Could Australia replace dwindling coal exports with military kit?

Despite a certain scepticism, Australia does have a solid record in defence technology. Maybe new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could capitalise on that.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

If quality trolling is what you're after, then look no further than Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. His speech to the Senate on Thursday, satirising the very idea of Aussie-made submarines, is hilarious. But he's wrong to denigrate Australia's defence technology potential.

The AU$50 billion dollar project to build the successors to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Collins-class submarines will be Australia's biggest-ever defence spend. The question of whether to build subs in Australia, or buy them from Japan, Germany, Sweden, or France, is a huge political football made of pork. A pigskin full of pig.

Leyonhjelm reckons the RAN should get hold of some second-hand US Navy nukes. But since that's unlikely, he gave the Senate his mock bid to have the subs built in Western Sydney instead.

"The proprietor of a Penrith muffler shop by the name of Ferret advises me that he could custom-make plenty of submarine-shaped vessels at Eastern Creek [home of a motor racing circuit] for much less than a billion dollars and weld them so they are pretty much watertight. He further advises we could generate considerable savings for taxpayers if we were willing to take the aluminium option, rather than stainless steel," he said.

"The proprietor of a Blacktown engine reconditioning shop, Raylene, tells me she can source any number of Australian-made V8 engines to power the submarines. She is willing to charge taxpayers mates' rates, too."

Leyonhjelm's speech is full of references that only make sense if you know Australia, but he also acknowledges the flaw in his plan that should be obvious to anyone.

"Some might argue that a submarine powered by V8 engines would not be especially stealthy, but I doubt it would be any noisier than an unmodified WB V8 Caprice or Statesman. And seriously, who can argue with that -- especially when you recall they'll be Aussie, and will leave all other ocean vessels behind in a cloud of smoke," he said.


Leyonhjelm clearly has little faith in Australia's ability to build high-tech military systems -- but he's wrong.

Look no further than the Nulka Active Missile Decoy, designed to protect warships from surface-skimming missiles.

Nulka was developed by Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), which is roughly equivalent to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It's currently manufactured in Australia in collaboration with BAE Systems.

Previous naval decoy missiles dropped a decoy package by parachute. That was just fine, until the missiles started getting smart enough to realise that a blip on their radar that drifted with the wind probably wasn't a warship.

Nulka is different. "Its unique hovering rocket containing an active electronic warfare package has revolutionised ship protection. Once launched, Nulka can fly a pre-programmed flight path to entice sea-skimming missiles away from the ship," writes the DSTO.

What's more, Nulka achieves this hovering flight thanks to a variable-thrust solid-propellant rocket motor. If you know a rocket scientist, get them to explain why that's seriously cool.

I doubt that many Australians have even heard of Nulka, but it has been in use by the US Navy, US Coast Guard, and Canadian Armed Forces, as well as the RAN, for more than a decade, and saw active service in the Gulf War in 2003. It works. According to DSTO, Nulka has created more than 400 jobs, and it's "one of Australia's largest and most successful defence exports".

Australia is also home to the seL4 secure embedded microkernel now being commercialised in conjunction with General Dynamics. Australia has a burgeoning space startup sector. You may even know of a previous Australian hit: Wi-Fi.

Kate Carruthers is an Australian technologist currently working on big data, strategic business intelligence and data governance at the University of New South Wales. Her response to Leyonhjelm's speech was simple.

"I want an all Australian smart weapons industry, with the AUD down we could undercut the UK easily," Carruthers tweeted on Friday.

Currency speculation aside, Australia has expertise in a number of defence-friendly fields. It's part of the cosy Anglosphere that gives it a ready market. And to put it bluntly, Australia needs to develop its export industries.

Don't just take my word for it. The Economist makes this exact point this week.

"Growth has slowed to 2%, lower than earlier forecasts and well below Australia's potential. An investment boom in mining, linked to demand from China, Australia's biggest trading partner, has waned. Investment in services, high-end manufacturing and other non-mining ventures must take up the slack. Yet Canberra's political turmoil in recent years, as well Mr Abbott's policy U-turns and gaffes, have sapped business confidence" The Economist wrote.

The defining challenge for Australia's brand-new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, will be rebuilding that business confidence. Turnbull is tech-friendly and business-friendly, so most commentators would say he's got a good chance.

But PMs from the Liberal-National Coalition have traditionally chosen a Minister for Trade from the ranks of the rural-based National Party. Digging up rocks and slaughtering beef cattle is something they understand. Rocket science, not so much. And Turnbull has to be seen to be sticking to traditional, lest his socially progressive views alienate the powerful conservative elements in his own party.

Turnbull will appoint his new ministry in the next few days. Watch this space.

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