• Credit: Nigel Pittaway
    Credit: Nigel Pittaway

Australia will begin manufacture of the Lockheed Martin Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) missiles next year, a weapon which has been used to devastating effect in the Ukraine conflict.

Under a $37 million contract between Defence and Lockheed Martin Australia, production will be launched at the defence munitions facility at Orchard Hills in western Sydney, with the aim of test firing the first wholly assembled Australian round later in 2025.

This will be a very significant step in delivering a long-awaited domestic capability for manufacturing precision guided munitions (PGM), currently sourced mostly from the US.

Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said we lived in a missile age with adversaries and potential adversaries and others invested in greater capabilities for long range strike.

He said the ADF needed to increase its ability to hold adversaries at arm’s length and the government planned to invest $4.1 billion in long range strike and missile manufacturing.

“Today I am announcing a $37 million contract with Lockheed Martin Australia to begin manufacturing missiles in Australia in 2025,” he told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

“This contract is about manufacturing an initial batch of missiles to facilitate technology transfer from the US, establish processes for engineering certification and building the technical skills in the workforces ahead of manufacturing at scale.”

GMLRS - pronounced gimmlers - is four-metres long, weighs 302 kilograms and has a range around 70 kilometres. It’s launched from a six-missile pod aboard a HIMARS ((high mobility artillery rocket system), a wheeled vehicle, of which the ADF plans to acquire 42.

Guidance is by GPS and inertial navigation – the dual system ensures it remains effective in a GPS denied or degraded environment. As operations in Ukraine have repeatedly demonstrated, accuracy can be with metres of aiming point.

GMLRS offers different warheads including ability to deliver anti-armour sub-munitions and a large number of hardened pellets like a giant shotgun. However, Australia plans to acquire only the basic high explosive payload.

Australia has sought around 1500 missiles through the US FMS system to stand up initial Army capabilities.

The Minister also announced Australia would be acquiring the first batch of HIMARS-launched Precision Strike Missiles (PrSM) which have a range in excess of 500 kilometres.

“Over the course of a relatively few years the Australian Army will go from its longest-range weapon being 40 kilometres, to then 70 kilometres, and then 500 kilometres,” he said.

“I am also announcing that we have joined the development program for PrSM increments three and four that have the objective of extending the range of PrSM for both land and maritime strike to around 1000 kilometres.”

Australia signed onto earlier increments of PrSM development in 2021 in conjunction with the US Army. The Australian Army plans to stand up a PrSM capability by mid-decade.

Australia’s journey to domestic manufacture of precision guided munitions has been a long time in the making, with the first proposal, for domestic manufacture of Rafael Spike anti-tank guided missiles, presented in 2018. That remains under consideration.

In April 2022, Lockheed Martin Australia and Raytheon Australia were named as initial Strategic Partners of the Guided Weapon and Explosive Ordnance (GWEO) enterprise.

James Heading, Lockheed Martin Australia Director of programs for the Strategic Capabilities Office, said GMLRS was chosen for initial manufacture in Australia as it represented a meaningful level of complexity for Defence in standing up a guided weapons production capability.

GMLRS is a very mature and well understood design. With demand at an all-time high, Lockheed produces 14,000 rounds per year at its plant in Camden, Arkansas.

“It’s a design we know and know well,” Mr Heading told ADM.

GMLRS also fits well into Defence’s agenda for enhanced long range fires capability.

Lockheed and Defence opted to stand up initial production at Defence Establishment Orchard Hills, previously Number 1 Central Ammunition Depot, rather than a greenfield site, though that may come later.

Orchard Hills is a large and established facility which features explosive storage and munitions maintenance and is suitably distant from its neighbours.

“Given that already exists it was a no-brainer to start there and get that going and look at subsequent implications later on,” he said.

“There is a significant amount of tooling required. But again, it is replicating the lessons we have already learned in Camden, Arkansas, and other explosive facilities as well.”

He said first step was introduction of the workforce. Six Australian engineers will travel to Arkansas to undertake production training and subsequently introduce Australian production.

“Rather than trying to ship individual items and bits and pieces, we are going to ship sub-assemblies and then do that level of assembly here,” he said.

That includes energetics – rocket motors and warheads – though eventually they and everything else could be made in Australia. Australia will also manufacture the GMLRS launch pod containers.

This process will feature a couple of firsts. Australia will be the first nation outside the US to produce GMLRS. With the war in Ukraine, Poland and Germany are interested but Australia will certainly get there first.

This will also be an initial test of how Australia manages the US International Trade in Armaments (ITAR) regime under the AUKUS agreement.

Mr Heading said this was unique as Australia was acquiring the GMLRS production knowhow.

“Given that Australian is already procuring HIMARS and GMLRS under FMS, the bulk of that work has already been done. They already have release of the weapons capability,” he said.

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