWEO to begin local missile manufacturing from 2027. Last year, it selected Raytheon Australia and Lockheed Martin Australia as the industry partners.

The US primes – Australia’s largest missile suppliers – are still expected to lead the accelerated local manufacturing initiative, with Mr Marles also mentioning Norwegian manufacturer Kongsberg as a potential new industry partner on Wednesday.

Dr Dwyer backs the procurement of proven, high tech US long range strike capability because it fills a critical gap and it is highly unlikely a competitive alternative could be developed in Australia.

“Australia has lacked long range strike capability, arguably since we retired the F-111 back in 2010. So we’ve had a big gap for nearly a decade and a half now and it needs to be rapidly plugged. And at the end of the day, US long range strike platforms are cutting edge… We know they work, we know they work well.

“Could we do better? Probably not when you compare the size of the US military, industry, and investment that the US puts into its armed forces and its capabilities.”

By mid-next year “concrete, costed plans” will be presented to government for how to manufacture selected long-range strike missiles to supplement foreign supply. It could leave just 18 months to have manufacturing operations up and running.

It’s an “ambitious” plan but a welcome one and not impossible, according to Australian Industry Defence Network (AIDN) chief Brent Clark.

He said when contracts are finalised, the infrastructure could be set up relatively quickly. But getting local suppliers involved could take longer.

The industry group this week took issue with the Defence Strategic Review’s call to rebalance Australian industry content and domestic production against timely capability acquisition.

With missile manufacturing, the speed to capability imperative arms the US giants with an arguments against involving local companies.

“We worry a little bit about that,” Mr Clark told InnovationAus.com. “It could become a very simple way of brushing aside Australian industry involvement.”

AIDN will push the government to ensure Australian suppliers are involved, which Mr Clark says means Raytheon and Lockheed Martin sharing intellectual property.

“Our concerns hinge on the ability to transfer IP and technical data and technical knowledge to Australian companies in that timeframe,” he said. “There’s a there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Mr Clarke said amid a global munitions shortage because of the Ukraine conflict, the Australian government will rightly look to immediately acquire supplies from the US. But longer term it is in both nations’ interests to create “a secondary supply and manufacturing chain”.

In any major conflict, Australia and the US would be allies, he said, but the superpower will prioritise its own supplies first. Having local companies involved in the missile supply chains, albeit under the direction of US companies, would help Australia avoid its own shortfall and contribute to global security, he said.

“If you have a secondary manufacturing capability in this country, you can supply the Americans [and] you can supply Australia. You actually can contribute and you are no longer just slaved to what the American government has to do.”

Key to this is a genuine domestic manufacturing capability that uses local suppliers rather than simply assembling the missiles from the US companies’ existing supply chains, according to Mr Clark.

He wants the government to include “commercial triggers” in contracts that incentivise the sharing of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin’s IP and expertise with Australian companies beyond the primes’ local arms.

“What we don’t want to see happen is for Lockheed Martin and Raytheon merely to employ their overseas supply chain to supply componentry to Australia. Because it doesn’t benefit Australia’s manufacturers or Australia’s ability to upscale its capability.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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