June 11, 2018
International Trade

CT aims to be U.S.-Australia defense link

HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon
HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon
Australian defense officials Karen Loughran and Roger Grose visited Hartford to promote a U.S.-Australian trade summit in Connecticut scheduled for September.
U.S. Rep Joe Courtney
Wendell Davis, Region 1 Administrator, U.S. Small Business Administration
Matt Pilon

Australia, a longtime U.S. ally, is ramping up its defense spending for sovereign and economic reasons, and Connecticut's defense sector is showing an interest.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's Connecticut office, working with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney and major defense contractors like East Hartford's Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin (which owns Stratford-based Sikorsky), and New London's Electric Boat, has helped to organize a first-ever summit for U.S. and Australian defense companies, to take place in Mystic this September.

The event comes as Australia is making record investments in a new fleet of submarines and other ships, and 72 next-generation fighter jets, among numerous other projects.

Courtney says that means Australia will be looking for help, and where better to find it than some of Connecticut's major defense contractors and their supply chains?

"Their capability of standing up a massive industrial base is limited, so opportunity for exports into Australia are very big, and Connecticut, with the three pillars of UTC, Lockheed and General Dynamics, fits right into the sweet spot of what's happening over there," said Courtney, who co-chairs the Friends of Australia Caucus.

Roger Grose, an Australian defense and embassy official in Washington, D.C., flew up to Connecticut recently to help announce the summit.

Australia, Grose said during an interview in Hartford, spends between $2 billion to $3 billion a year on defense imports from America, vastly more than what it sells into the U.S.

While Australia is ramping up defense spending, its government also wants to grow its stature as a defense exporter.

"We're looking for opportunities to have more of a two-way exchange," Grose said. "That's part of what this summit is about."

Earlier this year, Australia said it would invest $3.1 billion in a fund to assist its defense companies in exporting their products to several key markets, including the U.S.

The strongest defense link between Australia and Connecticut is the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program, in which Australia is an international partner. Pratt makes the F135 engines for the Lockheed aircraft, and approximately 30 Australian companies contribute directly into the jet's supply chain, including making a tail part and a radar testing system, with contracts exceeding $1 billion, according to government figures.

Officials like Wendell Davis, the U.S. Small Business Administration's region 1 administrator, hope the summit will allow small and mid-sized manufacturers, which face significant exporting hurdles, to make new connections.

"Defense is global so our companies have to be global," Davis said. "To strengthen smaller companies, they have to get this exposure to the overseas market."

Australia's defense sector employs about 35,000 people and exports somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2.5 billion worth of products each year.

Grose said a large part of his country's defense export strategy is looking for opportunities to make niche, specialized components. One Australian company, for example, makes autonomous robot targets used on military shooting ranges and hopes to grow it's U.S. sales, he said.

If that company had to rely solely on its own country's relatively small military for business, it would make it hard to innovate, Grose said.

"But with the U.S. being so much bigger, it allows the companies to ride through the troughs," he said. "And as a result they're in business and continuing to innovate and providing a product that is of interest."

Anne Evans, Connecticut district director of the Commerce Department, will fly to Australia in July to gin up additional interest in the summit. She's aiming for about 100 companies to attend the Sept. 17-18 event.

"Our hope is maybe [Australia] will host the next one," Evans said.

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