If there is one bright spot to the COVID pandemic it is the awakening of Australians and our policy makers to the fact that Australia’s critical supply chains are at risk.
If our supply lines are disrupted, or if one of our trading partners decides to pressure our government and use coercive trade diplomacy to disrupt imports, what risk could this place on our sovereignty?
Australia imports fuels, medicines, machinery, cars, trucks, planes, clothing and even currency. We export resources, gas, food and professional services - all the things it takes to make the products we import.
We also import the critical components for munitions. It’s crucial to have a military and the ability to defend one’s country, but that’s difficult to do without bullets.
Bullets have changed very little since WWI. Considering the many technological advancements made since then, the fact that bullets remain the same struck a couple of University of New South Wales (UNSW) scientists as odd.
I recently sat down with Dr Warren McKenzie and Dr Kevin Laws of UNSW. Their company, Advanced Alloy Holdings, have developed a new, world first casing alloy for munitions. As a pioneer in the field of high entropy alloys, Dr Laws noticed that this new generation of alloys could offer a munitions casing that could provide the ADF with decisive advantages over traditional 70/30 brass.
Advanced Alloy Holdings won a NSW Defence Innovation Network (DIN) grant in 2018 to further develop their research in conjunction with UNSW. This group are not only interested in developing advanced munitions, but also returning the entire munitions supply chain to Australia.
“When we identified, through the DIN project, that we did have a candidate alloy, the next challenge was to try and make prototypes, but at the same time as that we wanted them entirely made in Australia to basically collect all of the prospective supply chain locally,” Dr McKenzie said.
Testing so far has proven stronger and lighter casings leading to higher velocities; bullets traveling at flatter trajectories punching targets with 25 per cent more energy than a standard munition.
“The results that we’ve seen, our velocities, out of the muzzle we’ve got a 10 per cent improvement in velocity and what that equates to at the target is around a 25 per cent increase in energy when we hit a target,” Dr Laws explained.
“That’s only what we’ve identified so far,” Dr McKenzie explains. “There’s a lot more that these alloys will realise and that goes to the extent of thermal management of not just the bullets but the rifles themselves. So potentially we could shoot more rounds before a rifle has to cool down.”
In layman’s terms, these new bullets will be cooler, lighter, faster, and more accurate than conventional bullets.
Thales Australia, the ADF’s primary supplier of munitions, currently imports components (cups) from overseas before adding value in Australia to produce a finished munition. There are three to four stages of production in the munitions supply chain (a foundry, rolling mill, and punch and press mill) that are undertaken overseas.
But this was not always the case. Up until about 40 years ago, Australia had a sovereign munitions supply chain before it was sold off. Therefore the know-how and the expertise has also been lost.
“Some of the companies that we’re dealing with are ringing up their grandfathers who were running the mills before them to say, ‘can you remember what you did?’” Dr Laws said.
Considering Australia is rich in copper and manganese and still has some manufacturing capabilities left, it should not be difficult for policy makers to bring back a sovereign munitions capability.
Advanced Alloy Holdings are undertaking a sovereign munitions capability feasibility project to present to government. Australia has all the components to be self-sufficient in producing our own munitions from start to finish: the raw materials, the manufacturing capabilities, and skilled workforce.
It will take both support and investment from the Australian Government to reskill workers, bring back equipment, manufacturing capabilities and provide leadership in this effort if we are to secure Australia’s sovereign munitions supply chain.
Note: Lincoln Parker works for the NSW Defence Innovation Network (an initiative of the NSW Government, Defence Science & Technology Group and seven NSW universities). The author’s views are his own.