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WA DEFENCE REVIEW Hosts Breakfast Event At City Of Cockburn With Senior Industry Representatives To Discuss The Future of Defence Aviation in Western Australia

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Dr Peter Layton, who has extensive expertise in defence aviation and force structure development, chaired the discussions. Dr Layton is a Senior Correspondent at WA DEFENCE REVIEW, a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Over the two-hour session, discussants explored the characteristics and dynamics of the defence aviation sector in WA and discussed synergies, potential growth and diversification. The group also considered how WA’s geography could be better leveraged to exploit opportunities. 

Discussions were underpinned by a recognition of continued geo-strategic concerns over the actions of regional adversaries in the Indo-Pacific; the changing nature of war; and technological developments in such areas as  artificial intelligence, autonomy and unmanned systems. 

A number of key themes resonated throughout the discussions.

WA’s Geographic Advantage 

The Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) presence in WA is currently limited to primarily RAAF Pearce and satellite bases at Learmonth and Curtin. Despite the limited presence, attendees acknowledge that the bases play a vital role in supporting the training and operations of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in Australia’s north, as well as the Indian Ocean. 

Attendees suggested, however, that Australia should capitalise on the rapid maturation of autonomous logistics and site management systems developed for WA’s mining industry to automate the bare bases at Learmonth and Curtin. That would allow them to be kept on standby and ready for use, attendees agreed, recognising the reduced strategic warning time Australia would have in response to military action by regional adversaries. 

The Australian Government should capitalise on WA’s vast space, minimal electronic interference and geographic proximity to the Indo-Pacific to enhance and expand aviation training of allied and friendly countries, attendees suggested. This would provide multiple benefits, including more joint-training exercises for the RAAF and local air forces, develop Australia’s soft power relationships and provide local economic return. 

It was noted that space around Perth’s general aviation airport at Jandakot has become relatively limited, with the airfield being one of the busiest in Australia based on aircraft movements and also one of the largest aviation training centres in the country. Some attendees suggested the use of the regional airports of Carnarvon and Geraldton to reduce the reliance on Jandakot as a training hub, whilst being more cost-effective and delivering regional economic benefits. 

  • Logistics

Attendees also recognised the logistical complexities of developing activities in the state’s regional areas. The shortcomings of WA’s logistical infrastructure were highlighted during COVID-19 and the recent floods in New South Wales when supply links to WA were severely affected. They are critical shortcomings that must be addressed, attendees agreed. Exploiting synergies with the automation developed in the resources sector may help to alleviate the problem, some delegates suggested.

Development of WA’s Aviation Industry 

A critical foundation to Australia’s security into the future will be establishing a high-quality fourth industrial revolution manufacturing capability and the ability to rapidly deploy a high number of lower-cost advanced autonomous systems alongside fewer, but more capable, manned systems, attendees agreed. 

Participants commented on how well-positioned the City of Cockburn is to foster the development of the defence industry, with few locations in Australia having a significant port, major shipyard and regional airport. It was observed, however, that development of defence aviation has been lagging in WA. 

  • Workforce

It was generally agreed that the key issue facing the aviation sector in WA is the shortage of a highly skilled and competent workforce to underpin the sector.

That not only involves a lack of human resources, but also the basic skills and knowledge of individuals entering the workforce, attendees agreed. A number of attendees saw education as a top issue affecting industry growth. It was widely observed that the education system is currently failing to produce candidates of a high enough standard, with, according to one participant, some of its pilot applicants “getting five out of 22 basic mathematic questions wrong”. 

Such “dumbing down”, as referred to by one participant, is not just an entry-level issue, but one that filters throughout the system due to personnel shortages in the state, with high-quality instructors leaving the training sector, thus perpetuating the cycle of loss of knowledge and skills.

Several potential solutions were suggested, including promoting STEM subjects to students and children at a much younger age. 

In addition, it was agreed that the increased use of technology, such as augmented and virtual reality, to deliver immersive training could improve training outcomes and address the skills gap. 

Attendees also noted the issue of the resources sector being more attractive to skilled graduates due to higher salaries on offer, which aviation SMEs cannot match, meaning they need to provide value to working in the aerospace/defence industry.

The whole chain – from school to university to recruitment – needs to be the focus to address the skills issue, said one discussant. 

  • Innovation

Collaboration and innovation are essential to success in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, particularly in defence aerospace, attendees agreed. Many participants discussed the need for collaborative endeavours to deliver non-traditional and breakthrough technologies. Some difficulties in collaboration and innovation were identified, including WA’s focus on research and development specific to the resources industry. 

Mention was made of the Defence Innovation Hub funding program, which provides from $87,000 to $8.7mn for new concepts and innovative products related to defence, but it needs to be promoted and accessible, delegates heard. 

There was also agreement that greater private commercial buy-in is required in order to establish a culture of innovation growth. China, for example, is particularly strong in the area of commercial buy-in from private enterprise, with an active innovation hub landscape, one attendee noted, which is an approach Australia needs to follow.

Connectivity and information sharing is also vital in order to foster innovation, with attendees agreeing that more communication and interaction between all the players is required.

In summation, attendees agreed that the rapid development of technology and automation holds significant potential benefits for defence aviation in WA. Attendees concurred that, with continued collaboration and planning, the issues identified could be addressed, securing positive outcomes for the sector in this state.

Credit: © WA DEFENCE REVIEW. Photographer: David Nicolson.

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