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How the Falklands War gave rise to Australia’s prize defence export – after years of struggling with reluctance

6 May 2022

Some of the world's largest warships are protected from missile attack by Nulka, an Australian-designed rocket that pretends to be a ship.

On 4 May 1982, the guided-missile destroyer HMS Sheffield, part of the British taskforce during the Falklands War, was struck and heavily damaged by an Exocet sea-skimming anti-ship missile. Twenty crewmen died and 26 were badly injured.

It was a bitter blow to the Royal Navy, the first ship they had lost in battle since World War II.

Although the grim news gave no pleasure in Australia, it came as little surprise. Australian Defence Scientists had for several years been working on an offboard expendable electronic countermeasure that would defeat not only the large number of existing Soviet-designed anti-ship missiles that threatened Western navies, but also emerging next-generation missiles such as the French developed, manufactured and exported Exocet, which used advanced technology to penetrate warships’ defensive systems.

This countermeasure would become the Nulka Active Missile Decoy, Australia’s most successful defence export.

Its development was as much a triumph of persuasion and diplomacy as well as technology: Defence Scientists had for years been lobbying a sceptical Royal Australian Navy and attempting to persuade reluctant United States Navy researchers to collaborate. 

While there were many Defence Scientists over the decades who worked on Nulka, none perhaps was as close to the project as Scot Allison. He first imagined the idea of an active decoy as a junior scientist and his research led to the initiation of the Nulka project.

He eventually became Director of the Electronics Research Laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), now DSTG. He speaks of his struggle to get the authorities to take seriously the Exocet threat.

“We in the Electronic Warfare community, made limited headway in convincing Australian decision-makers that the low altitude vulnerability problem was real, especially from missiles carrying advanced radar and navigation systems” he says.

“However, it was not until HMS Sheffield and the USS Stark [attacked on patrol during the Iran-Iraq war in 1987] were hit by Exocet missiles … that wider recognition of the problem began to occur.”

Nulka was named using an Aboriginal word meaning “be quick”. It is a rocket propelled, disposable, offboard, active decoy that hovers in mid-air while seducing the incoming anti-ship missile to follow it rather than the ship.

Allison began thinking about the problem in the early 1970s when approached by a Royal Australian Naval officer, Commander Keith Callins, Director of Electronic Warfare for the Navy, worried about the potential risk of missiles such as Exocet, then being marketed in Southeast Asia by the French.

“At the time we got into this, the US focus was predominantly on how to defend yourself as a Naval task force against “blue water” attacks by the Soviets,” says Allison.

US and British ship defence was a co-ordinated mix of surface-to-air missile systems, radar-directed rapid-fire guns aimed at shooting down incoming missiles, and “chaff”, tiny strips of aluminium or zinc, designed to either seduce or distract the missile’s radar seeker.

As the attacks on HMS Sheffield, and later USS Stark, were to demonstrate, chaff was not effective against the sophisticated Exocet.

Allison, a mathematician and physicist who had joined there then Weapons Research Establishment (WRE), Salisbury, South Australia, in the early 1960s, had worked on several United Kingdom guided weapon programs as well as in Electronic Warfare.

He quickly saw the response needed two distinct pieces of technology – each as challenging in its way as the other.

First there needed to be the Electronic Warfare payload – the sophisticated circuitry designed to seduce the guidance systems of the incoming missile – and then the vehicle to carry it away from the target ship.

The payload required sophisticated components not then available in Australia.

“At that time, only America, Britain and Italy had anything like the technology to put into this. We had nothing,” says Allison.

It was also something the Americans were unlikely to give away, but Allison had a vital advantage there: he was the first foreign national ever to work in the Tactical Electronic Warfare Division at Naval Research Labs (NRL) and had set up the computer modelling the US used to measure the effectiveness of their countermeasures.

To gain wider appreciation of the decoy concept, Commander Keith Callins influenced US Rear Admiral Julian Lake, Head of the US Naval Electronics Systems Command (NAVELEX) to set up a new collaborative research panel comprising the US, Britain, Canada, and Australia, giving Allison a much wider audience for his ideas.

Allison’s concept of a generic decoy that would be effective against all forms of radar-guided missile was relatively simple to describe, but massively complex to turn into working hardware.

“However, these were problems that DSTO was well equipped to address. It was a broad community of many talents, and we had real resources, sufficient to develop and prove prototypes provided we could obtain funding to engage Industry” says Allison.

Ably led by Bill Dickson, a capable and enthusiastic Electronic Warfare engineer, the Electronic Warfare Division established links with DSTO’s Propulsion and Aircraft Systems Divisions as well as Defence Industries such as the Government Aircraft Factory, and the Ordinance and Explosive Factories. These organisations teamed to develop what would become Nulka’s hovering rocket. 

Aeronautical engineers such as Malcolm Crozier and Alan Smith, and propulsion engineers such as Arnold and Lloyd Odgers and many others made huge contributions and had every right to be proud of this achievement.

But the idea of a rocket, which could hover in mid-air proved too bizarre for some, such as the Defence’s Force Development and Analysis Division Head, George Cawsey, who flatly rejected the idea. “You can't do this. It's like balancing a broomstick on a finger. It won’t work,” he said.

However, then Chief Defence Scientist Tom Fink, who heard the Electronic Warfare people out, staked his and DSTO’s reputation on funding the development, naming the project Winnin, an Aboriginal word meaning “to deceive”.

The rest is, as they say, history: tests of the hovering rocket prototype at Port Wakefield in South Australia proved every bit as effective as all in DSTO had hoped they would be, and more so. 

“It was spectacular. In fact, it was so spectacular that people started thinking of other uses for it,” says Allison.

Allison was sent to the US to propose a collaborative program to Dr Martin Kamhi, the civilian head and deputy leader of NAVALEX. He took with him tapes of the highly successful Port Wakefield trials. His presentation took place in Kamhi’s office which was quite large. However, news of the trials had preceded him.

“Everybody's there. There are people squatting in corners, guys standing on tables. And I thought, geez, I hope this video tape works,” recalls Allison.

It worked alright, but whilst the US agreed to collaborate in R&D, they opposed any joint development and acquisition. Shortly after that meeting, HMS Sheffield was hit and attitudes began to change.

The breakthrough came when Kim Beazley, then Australia’s Defence Minister, met Caspar Weinberger, the US Defense Secretary. Beazley complained to Weinberger that the US never bought anything from Australia.  

“Weinberger said that's because you haven't got anything that we would ever want,” Beazley later recalled.

“Actually, I do have something,” said Beazley and pulled out his brief on Winnin. Weinberger turned to his bureaucrats and told them then and there to support it.

Meanwhile, engineers John Curtin and Ken Harvey in DSTO’s Electronic Warfare Division led a team that developed and tested at sea a prototype for the decoy payload that met all the exacting requirements set down by Allison in 1974 – and exceeding anything the Americans had at the time.

Soon after it was agreed the US would develop the Nulka payload based on the Australian prototype, and Australia would develop the vehicle. BAE Australia was selected as the prime contractor and integrator for the decoy, and would also oversee vehicle development and production.

Thousands of Nulka decoys have now been produced and fitted to more than 150 Australian and US warships, including the US Navy's Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, and the now-withdrawn Canadian Tribal Class Destroyers.

Allison and his DSTO and industry colleagues’ persistence for more than 20 years had finally paid off!

“Then, all of a sudden it was in production, and it went from initial fit to destroyers to 150 ships. But the important thing is it's on our ships. We got it through to the Navy, even if in a slightly roundabout way.”