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Summit could boost Australia ties

September 13, 2018

Quick, think of a big U.S. trading partner. Now think of a strategic ally that buys a lot of defense equipment from the United States.

Australia most likely doesn’t come to mind right away. But it does for U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and it does at Thinklogical, a maker of ultra-secure, ultra-fast systems for managing video and data at military and intelligence command centers, animation studios and commercial users that need secrecy and speed.

Thinklogical, with about 70 of its 85 employees at its longtime Milford location, will be among 80 small and midsize defense supply chain companies, 36 from Connecticut, at the first-ever U.S.-Australia “Mateship” defense trade summit Monday and Tuesday in Mystic.

The idea is to open up a growing Australia market in defense - or defence, as the spell it in the old empire -- to large and small suppliers from Connecticut and parts nearby. It’s meant to generally gird the ties between the two nations’ defense equipment industries.

Beyond that, for Connecticut, the summit marks a triumph for a flourishing industry in a battered state - a place one federal official who’s based here calls “the center of the trade universe.”

“The Australians are our good friends and allies so naturally our advanced manufacturing supply chain should gravitate to Australia opportunities,” said Anne S. Evans, the tireless head of the U.S. Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration office in Middletown. “This summit is a showcase platform for our Connecticut companies to meet the Australians and the global defense-aerospace-marine OEMs.”

OEM’s, as in original equipment manufacturers such as Connecticut’s Big Three - United Technologies, the lead sponsor; Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky unit; and General Dynamics’ Electric Boat. They’ll all be there along with Austal, a big Aussie shipbuilder, Northrop Grumman and others.

Evans intends to prod the next governor toward support for more exporting by small and midsize firms. She trekked to Australia this summer with an executive at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology to recruit participants, and came away with more than three dozen, plus folks from the state of Victoria, home of Melbourne.

Call it a side benefit of rising Chinese hegemony in the Pacific Rim. Australia spent $10 billion over the last four years on U.S.-made defense systems, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported, and that number is rising, Evans said -- $3 billion in 2017 alone.

Forget tennis, the land Down Under wants to build five submarines in the next decade or so, among other expanding programs. Courtney, co-chairman of the Friends of Australia Caucus in Congress and a great defender of the submarine base in Groton as well as contracts for Electric Boat, is only too happy to co-host a summit in his district.

And it’s good for Connecticut for lots of reasons, most obviously the chance for contracts. Thinklogical has a head start, with established business in Australia.

“This year Australia is a big success for us in terms of geographic expansion,” Thinklogical president Olivier Bojarski said as I took a look around the office, just off Route 1. “We’re winning a lot of very prominent projects…The vast majority is defense.”

This being Connecticut, many of the companies at the summit will be in precision metalwork - cutting, drilling, bending, coating. Thinklogical, by contrast, creates a fiberoptic-based system using switches and transmitters that enables users of, say, a command center to connect securely to an on-site data center with a keyboard and monitor at each station - not a laptop or desktop computer.

The security advantage: Users have no ability to download data, print documents or walk off with a laptop because the video and data lives in another room. Thinklogical’s system, with as many as 640 ports, dishes out only what each user is entitled to see.

“The environment becomes completely dynamic because you can send any source to any destination,” Bojarski said, “so a room can be doing a live mission and be doing a simulation the next minute and move on to a training class after that.”

Bojarski and his colleagues don’t like to talk about exactly where their systems are in use for defense work, but think military command and control centers all over the world. The movie Jurassic Park, among many other animated films, was edited on one of their earlier systems, as the co-founders previously founded a Connecticut business - Lightwave Communications - that had ties to Silicon Graphics Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

These days, defense is the main thrust of Thinklogical, which was acquired last year for $160 million by Belden Inc., a publicly traded company based in St. Louis. The technology fits well for allies such as Australia because coalition partners in the same room can and do have very different security clearances, which Thinklogical’s system manages.

At the summit, Bojarski and Thinklogical vice president and co-founder Peter T. Henderson said, anything that can connect the company to OEM’s and to the Connecticut supply chain could help. “We’re going to try to find common ground and I’ll see if I can help John move the ball forward in Australia,” Henderson said, referring to the company’s guy on the ground in that country.

Politically, the summit can also help the image of a state with a battered economy, showing off one of its bright spots, defense manufacturing. Fifty-year-old Jonal Laboratories of Meriden, a maker of elastomer seals for aerospace and other customers, is among the summit participants that’s very high on Connecticut.

“Just this year we got our vendor number for Electric Boat,” Jonal executive vice president Ken Keegan said. “Because of Anne and her team, we ship to, I think, 19 counties.”

That would be Evans, the U.S. Commerce official here, whose fervor about exporting by small and midsize companies never lets up. I once calculated that her tiny office is perhaps, dollar for dollar, the most valuable service in all of government.

“My hope is that once our new governor is elected,” Evans said, “I will be able to come to him with a map of the world showing him that Connecticut is in the center of trade and innovation -- along with a plan to bring global business to more Connecticut companies.

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