Lockheed Martin’s local chief says Australia has skills needed for high-tech defence landscape
19 Jan 2021|

If you need cutting-edge skills and technology—high-tech gears for satellite systems, top-level secure communication systems or a deep knowledge of artificial intelligence and machine learning—you can find them in Australia.

‘What this country has is amazing’, says Lockheed Martin Australia chief executive Joe North. ‘But you’ve got to go and find it, that’s the challenge.’

North tells The Strategist these capability jewels include companies such as Ronson Gears, once solely an automotive engineering company. ‘We’re working very closely with them. Their gears are going to be on the next satellites, shuttles and everything else.’

In communications, Clearbox Systems started in 2007 with six people and is now a leading designer, manufacturer and integrator of network and spectrum management systems for Defence, government and the commercial sector. That includes gathering information for signals intelligence, C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) systems providing commanders with battlefield information, and radar.

Adelaide University’s Australian Institute for Machine Learning is one of the world’s most highly regarded institutions building expertise on challenging areas flowing from artificial intelligence.

‘There’s very good talent in Australia, smart people and good innovators’, says North, ‘but it’s a matter of connecting them with the programs where their skills are needed, not just finding them’.

That involves helping people with skills to complete the requirements they need to work within the Defence system. ‘You’ll look at what they are using and whether it meets all the requirements and see how we can help them along and invest in that. They’ll be wanting to protect their intellectual property, which is what any company will do. That’s okay because we’re looking for the capability they bring’, North says.

When work began on the first of Australia’s three air warfare destroyers, the Lockheed Martin team installing the Aegis combat system was about 98% American. For the second ship, that was down to about 60%, and for the third, nearly all the members of the company team were Australian.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, a ship needed a complex upgrade at sea before the RIMPAC exercise, and the team that provided it was all Australian. ‘That was the first time outside the United States that an all-sovereign team had made capability upgrades as large as that. They did it flawlessly.’

As the Covid crisis deepened, company executives had fortnightly phone calls with ministers. These meetings were coordinated by the head of the Defence Department’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, Tony Fraser, and covered a wide range of processes, from operating within health requirements to keep the work going to ensuring that small companies subcontracted on major projects were paid promptly.

Lockheed Martin Australia hired more than 200 additional staff as it worked through the worst of the pandemic.

Now it directly employs about 1,160 Australian staff and provides work for 5,150 more in subcontracting companies. That includes 220 Australian engineers working on the combat system for the navy’s Attack-class submarines.

North says Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update provided an excellent plan for the equipment the Australian Defence Force needs in a rapidly changing strategic environment at a time when the digital age is accelerating technological change in areas such as hypersonics, machine learning and AI. With all advanced weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, a modern military will have to be able to use them and defend itself against them, he says.

Today, the F-35 joint strike fighter is able to gather and deliver a huge amount of information. That data is being integrated with the Aegis combat systems on the navy’s warships and with future army capabilities.

It’s necessary to harness the speed of quantum computing and scale it to allow pilots, the combat officers of surface warships and submarines, and others to deal with threats such as missiles able to travel many times the speed of sound—giving humans very little time to think in an environment where response times are the key to survival.

All of that has to be incorporated, upgraded and made to work seamlessly in a world of manned and unmanned platforms where aircraft, ships and ground forces can talk to each other and assess very quickly which platform is best placed to deal with a threat.

‘Space, air, land, surface ships, submarines will all be netted together via cyber’, says North. ‘And once we’re there, we’ll get to the stage where these computers will learn as they go.’

There will still be men and women in the loop. ‘The tough part for us in going to that next level will be to ensure that they can trust the information they’re receiving. That’s the whole power of digital, and the whole challenge of digital at the same time. And it’s all happening at light speed. We have to ensure that we’re not firing 10 missiles at one target when we need only two. And when you get that capability, the rest of the world is going to want it.’

North says the necessary levels of research and ideas to deal with such challenges are emerging in Australia. ‘The engineers coming out of college walk right into the digital models and they’re training some of the other generations on the new tools. That’s the power of what’s coming out of the schools. Today’s engineers are very sharp and they’re telling us where we can do things differently. They’re constantly looking and learning.’

He says Lockheed Martin Australia is focused on getting as much as possible done here. ‘If we can do it in-country, let’s see who can do it and bring them in. If we find someone very close to what we need, how do we invest and get them over the edge? We can give them the tooling, the expertise, or we can have subject-matter experts from other small to medium enterprises go in and help them out.

‘Once we’ve found the capability in-country, we’re not going to put up a factory for the appearance of saying, “We’re here.” We will see how to leave that part of the business with them and integrate them into the program.’

So, can Australia provide enough skilled workers to complete these major projects?

North says that across Australia, systems engineers are becoming increasingly hard to find and Adelaide is becoming saturated with both defence work and with the development of the space industry.

‘We’re working with universities and we’re encouraging primary and high schools to expand their curriculums to introduce some of these critical skills prior to and in college.’

Lockheed Martin Australia brings students to its facilities for courses to build up their expertise.

It’s crucial to get more women into the industry, North says. ‘We’ve got to get more females into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and bring them in to show them what kind of careers they could have in engineering. A lot of them think they’re going to be building structures or welding on the line, when in reality they’ll be doing a lot more engineering analysis and design.’

Another source of workers is the men and women leaving the ADF who have either retired or who are keen to do something else with their hands-on experience.

The company has picked up many people from the aviation industry, which was hard hit by the pandemic.

Dealing with Covid-19 has also accelerated a change in Lockheed Martin’s corporate culture, with more personnel given the opportunity and the equipment to work remotely. ‘Not everybody wants to move, and in today’s world of digital technology they don’t need to’, says North. ‘We’ll link up the cities and the sites. We can have satellite offices wherever we need them. If we find a program that needs people in one part of the country and we find another area that’s rich in those people, we’ll set up a facility, outfit it and have it tied back into the main system. They don’t need to always be on site.’

These skills were needed to keep up a work tempo which increased as the company maintained ships and aircraft working flat out during last summer’s bushfires.

North once ran a program in the US state of Wisconsin, where the shipyard brought young people into the industry straight from high school. ‘We found about half of those in high school wanted to go to university and the other 50% wanted to go to work. They started training as early as their sophomore year in high school to weld the materials that we’re using and to learn how to run cabling on ships. They were then brought in for the summer intern program and now we’re doing that here at the uni level as well’, he says.

‘The submarine program operated in Adelaide has a good internship program where they bring them in from university and give them hands-on skills. Then they go back to university to finish their degree and we’ve been successful as they graduate, hiring those same folks that we’ve invested in.’