15 years with ADM – a reflection – Australian Defence Magazine

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When I started with ADM, my pile of unknown unknowns was larger than it had a right to be. It’s been a learning journey at every step, one I’ve loved for the most part.

When I began with the magazine at the end of 2006, I had no idea what I was in for. I had been hired by then Yaffa Publications to work as a staff writer for the Defence group under ADM publisher and founder Judy Hinz. Anything that needed doing on the national security, commercial aviation and Defence mags, Kath can do it.

Working in the Brisbane office, I was mentored and supported by a team where there were no stupid questions. My goodness did I test that in the early days. With a background in economics and business writing, getting my head around the content and ALL THE ACRONYMS was a challenge. Gregor Ferguson was the editor at the time and was endlessly patient at explaining that ‘ruggedised’ was not a made-up word and there was a big difference between Rafale and Rafael. Advertising guru Mike Kerr was kind enough to take the time to explain the history of projects that had been running since before I was born. He even gave me reading lists, which I devoured.

Judy Hinz and Peter Masters educated me on the business and production perspective of running a magazine: why magazines are printed in multiples of eight and 16, why this advertiser cannot be placed near this advertiser in the Tetris game of magazine layout, how to deal with ministerial offices and senior leadership in industry and the department. Judy took a chance on a young woman in her early 20s and I am forever in her debt.

The stable of writers at ADM (currently Nigel Pittaway, Julian Kerr, Ewen Levick and Roya Ghodsi) has been exactly that for most of my time; stable. There have been a few writers come and go, but it’s always been a tight knit group.

This group of talented people sees years of experience in play; Julian has been reporting on Defence around the world for five decades, Nigel is a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer and duty technical manager with 35 years at Qantas, Ewen is an ex-army reservist with years of study in international relations and has written a book about his motorbike trip from Mongolia through Russia. ADM’s newest editorial staff member Roya Ghodsi is at the beginning of her journalism career and is kicking goals as the resident multimedia specialist. We’re working with aviation die-hard Grant McHerron of Southern Skies Media for our podcast series. The ADM ship is in good hands.

The why

The approach at ADM has always been about context and analysis behind the technology, capability and policy. How does it work? Why are we buying this? What are the options? And above all, why should I care? ADM has always been that communications bridge between Defence and Industry, something that Judy Hinz drilled into me from day one.

During my time at ADM, I have written over 2 million published words, according to my back of the envelope calculations. There have been seven Prime Ministers and 11 Defence Ministers come and go through governments from both sides of the house during this time. Apparently, this is not ‘normal’ historically but normal is what you get used to.

I developed a rather sad addiction to Senate Estimates upon my move to Canberra to take up the Editor’s chair in 2008. The spectacle of Question Time held no interest despite the occasional mention of Defence in there. Estimates however was a masterclass (or cringeworthy exercise) in public service/departmental sparring with politicians that provided endless material to supplement stories. Questions that were not answered by the department or industry in media requests had to be answered in this forum.

My favourite moment from all these interactions is still then-Rear Admiral Greg Sammut as head of the submarine program patiently explaining to Senator Hanson that submarines can be underwater for more than 20 minutes at a time with a complete lack of eye rolling. A heroic effort.  I don’t think Tony Dalton has ever really forgiven me for comparing him to Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey during one of his Estimates outings.

There have been so many instances during my time with ADM where I have been blown away by the generosity of those in the community in sharing their knowledge and experiences. I have spent endless hours sitting in meeting rooms, both in Australia and overseas, learning about air independent propulsion, the difference between generations of aircraft and what that means for stealthy operations in the networked battlespace, and how tanks will always be needed. While I am by no means an engineer, good engineering and even better operators underpin everything the ADF and its support industry does. I cannot thank those who have taken the time to help myself and the ADM team understand the technology and business behind what we do as a Defence community.

Nothing says fun like PPE in a tank on a German test range. (Katherine Ziesing)
Nothing says fun like PPE in a tank on a German test range. (Katherine Ziesing)

When asked about what I do at ADM my elevator pitch has always been ‘I meet interesting and passionate people who explain their business and technology to me, and travel the country and the world to do it. Then I write about it.’

Informed debate is based on informed media. We act as a mirror to what is happening. That reflection is not always pretty but it is always in motion.

Clean out

In cleaning out my office, I have rediscovered every single notebook I have ever filled while reporting for ADM. I’m reminded about the various briefings, conferences and interviews over the years. Here are some of my reflections on those notes.

My very first Avalon Air Show in 2007 was epic at only six months into the job. I flew in a C-27J at sunset over the 12 Apostles (with the back cargo bay door open) that Lockheed Martin had brought out with Alenia; I was hooked. I remember then-Lockheed Martin JSF program head Tom Burbage explaining that only partner nations in the JSF program would ever receive work packages and JASM was a good option.

The end of that year saw DMO CEO Stephen Gumley and Defence Minister Brendan Nelson go on a contract signing tour bonanza for Land 121 trucks and trailers, LHDs and AWDs. It was then that I had my first glimpse into the real scale and scope of Defence spending. In less than a two-week period, billions of taxpayer dollars had been committed to capabilities outlined in 2000 White Paper. Defence is huge but generally slow on most things with periods of intense activity. This pattern has not really changed over my time with ADM. There are of course exceptions along the way, but large complex programs take many years. I started writing about Land 121 in 2007 and wrote a piece on how the program is going as late as last year. Trucks and trailers are not rocket science but here we are.

Then-head of the AWD program Warren King at Pacific 2008 explained how the Hobart class Air Warfare Destroyers will sail around the heads at Sydney for the 2013 Fleet Review for Navy’s centenary, and how getting the program right was “essential if the Australian taxpayer was ever going to trust us to build warships in our nation ever again.” Time has shown he was mostly right. Mostly.

That same year, I attended the Land Environment Working Group (LEWG – the most recent LEWG saw me asked to leave after morning tea) where Steve Dunn admitted that the Land 400 programs were still not formally underway but thinking was progressing well, and the timeline for Land 19 Phase 7 was defined as 1st pass in 2012, 2nd pass in 2015, and IOC in 2018-2020.

2008 also saw DMO CEO Dr Steve Gumley say that 2008 was a year of reflection and 2009 would be a year of ‘doing it’. At that time, DMO was spending $2 billion a year with 600-700 SMEs in both sustainment and acquisition, with 50 per cent of contracts sole sourced. He emphasised that the DMO was trying to prioritise outcomes over process but ‘the desk officer level was not working as well as it could and the culture was slow to change’. He identified five bottlenecks to the organisation delivering capability:

1. Capability Development Group (CDG) did not have enough people and DMO was loaning them teams to supplement their workforce.

2. Government considering programs was not as fast as needed.

3. DMO was not properly resourced post first and second pass.

4. Industry capacity was a concern.

5. The services needed to step up to get enablers like simulation, training and sustainment properly resourced.

In 2009, another Avalon rolled around again. Lockheed Martin was keen to talk about how well JSF was going both in the US and Australia with the support of the New Air Combat Capability office under Air Chief Marshal John Harvey. The CAPE and GAO reports into the program were over inflated in their examination and conclusions of the performance of the program.

There was a good chance that BAE Systems could be a second source supplier for vertical tails (a massive investment in titanium CNC machining for the company in SA that has now been delivering for years).

Head of Airbus in Australia Dr Jens Goenneman updated on how the MRH90 program was progressing with seven aircraft to be assembled in Australia that year. Thought was being put towards re-winging the P-3 fleet to extend their life beyond 2018. All Tigers were going to be delivered by the end of 2010 under a re-baselined contract. Boeing was talking up the merits of the P-8 Poseidon and how Australia should be a co-operative partner in the program.

Northrop Grumman was all about un-crewed; FireScout, Global Hawk and BAMS are awesome and needed by the ADF along with their Raytheon radars.

Then-Defence Minister David Johnston said that while DMO is a great organisation that there was ‘a lot of fat in the system people-wise considering how the UK operates’. He was hearing constant complaints from industry about the operation of the organisation in regards to tenders and their decision making process. He also pointed out that 8-12 conventional submarines at $100 billion over the life of the program is a ‘huge imposition on the Budget and people power’ of Defence. He was also of the opinion that walking away from BAMS was a mistake but ‘ITARs and trade treaties with the US needed to be worked on by both sides’.

White Paper ripples

The 2009 White Paper creates some ripples when it comes to geostrategic relationships. Defence thinkers Hugh White and Paul Dibb told an audience that while the document affirms places for the JSF, AWDs and submarines it gives no strategic reasoning for their existence; there was no strategic imperative or possible future scenario that would account for the future structure as outlined in the document. Also, why are Priority Industry Capabilities (PICs) classified at the moment? There is no acceptable excuse, according to the pair, when $560 billion was being spent in the coming decade and the level of transparency was ‘appalling’.

The first Super Hornet roll out in St Louis. (Katherine Ziesing)
The first Super Hornet roll out in St Louis. (Katherine Ziesing)

In 2010, Lockheed Martin took a group of Australian media to their facilities to look at production lines, talk technology and get an idea of the capability on offer. Of note was the joint training of Australian and USN operators and maintainers for the Romeo helicopter. The detail of the training pipeline was fascinating and how it was going to influence how the RAN trained their pilots in Australia once in service. JASSM and JSF are still really cool.

ADM’s 2010 Skilling Summit looked at how companies tapped into the vast array of government programs. The (unfortunately named) Defence Industry Innovation Centre (DIIC) is a good place to start. The $21 million a year for Skilling Australia’s Defence Industry (SADI) is also a good option for support funding.

Jack Plenty of the Joint Decision Support Centre [JDSC – one component of a unique collaboration between DSTO and the Capability Development Group (CDG)] took the time to explain how the centre was important to providing background thinking to both Sea 1180 systems and concepts alongside priority modelling for JP 2060. The LHDs’ two ops rooms designs were influenced by the work done there.

By October 2010, 13 of the 22 contracted Tiger helicopters had been delivered with the balance to be delivered by the following year, according to Eurocopters’ Dominic Maudett, who said the night flying and over-water operations would also be addressed by that point. At that point, 13 of the 46 MRHs had been delivered with IOC scheduled for 2012 with engineering solutions for the engine and floor issues to also be resolved. The company also confirmed a $2 billion AIC commitment between the two helicopter programs once multiplier effects were accounted for.

Pacific 2010 saw UK admirals talking up the possibility of Australia and Britain working together on an Anzac replacement solution. “It’s still a bit far off but we need to start thinking about it in more detail,” according to briefing notes with the UK Trade and Investment team.

Defence selected a new supplier in Lockheed Martin’s IS&GS, kicking off plans to save more than $400 million over a decade in data centre costs. It had chosen a facility outside the ACT, Defence’s chief technology officer Matt Yannopoulos said. Yannopoulos also spoke of a Five Eyes combat cloud as the way of the future at MilCIS that year.

Another Avalon rolled around in 2011, with the MRTT making headlines for misplacing some booms during flights in Spain but the issues would not affect the RAAF delivery schedule, according to Luis Guerra of Airbus Military.

I headed down to BAE Systems Williamstown site for a check in with the LHD program in 2012. There is a 20 per cent learning curve between doing blocks on the ship. Head of Maritime for the company Brent Clark explained that the relationship between BAE and Navantia on the LHD is ‘great and much more of a partnership, and very different to that of the AWD Alliance’. The quality issues around AWD blocks were examined with lessons learned being applied.

Then-Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown explained at a Williams Foundation seminar that it only takes 4-5 years for joint experience to disappear after a conflict winds up. Engagement with regional partners takes time and money but is important to remain relevant in our region and beyond. Integration is key to such operations.

Head of Capability Development Group Major General John Caligari stood up their integration branch working across three levels; physical, EM/frequency concerns and data. Data is a culture issue rather than a technical one. Projects need to take a wider program approach when it comes to capability coordination. Targeted spirals of acquisition need to be in place as the seven plus years for DCP project delivery is not good enough.

Still not happy

2012/2013 also saw the Domestic Munitions Manufacturing Arrangements (DMMA) contenders spend about $40 million across the board in bid costs. Education about ammunition and propellants took me around the world to look at capability in eight nations with contenders. I learnt about insensitive munitions, the pros and cons of wood vs paper for propellent production, what on earth a Meisner melt pour facility is, and how tightly integrated the international supply chain is for raw materials when it comes to sovereign production. This was a huge opportunity to modernise the efforts at Benalla and Mulwala and redefine what value for money looked like. The program was cancelled and existing arrangements with Thales extended with slight amendments in 2014. I still have a small eyeball twitch about this program.

Northrop Grumman and the USN regularly hosted Australian media. (Katherine Ziesing)
Northrop Grumman and the USN regularly hosted Australian media. (Katherine Ziesing)

Another Avalon in 2013; JSF is still cool but there was no decision on timing of another 12 from Defence Minister Stephen Smith. But a decision on acquiring Super Hornets was due that year. UAVs are getting cool but still not as cool as manned platforms, either fixed or rotary wing. The Russian government/industry delegation really wants to speak to me about how cool their stuff is and why the RAAF will benefit from it. I listen politely.

Head of Helicopter Division Rear Admiral Tony Dalton explained how Australia Aerospace and Eurocopter need to ‘demonstrate evidence that they are committed to the remediation of Air 9000 Phases 2, 4 and 6 as a Project of Concern’ if future RFTs are to include them.

2014 was when the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) was beginning to take shape after being announced the previous year. Cyber is something we need to care more about, behind closed doors and in public, according to the Gillard Government.

In August that year we reported “As a result of the 2009 Defence White Paper, Defence was directed to develop proposals aimed at rationalising the RAN’s patrol, mine countermeasures, hydrographic and oceanographic forces into a single modular multi-role class or family of around 20 Offshore Combatant Vessels (OCVs). This program, Project Sea 1180, signalled a shift away from the specialist platform-based capabilities… and instead embraced the concept of a common OCV platform from which to deploy role-specific mission modules largely based on unmanned systems and technologies.”

How far we’ve come in our thinking since then . . .

Army’s digitisation journey

March 2015 saw the digitisation of Army achieve a significant milestone when then-Chief of Army Lieutenant-General David Morrison declared Final Operational Capability (FOC) on Tranche 1 of Project Land 200.

“Going forward into Tranche 2, the risk reduction activity between First and Second Pass has been looking at the key risks that relate to platform integration, integration between the BMS and fire control systems for armoured vehicles. Some work has also been done to enhance the dismounted, ‘man-wearable’ version of the BMS in terms of reducing the size, weight and power requirements, because we always want our soldiers to have to carry less,” explained Colonel James Murray, the Director of Enabling Systems Development for Army, to ADM. “They are the primary risks; the rest of it is in understanding the art of the possible, to refine our requirements.”

Subsequent ANAO reports into the program and the decision this year to cease service of the Elbit BMS has seen Army’s digitisation journey stutter.

ADM’s reporting in 2016 also looked at the contenders for the future frigate. FREMMs from Italy and France, Arleigh Burke from the US, and BAE’s Global Combat Ship were all undergoing a Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP – the tender for when you’re not having a tender). This CEP was not to be confused with the CEPs for either the OPVs or Future Submarine. Over 100,000 tonnes of ships and boats were up for grabs as Navy undertook their biggest recapitalisation program since WWII.

In 2016, Matt Jones of Saab spent four hours with my good self and a white board explaining what Ground Based Air Defence looks like; concepts, technology, what 116 ALR actually does and how, what allies do in this domain, what the legacy programs and technologies were and how they fitted together, and what Land 19 Phase 7 could look like. My brain was fizzing.  

I visited RAAF Richmond to have a look at how loadmasters training was being supported and modernised with support from CAE. RAAFies in uniform explained what they do and how they do it with a mix of desktop trainers, part task trainers and practical with CAE staff talking about lessons learned from their Canadian experience on C130Js. The teamwork on show was great.

Another Avalon in 2017! JSF was still cool, not here yet, lots of good work by Australian industry. Still my favourite trade show.

In the first week of March 2017, the RAN’s first AWD, HMAS Hobart, completed sea acceptance trials. The 21-day series of trials marked the first time Hobart’s full suite of platform and combat systems were tested together as a complete mission system in the lead up to delivery in June that year.

Land Forces in 2017 also saw an increase of activity around vehicles and tanks; Land 400 big news and the tanks and Hercules recovery vehicles were looking at upgrades or replacements as thinking was still taking shape.

2018 saw JORN under new management with BAE Systems taking over from Lockheed Martin, with a $1.2 billion upgrade program taking the system from its analogue roots to maintain its world-leading capability digitally.

At the end of that year, the US Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin finalized an US$11.5 billion contract for 141 F-35 aircraft at the lowest per aircraft price in program history on the same day that an F-35B crashed in South Carolina. The new F-35A unit price is $89.2 million, which is a 5.4 per cent reduction from the previous $94.3 million cost for an F-35A in Low-Rate Initial Production Lot 10. They’re still cool and we’re still getting them.

Recent history

January 2019 saw the first industry briefing for the ADF’s Lethality program. Formerly known by their individual program names, Land 159 (Small Arms Replacement) and Land 4108 (Direct Fire Support Weapons Replacement), the two have now been combined under the ‘Lethality’ program umbrella. For the delivery of the Lethality program, the Commonwealth intended to establish a long-term contract, or number of contracts, for the provision of weapons systems and services via one or more Supplier Engagement Models (SEMs). Spoiler: NIOA was chosen as their partner of choice.

Army Innovation Day that year is all about Army being more digitally savvy.

“We’re very excited about a number of systems here to support connectedness, resiliency and agile security,” Brigadier Richard Vagg, Director General of Systems and Integration in Army Headquarters said. “They are mainly SMEs here today so we can really go after some smart local systems.”

Brigadier Vagg explained that the network is now central to the way Army fights and this is only going to increase with new capabilities under Land 400 and 200.

“But we also need to make it simpler,” BRIG Vagg said to ADM. “We have to make sure there are less seams, less interfaces that can be points of vulnerability in those networks.”

It’s a work in progress.

The Naval Shipbuilding Industry Strategic Workforce Plan signed in October 2019 established unprecedented collaboration between the Naval Shipbuilding College (NSC) and leading naval primes – ASC, BAE Systems Australia/ASC Shipbuilding, Luerssen Australia, and Naval Group Australia (NGA), together with Lockheed Martin Australia and Saab Australia.

The four-step strategic workforce plan essentially addresses demand, supply, solutions and sustainment on a national basis. Ultimately, more than 15,000 personnel will be directly or indirectly employed in the national naval shipbuilding enterprise, the Plan forecasts.

Recent media reports note that the National Shipbuilding Enterprise is struggling on a few fronts on almost every major program on the books for both acquisition and to a lesser extent, sustainment.

2020 starts off well but we all know how that turned out; COVID was the forcing function we didn’t want but have managed remarkedly well in a defence context. IT programs that would have ordinarily taken a decade to deliver were done in a matter of months. Government, Defence agencies and primes worked together to get money out the door faster to SMEs to keep them ticking over. The spirit of collaboration was fantastic to see despite all the challenges. If nothing else, all our virtual presentation skills skyrocketed. There was also the consideration around travel; do I really need a day trip from Sydney to Adelaide for a two-hour meeting? Every week? Every fortnight? Really?

In the end

This has been the quickest of gallops through topics and stories that have stood out to me over the year. It mentions nothing of White Papers (2009, 2013, 2016 and the Claytons White Paper of 2020), reviews, ANAO reports, Budget proceedings (I’ve missed two Budget lock ups in 15 years).

Defence, like any industry, has its pros and cons, its swings and roundabouts. Its successes and failures have always come down to people and process, both good and bad. My experience has been that the people are amazing and its processes are always a work in progress. On balance, I can’t imagine working anywhere else.

Back when Lockheed Martin was working with Patria in the US (Katherine Ziesing)
Back when Lockheed Martin was working with Patria in the US (Katherine Ziesing)

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