Fresh from Australia, Courtney sees opportunities for CT defense industry

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, sees business opportunities for Connecticut's defense industry in what might seem like an unlikely place: Australia.

The South Pacific country reportedly is expected to increase its defense budget from about $32 billion to nearly $59 billion over the next decade.

Fresh off a trip to Australia with U.S. Navy officials and other federal lawmakers, Courtney pointed to Connecticut's current involvement in the country.

Australia has committed to buying 72 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Jets for about $17 billion, reportedly one of its most controversial defense expenditures. Pratt & Whitney, with headquarters in East Hartford and a facility in Middletown, makes the jet engines.

In 2011, the country ordered 24 MH-60R helicopters or so-called "Romeos," built by Sikorsky in Stratford, for $3.2 billion. Delivery of the helicopters began in 2013.

In the spring, the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut hosted an event for members of the state's aerospace industry to learn more about opportunities in Australia and Canada. The group also has organized trade missions to Australia.

Australia is also gearing up to build 12 diesel electric submarines, doubling the size of its submarine fleet.

"They've recognized that they need to step up the size of the navy, given increased activity in the Indian Ocean, South Pacific and South China Sea," Courtney said.

Officials from Electric Boat are advising Australian officials on the submarine program, according to Courtney. A French company won a $50 billion contract to build the submarines, but EB could end up working on aspects, such as combat systems, Courtney said. Australia doesn't have any nuclear-powered submarines and it's unlikely that'll change anytime soon due to political reticence, he added.

While in Australia, Courtney visited the country's only submarine base in Perth, and attended the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, an annual event where officials discuss the U.S.-Australia alliance. There was a heavy focus on defense issues this year, Courtney said, given the forum took place in the wake of rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.

"The range of missiles North Korea has demonstrated clearly puts Australia within that radius, so there was a lot of talk at the conference about missile defense systems that are clearly in play as a result," Courtney said.

Though, he added, there is "clearly a preference for diplomacy in terms of trying to resolve this issue."

The U.S. and Australia recently participated in a biennial training exercise known as Talisman Saber in the Pacific Ocean. More than 30,000 Australian and American Army, Navy and Air Force personnel participated, making it the largest exercise to date.

"Clearly what's going on in North Korea, the South China Sea, they're really very much on a more heightened state of activity in terms of patrols and coordination with the Philippines and Japan and obviously the U.S.," Courtney said of Australia.

Courtney is co-chair of the Friends of Australia Caucus. The visit to Australia was part of a congressional delegation trip, organized by the Navy, and was paid for by the federal government.

j.bergman@theday.com

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