Navy veterans build high-tech watercraft for US Marines

The Whiskey Project Group is building a new generation of advanced tactical multi-mission watercraft and exporting them to the US Marine Corps.

NSW-based boat-builder The Whiskey Project Group (Whiskey Project) has created a radical multi-mission design for 8–12-metre tactical watercraft. The boats were devised by two navy veterans: Darren Schuback and Ryan Carmichael, both former navy clearance divers and special operations officers.

Launched in 2019, the company’s carbon fibre composite boats help protect water operators during complex maritime missions. Now, they are making waves in overseas markets. In February 2024, The Whiskey Project shipped its first vessels to California for the US Marine Corps.

A new generation of versatile watercraft

Schuback and Carmichael had careers that spanned a combined 41 years in the Royal Australian Navy and the special operations community. Both served at the sharp end of maritime operations. This required working from small boats in difficult conditions in high-risk environments.

‘As the spectrum of maritime operations grew, the boats we used began to constrain our activities and ultimately our mission planning,’ says Schuback. ‘I saw injuries, I saw damage to sensitive equipment. Those experiences were the motivation to design safe, versatile, fit-for-purpose watercraft for our forces.’

Schuback retired from the Navy in 2019 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He founded The Whiskey Project in Sydney, with other military and business specialists. His goal: to design the boat he wished he’d had while he was still serving.

‘Our approach was unique because we had the perspective of operational experience,’ he says. ‘We didn’t just want better performance. We wanted improved safety, better handling, protection for sensitive equipment and craft that would provide a true operational combat advantage.’

Above all, the design had to be completely versatile, allowing for multi-mission modularity.

‘Modern navies use anything up to 200 different types of watercraft for a wide array of maritime mission sets,’ says Schuback. ‘This can be anything from port security and riverine operations to interdiction operations on the open ocean.’

Schuback and his team distilled these maritime operations down to 30–35 mission tasks. Then the team set out to design a family of 2 boats to meet the majority of these mission sets: an 8.5-metre (28ft) model called “Whiskey Alpha” and a 12-metre (39ft) vessel, “Whiskey Bravo”.

‘Both vessels are made from advanced carbon fibre composites,’ says Schuback. ‘They are tough and durable. They are also completely adaptable to host sophisticated payloads, including anything up to modern missile systems. This creates a cost effective, high-end warfighting capable vessel on a very small hull.’

The company launched its prototype designs in September 2019. The Company further developed its designs with the help of a A$7 million grant from the Australian Defence Innovation Hub (one of Defence’s innovation entities, prior to the establishment of the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator).

The Whiskey Project Group - Indo Pacific © Salty Dingo 2023

Members of The Whiskey Project team at the Indo Pacific International Maritime Expo 2023.

Setting sights on the US defence market

Having worked alongside US forces, Schuback saw an obvious export opportunity. Australian companies have an advantage because Australia is a close military ally. Both nations train and exercise together, combining capabilities. However, gaining access to US defence procurement can be challenging – especially for startups.  

‘Members associated with the US Marine Corps reached out to us when they saw our designs,’ says Schuback. ‘Our concepts were 3 years ahead of their procurement and were already aligned with the US Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 plan. The Marines were extremely interested in the capabilities our boats delivered. So, we embarked on a campaign to export to the US Department of Defense (DoD).’

The Whiskey Project had one great advantage. In 2015, the US DoD had set up the Defence Innovation Unit (DIU). Its remit was to accelerate the adoption of advanced technologies by the US military. This creates an access point for overseas companies looking to become defence suppliers.

‘The DIU gives you the chance to penetrate the US defence ecosystem no matter how big your business is,’ says Schuback. ‘The DIU is focused primarily on whether you can give US forces a combat advantage.

‘Also, the DIU contracting process is very supportive. They give you a quick “yes” or “no”. They appreciate you are a small company and will negotiate appropriate payment terms.’

The Whiskey Project signed a landmark export contract with the US Marines in mid-2023. Delivery has been exceptionally fast. The company’s first vessels were handed over to the US Marine Corps in California in February 2024.

‘To be selected out of 34 other vendors around the world is a critical validation point that will aid our expansion and growth into the US and open up other export opportunities for other Australian defence innovators,’ Schuback told The Australian Financial Review.

Austrade helps defence innovators grow

Schuback credits Austrade with helping promote his designs and business to the US military.  

‘Austrade’s US team have been outstanding through this process,’ he says. ‘They are there to advocate and support Australian companies, including small companies and startups.

‘It’s a very one-on-one relationship,’ he adds. ‘Austrade advisers are genuinely interested in how you are doing. They work with Team Defence Australia to inform you about upcoming opportunities and help you target them.’ 

Austrade arranged an official signing ceremony at the Australian Embassy in Washington to celebrate the contract with the US Marines. In attendance was Australia’s Ambassador to the US, Dr Kevin Rudd. Schuback says this boosted his company’s profile with people within the US Defence ecosystem.

‘This official signing was a great event,’ says Schuback. ‘We were invited to the embassy for the event with the ambassador. This enabled us to host senior US military, government and business officials and dignitaries; while also assisting with conversations back into the Australian Government and Defence.’ 

Go further, faster with Austrade

Austrade’s Go Global Toolkit helps you learn the export basics, find the right markets and understand market requirements.