Government and the private sector are pushing the case for WA’s defence capabilities to be better appreciated and utilised.
The state government submission to the landmark Defence Strategic Review was surprisingly succinct.
In just over 12 pages, the submission spelled out what could best be described as a stark defence equation for a state comprising one-third of the nation by land mass and accounting for half its export revenue.
“Only eight per cent of Australian Defence Force personnel are based in the state,” it said.
“The Australian Army has no regular combat units in Western Australia other than the Special Air Service Regiment, and the Royal Australian Air Force have none.
“There are no permanent ADF units based outside of metropolitan Perth and the ADF has not conducted a large-scale joint exercise in the Pilbara region since the 1980s.
“Any logical response to a heightened threat environment must include a significant increase in ADF presence and activity in WA.”
The Defence Strategic Review is designed to set a blueprint for the nation’s strategic policy, planning and resourcing over the coming decades.
The review was published by the federal government earlier this year and went some way to acknowledging what WA’s submission pointed out.
“Australia’s immediate region encompassing the north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime South-East Asia into the Pacific, including our northern approaches, should be the primary area of military interest for Australia’s national defence,” it recommended.
But when a restructure of the nation’s armed forces was announced late in September by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles – with a view to shifting presence north – WA was again notably absent.
The federal government announced specialised brigades would be based in Darwin, Townsville, Brisbane and Adelaide.
Around 800 troops will move from Adelaide to the northern bases by 2025, but the army’s presence in WA was “largely unchanged”.
“Our army has always played a vital role in the defence of our nation and will continue to do so as it adapts to the challenges of our times,” Mr Marles said in a media release.
“These changes involve some hard decisions. But the decisions are necessary to build the army Australia needs.
“This will mean the army has a concentration of people and capabilities in Australia’s north, making it easier to deploy for training, major exercises or to support our partners and allies in the region.”
In conversation with Business News during the week leading up to the redeployment announcement, Defence Industry Minister Paul Papalia further pushed the case for a greater defence force presence in WA.
“They’re not present, they’re not familiar with and they’re not operating in the region that generates more than half of the nation’s export revenues,” Mr Papalia said.
“I still do think that is a failure by the Australian Defence Force.”
The RAAF Curtin base at Derby is the northernmost permanent defence base in the state, alongside RAAF Learmonth at Exmouth as one of two bases north of Perth.
But both Curtin and Learmonth are bare bases, manned for large parts of the year by small teams of people. It’s a point not lost on Mr Papalia.
“We’re the only Indian Ocean state, we’re the closest point to the areas of strategic interest to the north, we generate more than half the nation’s export revenues; most of which goes through three choke points in the Indonesian archipelago to our north and then up through the South China Sea,” he said.
“Everything’s of great interest to WA. We have assets of the nation that are worthy of consideration by defence, and defence needs to be familiar with our part of the world to be capable of defending it.
“We have a good, but only reserves, understrength, underarmed army unit in the Pilbara regiment; they are active in the Pilbara, but pretty much nobody else is.”
Learmonth and Curtin may be bare, but both were beneficiaries of investment commitment off the back of the Defence Strategic Review.
Alongside the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station, pair will receive a share of more than $4 billion designated to bases across the north of the nation, with CIMIC Group’s CPB Contractors recently engaged for early contractor involvement on the projects. Multiplex is the managing contractor of development phase work at Curtin.
The investment is designed to ensure the nation’s northern bases are fit for effective and immediate use and will be economic boons for surrounding areas over the course of work.
“Strengthening bases in the north further supports defence operations and provides key economic opportunities in regional and remote areas,” Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite said in April when the investment was announced.
The spending has been welcomed by local businesses groups, with an eye to the economic benefit it will generate.
“Defence really is a key position for Exmouth, and the money that’s being spent to bring the defence assets up to speed is a real positive thing for the businesses in our town,” Exmouth Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive David Gillespie told Business News.
“It’s like anything. If a town grows for whatever reason, even if it’s just because of a civil services infrastructure increase, you get a housing increase, and everything benefits.
“Having defence investment will mean a lot more money flows back through and it will certainly have a positive impact on the town.”
But governments on both a local and state level continue to argue that, with more than 1,800 kilometres of exposed coastline between Exmouth and Wyndham, the sparsely populated region’s economic crown is strategically underprotected.
Comprising nine north-west councils, the North West Defence Alliance is an advocacy group formed in 2019 by long-serving former City of Karratha mayor Peter Long.
While the alliance has made headlines in the past calling for missile defence facilities in the region, a military presence could also be required in the face of changing climate conditions.
Almost 300 ADF personnel were sent into the Kimberley in January as a key part of the response to Tropical Cyclone Ellie, floodwaters from which devastated the region and damaged critical infrastructure.
Mr Marles’ office did not respond to requests for comment on the ADF’s northern redeployment.
Port of call
Far from the economic might of the Pilbara, just south of suburban Perth, is a place of growing defence significance in its own right.
Mr Papalia describes Rockingham as the region where AUKUS – the much-publicised trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and US – “becomes real in a hurry”.
From 2027, Rockingham’s Submarine Rotational Force West will host four nuclear-powered submarines from the US and one from the UK at HMAS Stirling; a significant ramp-up of regional responsibility.
A federal investment of $8 billion over a decade at HMAS Stirling on Garden Island was announced in March to expand the facility, in what Treasurer Jim Chalmers labeled the biggest industrial undertaking in Australia’s history.
It’s a huge investment, but not everyone is happy with the progress made in WA on the infrastructure front to date.
Unsuccessful Liberal Party WA candidate for July’s Rockingham by-election, Peter Hudson, alleged a lack of local AUKUS readiness before the poll, appearing alongside opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie and WA Senator Linda Reynolds.
Across the water from Garden Island and HMAS Stirling is the Australian Marine Complex at Henderson, the shipbuilding precinct within the City of Cockburn’s borders.
The city has expressed public frustration at the absence of federal commitment to a long-mooted large-vessel dry dock at Henderson, despite the Defence Strategic Review identifying the AMC’s critical role in shipbuilding and sustainment.
HMAS Stirling’s infrastructure expansion will ultimately form just one part of Australia’s role in delivering on its AUKUS infrastructure and servicing obligations.
For its part, the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation is in the process of developing a state-wide strategy to facilitate federal investment in WA by the Department of Defence.
In terms of the state government’s commitment, building a workforce capable of servicing a new nuclear submarine industry is the current focus.
Mr Papalia said the state’s responsibility was in lifting submarine sustainment capacity – currently contained within the workforce at the Commonwealth-owned Australian Submarine Corporation with the assistance of about 150 small-to-medium enterprises – to a nuclear level.
“What we have to do is seek advice from the people delivering nuclear submarine sustainment in the UK and the US, as to the skillsets required to enhance our capability,” he said.
A collaborative partnership struck in mid-September between UK company Babcock and US shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) will support the delivery of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine capability required to support AUKUS ambitions.
“By harnessing Babcock’s heritage and capabilities to accelerate the development of sovereign capability in Australia, alongside HII’s extensive experience and expertise as America’s largest shipbuilding company, Babcock is strategically positioned to support the Australian government in the delivery of this critical program,” Babcock chief executive David Lockwood said at the time.
“National security has never been more important and now more than ever, what we do matters.”
A state-federal submarine sustainment capability task group has also been established, with WA represented by Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation deputy director general Linda Dawson and the Department of Defence represented by Rear Admiral Matt Buckley.
“They’ve already met, they’ve already commenced their collaboration around coordinating activity in WA to build nuclear submarine sustainment capability,” Mr Papalia said.
“They’ll be the vehicle by which we collaborate and coordinate activity.
“At the state level we have already engaged with organisations like Babcock and HII to seek advice for our training and workforce development department around the skillsets required to assist our industry’s move from conventional to nuclear.”
On the education front, an early careers program has been established by the federal government with a presence in WA and South Australia to develop apprentices and graduates with hands-on experience in designing, maintaining and building nuclear submarines.
In September the government revealed universities could apply for a share in an extra 4,000 Commonwealth-supported university places designed to attract students into the STEM subjects required to meet AUKUS’s needs.
SA universities were allocated 800 of the spots, but no specific number was set for a WA allocation.
Should the AUKUS program come to fruition as expected, the nuclear submarine industry will create 20,000 direct new jobs in Australia over the coming 30 years.
The importance of getting the various elements right was laid bare in a recent Congressional Research Service report designed to brief the US Congress on the pros and cons of the AUKUS submarine acquisition proposal.
The AUKUS agreement will ultimately result in Australia acquiring three to five Virginia class submarines from 2032, but the paper questions the reputational implications for the US military should anything go wrong with its technology in local hands.
The benefits of AUKUS are expected well beyond submarines and include the creation of new opportunities for defence-facing businesses in WA and those with capability for cross-sector adaptation.
WA’s submission to the Defence Strategic Review highlighted expertise in mining and oil and gas as the state’s greatest competitive advantage in defence capability. WA’s industrial proficiency in remote autonomous operations was nominated as an area of particular strength.
But WA’s defence-facing business capability goes well beyond the mining sector.
Late in 2021, ASX-listed supercomputing firm DUG Technology appointed Bryce Solomon as its new chief security officer.
A former RAAF pilot and flight commander, Mr Solomon’s responsibilities include implementing DUG’s security efforts and overseeing the firm’s relationships and contracts with the ADF and government departments.
Mr Solomon told Business News the data intensity of seismic signal processing in oil and gas, and its subsequent expansion into high-performance computing, gave it a significant advantage in its ability to service the defence sector.
“Defence is talking about big data,” Mr Solomon said.
“I don’t think most people in defence are used to the volume of big data we have in oil and gas just yet, but it is coming.
“You look at the assets they’ve got, you look at the environments they’re going to be operating in, then the way of the future is all about how you store, process and manage your data, and do it in a timely manner for near real-time results to help decision-makers.”
DUG, which doesn’t currently have a defence contract, is positioning for growth in the space.
Mr Solomon said the pandemic had opened people’s eyes to the potential for translating skills into new business areas.
The collaboration element of the AUKUS agreement and the need for secure information capabilities could break down barriers to international opportunity among government allies, he said.
“For WA specifically, I think we tend to just tick along quietly,” Mr Solomon said.
“I’ve always said Australia bats above its weight, and I think WA bats above its weight for Australia as well.
“I think people are really starting to see what we have in WA as far as defence industry and people that are able to support defence capability.”
In the Bassendean industrial area, the state’s defence industry takes a lifelike turn.
It’s here that TraumaSim produces detailed medical and silicon products designed to simulate the wounds, injuries and medical conditions faced by medical professionals, first responders and healthcare workers.
Founded in 2008 by former critical care nurse and director Nola Pearce, TraumaSim was established to fill a gap in the medical training market using a range of lifelike silicon products created on-site.
Its products are designed to improve muscle memory ahead of crisis situations and assist in psychologically preparing first responders for real-life crises.
Within a year of TraumaSim’s foundation, the ADF came calling.
“To be honest, I was quite reluctant to start with,” Ms Pearce said.
“I didn’t have a defence background and I didn’t have any family with a defence background, so I thought it was a weird fit.
“I agreed to go and do it once and see if we liked it, and it was amazing.”
More markets are on the horizon, and while TraumaSim does not consider AUKUS to be a natural fit, it has recently moved to expand its offerings further into Europe and the US.
“More recently we’ve gone into other parts of Europe, and as of a month ago we’ve licensed manufacturing to a company in the US,” Ms Pearce said.
TraumaSim’s local team is made up of prosthetics experts with the sort of skills you’d find in film prop departments applied to the creation of hyper-realistic training devices.
Under the US licensing deal, TraumaSim products will be manufactured in the US from December. The arrangement is expected to facilitate growth in a region where government procurement usually prefers products manufactured locally.
“We came to the decision that we had to manufacture there, either by setting up our own business and doing it ourselves, or by licensing it out to a local manufacturer,” Ms Pearce said.
“We’ve known the licensees for about five years. They make fantastic stuff: super realistic, very high-quality and mostly for healthcare training, hospital training, universities.
“They were very keen to manufacture our product.”
Both DUG and TraumaSim were part of an eight-business delegation to the Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition in London last month.
They were joined by AVI, Blacktree Technology, Blue Ocean Marine Technology Systems, Critical Infrastructure Technologies, Onetide and Radlink Communications.