Doorstop Interview, Newcastle Airport

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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Peta Donald - 0435 521 326 - media@defence.gov.au

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15 August 2023

SUBJECTS: F-35 A Lightening II fighter jet, stealth coating facility to be built at Williamtown, the Hunter to become a regional hub, local jobs, future of BAE Williamtown, security clearances.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY, PAT CONROY: Thanks Meryl and thanks Ben for joining us for what is a really exciting day for the future of the Hunter region and the future of the defence of this country. The F-35 Lightening, one of which is standing behind me right now, is the most advanced fighter jet in the world. One of the key reasons it’s so advanced is that it’s a stealth fighter, practically invisible to enemy radars. And one of the reasons for its stealthiness is the stealth coating that is on the plane. Now that stealth coating needs to be reapplied every so often to maintain its stealthiness, and I’m really proud to announce that today the Commonwealth Government, the Albanese Labor Government, is investing over $100 million to establish a stealth coating facility here at BAE Williamtown to do that really important work. This is critical to the F-35 being the most advanced fighter jet in the world.

Importantly, this stealth coating facility will not just be important to Australia’s fleet of F-35s; it will support F-35s in the region, whether it’s visiting US marine aircraft, it could be F-35s from Singapore or broader in the Indo-Pacific. So this is all about advancing the most advanced capability in the world, building a facility well in excess of $100 million, creating 25 well-paid secure jobs, adding to the 360 jobs already here working on maintaining and upgrading the F-35.

This facility here is critical to the defence of the nation. Between the work on the F‑35 and the Hawk lead-in fighter, around 700 advanced aviation jobs are here right now contributing to our national defence and the economic security of our region.

So I’m so pleased – this is the most advanced work in the world on stealth coating. It’s being done in the Hunter region – 25 new jobs added to the 360 jobs. So instead of flying all the way back to the United States for this work to be done, it will be done here in the Hunter. More jobs for the Hunter, greater national defence for our country. Thank you very much.

I’ll invite Ben to say a few words, then we’re happy to answer some questions.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, BAE SYSTEMS AUSTRALIA, BEN HUDSON: Thank you, Minister Conroy and Meryl [Swanson], for being here today. On behalf of myself but also the Royal Australian Air Force, we’ve had a really strong and deep partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force supporting a range of their capabilities here at Williamtown for almost three decades now. And we’re rewriting – well, we’re writing the next chapter in that history at the moment with the support, with our friends and partners in Lockheed Martin and the supply chain here in the Hunter that support the Joint Strike Fighter going forward.

Some don’t realise, I mean, that history and heritage stretches back to the 23 Hawk aircraft that were manufactured here and are now in service providing advanced jet fighter training for the Royal Australian Air Force. And we did a lot of support on the classic Hornets as well. So this is the latest chapter. Up to 700 jobs here have been created, and I think we’ve got a lot of opportunities for the future for young Australians to participate in really one of the highest technology industries in the world and contribute to the national security of the country.

So, Minister, thank you very much. And to Meryl, thank you as well.

MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, Ben. We’ll do questions on the announcement today and then if there’s questions on other topics we’ll ask Ben to move away. Any questions on today’s announcement?

JOURNALIST: Can you explain a bit more about the paint? I understand it’s a fairly closely guarded secret, but can you tell us as much as you’re allowed to tell us about what this coating is?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I’ll be reasonably discreet, but there are two aspects that make the F-35 stealthy. It’s the angle of the panels – if you can see, it’s got a very different shape to a conventional fighter jet – and, secondly, it is the stealth coating that absorbs radar waves rather than reflecting them. So that stealth coating is essential to it being stealthy and practically invisible. And that stealth coating needs to be maintained. So that’s what the work being done here will do.

The F-35 is the most advanced fighter jet in the world for two reasons: stealthiness, the ability to be nearly invisible on radar, and secondly, its networked ability, the way it works and networks with other fighter aircraft and other assets, whether it’s a Wedgetail radar aircraft or an Air Warfare Destroyer. And that’s contingent on it being modified and upgraded constantly. And that will be done here.

This aircraft will not go back to the United States for upgrades; it will get upgraded here in the hangars behind me and then stealth coating will get reapplied at a new hangar to be constructed.

JOURNALIST: How often do they need recoating?

MINISTER CONROY: I don’t want to go into that, I’m sorry, for obvious reasons.

JOURNALIST: Does the product come from the US as a finished product or is it made here?

MINISTER CONROY: Again, I’m not going to go into those sorts of details. Sorry to be a bit spooky, but this is a really – as I said, this is the most advanced fighter jet in the world. And one of the reasons we want to be discreet about that is to keep our technical edge.

JOURNALIST: In terms of the training, or the skills required to apply the coating, is that something that your local panel beater can come here and get a job doing, or does it require specific…?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I might invite Ben to say a few things, but I’ll just make this first point: that as Ben said, we are the centre of excellence for aviation in the country. You think about the work of a Hawk lead-in fighter, the work done keeping the classic Hornet flying for thousands of hours more than any other nation in the world, that’s because of the expertise in companies like BAE. So, this builds on it. I was asked this morning, would we be bringing workers in from somewhere else? No. They’re going to be trained because we’ve got a great reservoir of skilled workers here. But I’ll invite Ben to add to it.

BEN HUDSON: Thanks, Minister. And thanks for the question. It is a specialist process, but we invite anyone who wants to join the company to join. We’ve got a lot of job opportunities around the nation right now, but also here locally. And the company has an extensive apprenticeship program, graduate program as well to take professionals and semi-professionals into the business and reskill them. So, yeah, if you’re interested in a job and if you work at the local panel beater, then come and have a chat to us. We’d more than welcome you.

JOURNALIST: Pat, you’ve mentioned the 700 jobs that are here now supporting this industry. In 10 years’ time what do you think Williamtown will look like, what do you think the jobs matrix is going to be in 10 years’ time?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I think the 700 jobs will be a critical part of it maintaining not just our fighter jets but the region’s. We are the regional hub for maintenance of the F-35 for the entire South Pacific. So that means you’ll see aircraft in here in the future being – they might have a US Marine Corps insignia on it, it could be a Singapore Air Force insignia. So what we’re doing with the F-35 is critical, but that will complement the other work that’s being done.

The Wedgetail aircraft, which is the most advanced early warning aircraft in the world, that is being maintained and supported at Williamtown. This will be home of a project called Air 6500 – we love our numbers in Defence. But what it means is integrated air and missile defence. So we will be the heart of defending the country against any potential missile attack. That’s more skilled jobs through other Defence contractors.

So this really is the start of a long process where Williamtown and the Hunter region is the heart of our aviation security. And that just means more jobs for our region, more high-skill, secure jobs for families in the Hunter.

JOURNALIST: How did it come about to have this facility set up here at Williamtown? It’s an Australian first obviously.

MINISTER CONROY: Yes. Well, not only is it an Australian first, but it will be the only one in Australia. This will be unique. So there’s another F-35 squadron that’s based at RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory. When those aircraft need to be modified or a stealth coating reapplied, they’ll be coming down here. This was a decision that’s been building up over a number of years. We fought very hard, the last Labor government – and to be fair, the last government – we’ve all fought very hard to make Australia and Williamtown the regional maintenance hub for the F-35s.

Like, for us, we’re one of the biggest fleets in the South Pacific. We’ve got this great aviation expertise that stretches back to the 1940s. So, we fought very hard for those jobs to be here. And the stealth coating was the next continuation of that so that we’ve got 700 high-tech jobs working on the Hawk lead-in fighter and the F-35.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the Hunter’s obviously got a very rich military history. With the expansion of this facility and other works planned for the area in terms of air defence, how do you envision the RAAF Base, the Hunter’s military industry in 10, 20 years’ time? What will it look like?

MINISTER CONROY: I’m excited. There’s about 100,000 jobs in Australia that depend upon the defence industry, and a big chunk of them are in the Hunter. And we’ve got a proud lineage, whether it’s the work being done here, building the minesweepers down at Carrington, building blocks for the Air Warfare Destroyer at Tomago to support BAE in their project. We’ve got a great legacy and that’s going to go from strength to strength, whether it’s supporting the F-35.

I am hopeful. I’m the Minister for Defence Industry for the whole nation, but I’m hopeful that we’ll see companies in the Hunter supplying modules and parts for the nuclear-propelled submarines, the SSN AUKUS when they come into service, which will be the most advanced manufacturing this country has ever seen. And there’s no reason why Hunter companies can’t supply very significant parts into that project, which means more secure, long-term jobs.

JOURNALIST: Does it require special security clearance to work for BAE on re-coating and the maintenance work BAE does here? Can you explain a bit about what that security clearance looks like? Can you go home and talk to your partner about the work that you’ve done during the day, for instance?

BEN HUDSON: No. I mean, a lot of the work that we do right across the sector is classified in nature. And you have to be put through the appropriate clearances, and with that comes some obligations. And they are important obligations because it comes down to the security of the nation but also the lives of our solders, sailors and airmen. So, something we take very seriously, and anyone who wants to join us, we’ll work through that security clearance with them, but it is something that is important because it is for the security of the nation, not just for the security of BAE Systems.

MINISTER CONROY: Any other questions? No. Excellent. Thanks everyone. Enjoy the day.

ENDS

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