Press Conference – Canberra




19 November 2012

Topics: Wedgetail


JASON CLARE: Geoff Brown the Chief of Air Force, US Ambassador, my good friend, Jeff Bleich, Dennis Muilenburg the Executive Vice President of Boeing, and your team that are here today.

This is a very big day for the Royal Australian Air Force. Whenever a new piece of military capability enters into service it’s always a big and important event. But this is particularly important. This is a project that is 20 years in the making and a project worth more than $3 billion. It’s one of the most advanced pieces of military hardware that the Australian Defence Force has ever operated.

It looks like an ordinary aircraft – with a surfboard on the roof. But it’s what’s on the inside that makes this aircraft different. It’s the technical equipment inside the aircraft that allows this plane to see further than anything else.

It’s called the Wedgetail for a reason. The Wedge-tailed Eagle is Australia’s largest bird of prey. It can fly for hours on end and it’s got incredible eyesight. It can hunt on its own. It can also hunt in pairs or hunt in groups and the Wedgetail aircraft is a bit the same.

It flies 10,000 metres above the Earth’s surface and it can see out to a range of hundreds of kilometres. It can track airborne and maritime targets simultaneously over a surface area of 400,000 square kilometres at any given time.

It’s able to direct our fighter aircraft where they’re needed and share information with our frigates, with our future air warfare destroyers and importantly with our troops on the ground. It’s the big brain of the battle space. It knows more about what’s going on in the war zone than anything else.

It’s a project that’s also faced big challenges. It’s a complex piece of military equipment and there have been plenty of challenges along the way. This is an important point. We’re only here at this point today because of the work of a lot of people in this room.

The Royal Australian Air Force, the Defence Materiel Organisation led by Warren King – Warren, apologies I didn’t mention you at the start, Chief Executive Officer of the DMO you’ve played a very important role in driving this project to conclusion – and the Defence Industry, led by Boeing.

I want to use this opportunity to pay a particular tribute to Dennis, Ian and your team at Boeing who’ve done a spectacular job here. By working with Air Force, working with DMO and working with your sub-contractors we’ve managed to drive this project to initial operating capability.

So thank you for all the work you’ve done. This has been over a very long period of time. We’ve been working together on this for two years and I know how hard Boeing has worked to get this project to this point and I thank you for it.

So we’re now at initial operating capability. Air Force has a new addition to the family and I encourage it to use it well. Can I now introduce the Chief of the Air Force, Geoff Brown, to say a few words.

GEOFF BROWN: Thank you. Minister Clare, US Ambassador, His Excellency Mr Jeffrey Bleich, Dennis Muilenburg and CEO of DMO, Warren King, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Look it’s really a great day for the Air Force today. It’s a great day for the ADF as well. Today marks the initial operational capability of what is the most advanced airborne early warning and controlled aircraft anywhere in the world. And today marks, really, the realisation of a 30-year capability requirement for the ADF.

The Wedgetail, as the Minister said, is at the very heart of the future networked ADF and really is absolutely critical to nearly all of Air Force’s operations. I always say that Air Force at its heart does four things for the ADF and for the country.

We move things through the air and you often see that in our C-17/C-130J capability. We observe things from the air which is our ISR capability and we do that for not only tactical level, but operation and strategic level we do that with Vigilair P3s, but Wedgetail is very much an important capability of that ISR capability.

The second two things we do is we effect things on the surface from the air and again one of the big deterrent capabilities of the ADF is actually the Air Force’s strike capability and Wedgetail is absolutely critical to that as well.

But the most important thing that Air Force does for the entire ADF is to control the air domain and that’s where this aircraft is absolutely critical. Now fighters are an important part of the orchestra when it comes to an air defence operation but this aircraft is very much the conductor and the brains of the operation and that’s where it really comes into its own.

One of the things that’s not often understood about this aircraft – it is a first of type. It is a multi-role AESA radar. It is one of the most advanced pieces of technology anywhere in the world. Now having established IOC means that the capability is deployable wherever government wants to deploy it and can contribute across a wide spectrum of operations.

It can network with Army and Navy and even with our civilian agencies. I think an important aspect for our Naval operations that a lot of people don’t understand is we actually have a Navy/Air intercept controller on each one of the crews. So that really helps with the overall integration.

Now for a project like this to be successful, it’s really taken the dedication of a lot of people and the help of a lot of different organisations. I’d just like to take a bit of time to recognise the help that we’ve had.

We started back in the 1990s, in fact with the US Air Force, the US Navy and the Royal Air Force in actually understanding this capability. The USAF, particularly at Tinka, were incredibly helpful in actually allowing us to embed crews, the same as the US Navy did and the RAF did, to understand this capability and to work up the operational aspects of it.

In fact one of the little known facts is by about 2003 we had about twenty thousand hours of operator experience in AWAX and in fact there was one E3 that actually took off from Tinka Air Force Base there in the US with an all-Australian Crew at one stage, so that’s how embedded we were.

The Air Force has committed some of its best engineers, logisticians and operators to this project and been involved with the DMO in the project. I know our industry partners from Boeing, Northrop Grumman and BAE have done exactly the same thing to bring this project through.

You know, it has been a long-running project. There are probably too many people to mention in detail, but I think I should acknowledge some for the people in this room. Air Vice-Marshall Chris Deeble. Deebs has been involved in the project for the last six years. His predecessor Norm Gray and certainly on the Boeing side, Chris Heard recently but certainly Maureen took it through an incredibly difficult, difficult period.

Bob [indistinct], where are you Bob? It’s great to see you here today as one of the original guys in the 90s that actually stood up this project.

As I said, DSTO, again, has been a critical part of getting us to the end of a lot of the cutting edge technology. But I’d certainly like to thank Boeing and Northrop Grumman especially for the absolute commitment to this project. You know, the additional research and development that you guys put in to get us to this point I think has been absolutely critical in getting to the capabilities. I think we all know there’s still some work to do to get to the final operational capability, but today in my view is an incredibly important milestone in the development of what is a fabulous capability for the ADF.

I doubt many people really understand the complexity of this project. I think it’s fair to say that ourselves, buying Northrop Grumman BAE probably didn’t understand the timelines involved in the development of this project when we started. But if you go to Williamtown today and look at the logistics behind the project, the training, the software support, how well that whole thing’s running with ourselves, the DMO and our contracted partners, it really is an incredible capability. We’ve deployed the aircraft to some pretty complex exercises, like the red flag, RIMPAC in the Pacific, our own Pitch Black. It just recently came back from [indistinct].

It’s now ready to deploy anywhere in the world, and contribute to whatever mission government requires of it. I’d just like to ask Dennis Muilenburg from Boeing if he’d like to say a few words.

DENNIS MUILENBURG: Well, good morning. It’s a privilege to be here with you as well. Mr Clare, thank you very much for your leadership. Air Marshall Brown, thank you for your partnership as well and your drive to get this capability fielded today is very significant and one of the big reasons we’re here today. Ambassador, it’s good to see you again as well, and all of our customers. Warren, likewise, thank you for the partnership.

It’s really an honour for Boeing to be part of this announcement today because of our longstanding partnership here in Australia. That partnership goes back more than 80 years and being a partner here for the long run has been really important to us. Most recently we’ve had the honour of delivering 24 Super Hornets to the Royal Australian Air Force. Shortly here we’ll be finalising delivery of the sixth, C17. Now, another big milestone today with the declaration of IOC for Wedgetail, all very significant milestones and ones that we’re frankly honoured to participate in.

And as you’ve already heard, the Wedgetail capability that is going operational today is a state of the art capability. Truly an incredible capability. A program that was not without challenges, as has been noted. But I think one of the things we take great pride in at Boeing is our commitment to deliver. Even when programs are tough, sticking with our customers and knowing that we have a responsibility to deliver this capability to service men and women who need it, so thank you for the privilege of doing that.

I’d also like to thank our industry partners who are here today and acknowledge their great efforts. This is truly a team effort and we would not have been able to deliver without the entire industry team. Now, as we look going forward, we have high expectations that that partnership will continue. We’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of incredible people. Chris, I wanted to acknowledge you again as well. Your partnership at the program office level, working with our team, working through the tough hurdles along the way, it’s been a pleasure working with you as well.

Now, as we’re moving into supporting this capability, already standing up the support capability at Williamtown with the delivery of the six aircraft, you’ll see that continued commitment from the Boeing company. This is a long-term perspective and we want to be your partners for decades to come.

So again, it’s truly an honour to be here with you today. I think this is a wonderful milestone, it’s a privilege to be here and I want all of our customers here in Australia to know that you’ve got our commitment as a company and my personal commitment that we’ll continue to work with you and for you for decades to come. So, thank you.

JEFF BLEICH: I’ll be very brief. But I do want to congratulate the entire collaboration between Australian Defence Forces and Boeing, Northrop Grumman, BAE and others in accomplishing this tremendous aircraft. In the modern age, the biggest danger, the biggest challenge, the greatest fear, is what you don’t know. So this is an aircraft that allows us to see around corners, avoid unnecessary or dangerous surprises and makes us all more secure. It’s also a capability that will allow us to work even more closely together as allies. So we are very, very grateful to see this capability in the air, and also grateful for the hard work that went into it.

Whenever you develop a new system, there are going to be challenges and there are going to be some unexpected surprises. It took more time, more effort, more research and more money than people originally anticipated and I am particular grateful, and I want to honour Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg and your CEO here, Ian Thomas, for having stepped up to that.

One of the reasons why there is confidence in working with American defence contractors on projects like this, challenging new projects, is knowing that if there is going to be a problem we’re going to step up to it. They paid some substantial cost and did some substantial additional effort in order to bring us to this day.

I know people have been waiting for this for a while. I actually hoped it would not come so quickly. I was hoping this announcement wouldn’t be until December, so that I wouldn’t have to appear in public with my terrible Movember facial hair. But this is a tribute to your hard work, that it’s here right in the middle of November, so congratulations to all of you. Congratulations to this great capability. I’m looking forward to going out there and kicking the tyres.

MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, there’s an opportunity for some questions of the Air Marshall or the Minister.

QUESTION: I have a question for Chief of Air Force, if I may. The plane, as you say, has performed or taken part in a wide range of exercise in recent times. From sitting through many Senate estimates hearings, I’m aware that the plane has performed at a high level for quite a long time and you’ve really only been chasing the top end of the performance [indistinct].

GEOFF BROWN: Yeah, I think that that’s a reasonable characterisation. I think just people don’t understand the sheer complexity of this project. We’ve been pretty tough on the specifications that we’ve actually put forward on this aeroplane and we’re happy with where it is at the moment.

QUESTION: And the performance during the recent [indistinct] exercises?

GEOFF BROWN: I think I was just – take a couple of comments from – again, this aeroplane has customers and I think out at RIMPAC, the Nimitz carrier group thought it was the best airborne early warning control they’d ever had. So that was a pretty good endorsement of the capability.

QUESTION: Thank you.