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Defence industry to Alice: get a slice of the action

Above: Jindalee over the horizon radar. The network is due for a $1.2B upgrade. Photo from BAE Systems website. 


UPDATED, 22 November 2019, 4.30pm: What’s happening at Jindalee? See at bottom.

$20 billion over 20 years, $8 billion of that within the decade, will be spent on the defence industry in the NT, but how much of that in Central Australia? And what kind of activity is involved?

A lot of that money is associated with the US Force Posture Initiative, focussed on the Top End and in Edinburgh, SA, with Sitzler Py Ltd a big beneficiary. But a proportion of it, contracts worth $1.2 billion let to BAE Systems, is for maintenance and upgrades of the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), with one site north of Alice Springs, one in Laverton, and another in Longreach.

Separate from that bucket is an unquantified spend on upgrades to the military base at Pine Gap.

Greg Jenkins is the senior manager with AECOM Government Services Australia Pty Ltd, who since 2014 have been the principal contractor for “management services and infrastructure projects” at the base as well as providing “housing solutions” for people who work there.

A “design, consult and construct” company, AECOM is a large  American multi-national with “a small footprint” in Australia    “we’re trying to grow that,” said Mr Jenkins. (It has offices at 20 locations in Australia and New Zealand, according to its website.)


He describes the new activity at the Pine Gap base  as a “midlife upgrade”: after 52 years they are “bringing the old girl up to more modern standards”.

 Left: The “old girl”. There are many more antenna systems these days. Last count by the Nautilus Institute (2016): 19 radome-covered antennas, 14 uncovered systems. 

That involves civil construction – roads, sub-systems – and vertical construction, meaning buildings and “other infrastructure”.

So, technological installations?

“We don’t talk about that side of it.”

In a defence industry development event held in Alice Springs this week, Mr Jenkins was among the presenters looking for local businesses to take up the opportunities in the upgrade. He spoke to the Alice Springs News during a break from the event program.

What kind of business or trades or skill sets are being sought?

“The full gamut” –  from people to work in kitchens and landscaping, to mechanical trades, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, cabling.

AECOM would rather that work go to locals than to FIFOs who “turn up, do the work, and disappear – that doesn’t help us in the future”.

The company is also “reaching out” to Indigenous participants, with roughly 5% of the AECOM workforce on site being Indigenous.

How many jobs are we talking?

“We don’t really go into numbers.”

Above: Careers with AECOM, image from their website. 

Kerryn Smith, CEO for the Australian Industry & Defence Network – Northern Territory (AIDN-NT) also presented at the event.

The network, according to its website, is a not-for-profit industry association operating under the auspices of the Northern Territory Government Department of Business.

“At present,” she told the Alice News, “if we look at all the defence industry assets within the NT, we see a lot of companies coming down from Darwin into Katherine and Alice Springs to service some of the opportunities.

“What we’d like to see is Alice Springs companies coming up to Katherine and Darwin.”

To promote that, she wants to see an active group in this region connected to AIDN-NT running out of Darwin. She would be looking at how to link local organisations to the network’s processes and “to keep them briefed on the opportunities coming through”.

What are those opportunities?


There are the “infrastructure primes doing a lot of work throughout the NT” (the local examples being the JORN and Pine Gap).

There are also the “platform primes” involved with next generation ships, planes, armoured vehicles, electronic warfare systems.

Right: Kerryn Smith. 

A “prime” means prime contractor, defined as, Ms Smith helpfully explains, a company with 200+ employees, deemed to be a prime by the Department of Defence here in Australia.

In relation to the future strike fighter, for example, the prime is  Lockheed Martin.

For the Triton Unmanned Aerial System (drone in everyday parlance) coming into Tindal, it’s Northrop Grumman.

For the JORN it’s BAE Systems and for Pine Gap, it’s AECOM.

The primes are “the key customers” for local companies wanting to get into this area, she said. To do that, they need to understand how the defence market works, how to tender to it, how to promote themselves.

“It’s not necessarily about going direct to Defence, but about getting into the market and at some point they could be ready to engage with Defence if they want to do innovation and next generation technologies.”

She says some companies are “quite mature already “and could work with Defence.

“It depends very much on their business excellence, not only their products and expertise, but what does their business model look like, are they performing well, will they last the test of time, so they are less of risk for a prime or Defence to work with.”

So how many Central Australian businesses are at that point?

“Some” –  those working with AECOM and BAE Systems already – “but I don’t think the numbers would be high.”

Have there been fresh faces in the room for the industry event?

“Some are already working in defence contracts, some didn’t even realise they were working in the defence supply chain but they are, and some have the potential to come across from other industries, oil and gas, resources and mining. They have relocated back to NT, because they can see the momentum starting to pick up.”

What kind of skill sets are involved?

Ms Smith puts that aside to talk about more “generic” qualities of NT companies: “They’re resilient, agile, resourceful, because they have to be.”

Is there a target number of jobs or business opportunities that the network is focussed on?

She didn’t offer a baseline but said:  “Our return on investment will be measured by the number of opportunities we pick up, the economic value of them, the number of people we engage that weren’t engaged before.”

UPDATE, 22 November 2019, 4.30pm:

What’s happening at Jindalee, off the radar for most locals?

Shafick Elsayed is the supply chain manger for BAE Systems Australia, who were awarded the $1.2 billion contracts for the  “JORN Phase 6 Program”.

 The original radar array was built in the mid-70s and has evolved significantly since.The Phase 6 Program involves a support contract to maintain the current radar for the next 10 years, and an acquisition contract which will deliver an upgrade to the radar, building additional facilities and installing additional capability to allow latest technology to be brought into the radar site.

 What will that upgrade achieve?

“We’re replacing outdated operating systems with state-of-the-art digital technology that will ensure JORN’s full potential beyond 2042,” said Mr Elsayed, shying away from describing that technology’s purpose other than to say it “helps to protect our northern coastline”.

Left: Shafick Elsayed.

The Department of Defence describes the  JORN network as “Australia’s first comprehensive land and air early warning system”,  providing  “24-hour military surveillance of the northern and western approaches to Australia” as well as  “assisting in detecting illegal entry, smuggling and unlicensed fishing”.

The work will start with the facilities upgrade, then the hardware will be installed to “uplift capability”.

JORN has a FIFO workforce, who live on site during their rotations. They are involved in both technical operations (though a lot of these are done in the command centre in Adelaide) and in site maintenance.

The contract for upgrading staff facilities at the site has been awarded to Tiwi Partners, a 50/50 joint venture between the Tiwi Islands Equity Holders and Sitzler Pty Ltd, with work to be completed in the first half of 2020.  

What percentage of the workforce is local?

Mr Elsayed can’t give a figure but the company is seeking local organisations “to provide us necessary support for conducting maintenance and upgrades.” 

What skill sets would they have?

Right now in the NT the company is looking for businesses working in freight and logistics, construction, furniture suppliers, office fitouts, fence repairs, cable repairs, as well as electricians, plumbers, diesel mechanics. Much of this work is also required for other defence projects they manage.

The benefit for companies who become suppliers on one project is that the door is open to them to bid for work on other projects, with a lot of defence industry work continuing over many decades.

Key expectations are rigorous safety systems, security, being cost competitive and innovative.

The company has one of the biggest supply chains in the defence industry, spending around $330 million with about 1500 Australian companies, most of which are SMEs. (Their global supply chain is worth around $18 billion.)

UPDATE, 27 January 2020, 12.39pm:

A spokesperson for BAE Systems Australia advised in late 2019 that the “current spend with Northern Territory companies is around $4m per year”.  

The Alice Springs News had asked how much of the reported total upgrade would be spent on purchasing goods and services specifically in Central Australia. 


  1. Great to hear that the Alice wants to be involved in assassinating people in the Middle East through the drone program. Pine Gap an old Girl? No way! Pine Gap has been targetting and assisting US in Wars since 1967! Since 1990 the US has been involved in 160 interventions against countries it did not like with the assistance of Pine Gap and weak Australian politicians.

  2. Denis is right. People working at Pine Gap are implicated in drone assassinations in Afghanistan which have increased immensely in numbers in the last two years according to the Bureau of Investigation.
    These constitute major human rights violations: the extra judicial killing by Trump’s army of many, many civilians. Pine Gap plays a role in the chain of command. Everyone who supports operations there, supports the killing.

  3. Margaret, drones kill and drugs kill.
    Recent data from the ABS, noted that in 2018, there were 1,740 drug-induced deaths and opioids were present in nearly two-thirds of these deaths (64.5% or 1,123 deaths) — a rate of 4.6 per 100,000 population (ABS 2019).
    Afghanistan has been the world’s leading illicit opium producer since 2001. Afghanistan’s opium poppy harvest produces more than 90% of illicit heroin globally, and more than 95% of the European supply.
    More land is used for opium in Afghanistan than is used for coca cultivation in Latin America.
    In 2007, 93% of the non-pharmaceutical-grade opiates on the world market originated in Afghanistan.
    This amounts to an export value of about $A6billion, with a quarter being earned by opium farmers and the rest going to district officials, insurgents, warlords, and drug traffickers.
    As of 2017, opium production provides about 400,000 jobs in Afghanistan, more than the Afghan National Security Forces.
    In addition to opium, Afghanistan is also the world’s leading producer of hashish.
    From 2016 to 2017, the area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 63%, to 328,000 hectares; the estimated total production of opium shot up by 87% to 9,000 metric tons. That’s the most in Afghan history. Most of the expansion of took place in Helmand province, long the hub of Afghan opium production as well as Taliban insurgency.
    I am a pacifist and maybe you could also go and organise drugs protests in Afghanistan.
    If you can, I will join you.
    A return ticket is less than $2000, but we will have no insurance because of the no go country from Smart Traveler: Do not travel to Afghanistan due to the extremely dangerous security situation and the very high threat of terrorist attack.

  4. “What percentage of the workforce is local?”
    “JORN has a FIFO workforce, who live on site during their rotations.”
    Once the building work has been done there will be NO locals living in Alice Springs as JORN workers as the company has dissolved the longstanding local workforce and insisted on FIFO workers. A crazy situation given the evidence of the negative effects such a lifestyle has on community, workers and family.


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