FEDERAL defence minister Melissa Price made a whirlwind trip to RAAF Base Williamtown on Tuesday to inspect the nation's first four F-35A Joint Strike Fighters.
The minister's visit also included a brief meeting to discuss defence "opportunities" with 40 small to medium businesses at the Hunter Street base of manufacturing body HunterNet.
Her visit came on the eve of the Hunter Defence Conference at Pokolbin on Thursday and Friday.
Touring the JSF facilities at No. 3 Squadron, Ms Price said businesses in the Hunter were playing a "critical role" in the nation's defence industry, including the build-up of the JSF program.
Her discussions with SMEs focused on how the government could better support them to take advantage of defence opportunities available now and in the future.
"Defence industry businesses in the Hunter Region employ hundreds of locals - it's my job now to give these businesses the tools to grow, and make sure we're building the skilled workforce of the future."
Hunter Defence chair Tim Owen said Ms Price spoke to businesses about "what the opportunities will be" as the government moves to invest $200 billion in army, navy and airforce capabilities over the next decade.
"She was explaining to businesses what the opportunities would look like and wanting to hear their issues and concerns with regards to their ability to get in the defence space," Mr Owen said.
He said a key message she had imparted was that she was a "strong supporter" of Australian defence capability.
"She said the companies we have in the Hunter are a showcase of the good work being done in that context and she's very supportive of local and regional industry and that will be a primary focus of hers," he said.
HunterNet chief executive officer Tony Cade said it was "encouraging" to see both Deputy NSW Premier John Barilaro and Ms Price supportive of developing and up-skilling SME capabilities to make tangible contributions to the emerging and growing defence sector, including export opportunities.