Australian company Birdon continues to expand in the US
A Birdon 491 Bridge Erection Boat for the US Army.
By Kym Bergmann
Engineering companies sometimes find a specialist niche that is a small opportunity in Australia, but which has enormous potential in larger markets such as the US. A case in point is family-owned Birdon, headquartered in Port Macquarie on the NSW mid-north coast, which continues to expand its business in North America thanks to specialising in military and paramilitary watercraft.
As the history of warfare shows – and as current events in Ukraine are amplifying – one of the first targets in a conflict is critical ground transport infrastructure, especially bridges. They are large, immobile targets, and their loss greatly impedes both offensive and defensive operations. Consequently, all modern armies must be equipped to cross major obstacles when bridges have been destroyed, and among the most challenging are large, fast-flowing rivers.
The US Army is built around the use of huge, powerful armoured formations, and they come with their own engineering units able to rapidly assemble pontoon bridges for wet gap crossings. Doing so is no easy task – especially under fire – and connecting what amounts to numerous large steel floating bridge sections requires specialised boats to push them into place and join them with speed and precision in adverse conditions, such as fast rivers filled with debris. This brings us to Birdon and the largest single contract in the company’s portfolio, which is for up to 491 Bridge Erection Boats (BEB) for the US Army, worth more than $500m.
Each boat has a two-person crew and is propelled by two powerful waterjets (manufactured by NAMJet, another Birdon entity) that also allow them to operate synchronously to hold a floating bridge in position against a strong current for days or weeks at a time.
Instrumental in winning the huge US order was a 2004 contract with the Australian Army for something similar – though in that case, it was for only 24 of these specialised watercraft, reflecting the difference in scale between the forces. Earlier contracts included the refurbishment of army’s Vietnam-era LCM8 landing craft, establishing Birdon’s amphibious warfare credentials.
Birdon is constructing the BEBs at its US headquarters, located in Denver, Colorado, and is producing them at a rate of seven per month. So far, 370 have been delivered, all on time. Building on that success, in 2019, the company won its next major offshore contract with the US Coast Guard for extremely rugged self-righting motor lifeboats (MLB), worth in excess of $250m. The work is being completed at Birdon facilities in Bellingham, Washington, and Portland, Connecticut, and involves upgrading 117 vessels.
The US national security market is notoriously parochial, with local industry usually preferred. Asked to explain the company’s success, chief executive Jamie Bruce said: “It starts with having the confidence to back ourselves and a willingness to make upfront investments. We also received good advice early in the process to establish ourselves in the US rather than try to compete from Australia.
Jamie Bruce, CEO of Birdon
“The BEB project started in 2009 – we were only part-funded for the production of three prototypes, so we spent our own money to come up with an absolutely first-class product, which ended up being competitively selected for full-rate production in 2014.”
The company is now one of two finalists for a fleet of even larger US Coast Guard logistics vessels optimised for work on inland waterways, especially the Mississippi River and Great Lakes.
These are vital shipping routes handling $5 trillion of cargo per annum, and which are dotted with navigation aids that need almost constant monitoring.
Any major disruption in Mississippi River and Great Lakes traffic could have global consequences, as the Suez Canal blockage by a container ship in March 2021 demonstrated.
Back home in Australia, Birdon is delivering a wide variety of civil and military contracts, including the recycling of retired ships such as the FFGs ex-HMAS Sydney and Darwin, and the support ship ex-HMAS Sirius.
Some warships are turned into dive wrecks, but this is a costly and time-consuming process because every possible contaminate needs to be removed. Most defence assets are now recycled, with Birdon saying they have achieved reuse and recycling rates of 97 per cent of the ship weight.
However, easily the most unique contract is to design and build the New Young Endeavour – the Royal Australian Navy’s three-masted sail training ship that will replace the existing vessel that has been in service for 30 years. The new generation vessel will be constructed at Port Macquarie and provide decades of education and experience to thousands of Australian youth.
As the largest army specialist watercraft designer and manufacturer in the Western world, wholly Australian-owned, Birdon is also targeting the Australian Army’s LAND 8710 program.