Thank you, Michael Shoebridge, for that warm welcome.
Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet – the Ngunnawal people – and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
I also pay my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have contributed to the defence of Australia in times of war and of peace.
Here today, I join a room of distinguished guests – among them, General Murray, Commander of the US Futures Command, and many longstanding friends, including my fellow Be’er Sheva Dialogue colleagues, Dr Anthony Bergin and Gai Brodtmann.
Some of us go back a lot longer than that, including Peter Jennings. Peter – it doesn’t seem that long ago when we were both serving as Chiefs of Staff in the Howard Government.
I greatly value my longstanding engagement with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and I know Peter and his ASPI associates have certainly not been sitting on their hands.
Since its establishment in 2001, ASPI has earned a first-class global reputation for cutting-edge strategic analysis and reporting.
I am honoured to return to ASPI, now as the Minister for Defence, to address the Institute’s flagship annual event.
It’s not by chance, that my first domestic address as Minister is before an expert audience grappling with the challenges that are rapidly re-defining our strategic environment.
Challenges that are engaging our sources of national power, in new and old ways.
Challenges that are also impacting on the defence force Australia needs to have, now and into the future.
I’ll take the opportunity here to outline some of these challenges, as well as to explain strategies the Government is adopting to meet them.
By doing so, I’ll frame some key considerations that strategic and military planners need to have at the fore of their thinking.
Certainly, they are front of mind for me as I immerse myself in my new responsibilities.
Less than two weeks ago, two days after being sworn in, I attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
What struck me there, was a deepening sense of anxiety about the region’s future.
There are sound reasons for this.
As I noted in my remarks at the Dialogue, the Indo-Pacific is becoming more prosperous, but it is also becoming more complex and contested.
Competition between the United States and China is intensifying.
Trade and investment are being increasingly used as tools to build strategic influence, not just gain commercial advantage.
North Korea has shown no willingness to comply with UN Security Council Resolutions addressing its dangerous nuclear and missile programs.
International law and norms continue to be challenged, and not only in the South China Sea.
More and more frequently, malevolent cyber activity is threatening our security and economic well-being.
And terrorist groups continue to seek footholds and opportunities to establish operational cells and networks of supporters in our region.
More than at any other time over the past seven decades, national sovereignty is coming under new forms of pressure.
What this shows is that the sense of common purpose that has long driven economic liberalisation and tighter partnership in our region can no longer be taken for granted.
As the rules that have guided our prosperity and security are eroded, so too is the trust that this common purpose is built on.
And so too is the ability of states to withstand new pressures and to avoid having to compromise their strategic interests and, in some cases, national values.
This is not something the Australian Government and people can accept.
Especially at times of uncertainty, adherence to rules matters.
Let me be more specific.
What a rules-based approach means to Australia is:
- actively upholding international law;
- reinforcing, not undermining, the work of multilateral institutions;
- acting responsibly and transparently in assisting other countries;
- enforcing sanctions in response to rogue behavior;
- not misusing technology under the cloak of deniability; and
- punishing terrorists discriminately.
Australia will always identify with rules-based systems and work actively to support them.
This does not mean – and let me be clear about this – this does not mean that we want to preserve the past as a way of shaping the future, far from it.
For rules are strengthened by being adapted to new realities.
New rules also need to be written, especially in relation to potentially disruptive technologies that have advanced faster than have regulations governing their use.
As Prime Minister Lee of Singapore so wisely remarked at Shangri-La, we need “to bring the global system up to date, and to not upend the system.”
To this end, rising powers that have a pivotal role in global prosperity – China and India, in particular – must play a big part.
And so too must smaller countries, to ensure their interests and sovereignty are not overlooked.
To secure best possible outcomes, we need to ensure a collaborative, equitable approach to adapting current rules and to writing new ones.
Such an approach, or rather, core principle, is vitally important in the cooperative security and economically interdependent environment that defines our region.
This need not stymie competition, nor make competition a negative concept, since rules are what make competition work to our mutual benefit.
But a win-win situation is only possible, after all, when everyone competes on an even playing field.
What we don’t want is disregard for rules to turn competition into confrontation or, worse, conflict.
History is littered with examples when this has tragically come to pass.
Australia is, of course, under no illusions about what is required to safeguard the rules-based order.
The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper makes clear that Australia’s influence draws on its hard as well as soft power.
It specifically notes that, “Our international weight is underpinned by a strong Australian Defence Force and a willingness to deploy hard power to protect our national interests.”
As for the challenges emerging on our strategic horizon, these were largely anticipated in the 2016 Defence White Paper.
And, importantly, they have closely informed the Government’s decisions on capabilities, workforce and force structure.
Decisions that, taken together, amount to a ten-year more than $200 billion investment in a more agile, capable and potent defence force.
A defence force that will see the biggest regeneration of the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War.
A defence force that is already transitioning to a fifth-generation Air Force.
A defence force making new investments to deal with cyber and space threats and to significantly augment our intelligence and surveillance capabilities.
A defence force that is more closely partnered with industry, and our universities and research institutions, to drive innovation generating greater capability.
This is not just about money being spent.
It is also about ensuring flexibility and adaptability in our force structure to meet new threats.
The rapid pace of military modernisation in the region is stretching the Australian Defence Force’s traditional technological edge, as well as its presence within and beyond our long maritime borders.
Whether providing naval support to the Australian Border Force off the northern coast of Australia, or operating the Jindalee Operational Radar Network.
Whether training Iraqi armed services personnel, or undertaking partnered intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights from Butterworth in Malaysia.
Whether providing counter-terrorism support in the southern Philippines, or training maritime security officers on new Australian patrol boats across the Southwest Pacific.
We have to be in more places at the same time, with new capabilities, in order to continue to monitor and understand our environment and advance our interests.
While we can make no assumptions about the character of warfare in the future, we must do everything in our power to anticipate and plan for what this will most likely entail.
What is clear now, is that the character of warfare is changing, with more options for pursuing strategic ends just below the threshold of traditional armed conflict – what some experts like to call grey-zone tactics or hybrid warfare.
It is vital that we be able to bring all of our sources of national power to bear on this problem, not just those of Defence.
We need to better understand potential adversaries’ thresholds and risk appetites, alongside our own.
We need to exercise escalation paths, and determine when a military response is warranted, and when it would not be effective.
We need to determine how our adherence to rules of engagement and international law does not disadvantage us in dealing with those operating without such constraints.
And we need to continue to integrate our forces to be able to deter and fight across all domains simultaneously.
These are the sorts of questions I am now asking, and which will be a focus of this conference.
I’m reminded here, and cautioned, by what former US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
As Defence Minister, I will be doing everything possible to ensure that our defence force is best prepared and equipped for the missions it will most likely need to undertake.
So how does Defence best position itself in our rapidly changing security and technology environment?
How do we, with our partners, make best use of emerging technologies in the capability platforms we are acquiring – AI, autonomous systems and cyber?
And, as importantly, how can what Defence does help harness our national power to strengthen Australia’s influence?
Seminal guidance in this regard has been provided by the First Principles Review and its recommendation of ‘One Defence’.
In implementing this Review, Defence has put in place mechanisms for monitoring and driving continuous improvement.
We now have a stronger and more strategic centre to drive organisational decision-making.
This and other reforms must continue to evolve and transform Defence in ways that are responsive to how strategic policy and emerging technologies evolve. This is something I will address in more detail at a later time.
The key for a highly capable but modestly sized defence force, like Australia’s, is being smart about how we respond to strategic and technological trends that are becoming less favourable to our interests.
For Defence, this underpins everything we do – from our capability decisions and how we work with allies, industry and across government, to our international engagement, capacity-building efforts and use of hard-power assets for soft-power effects.
Let me unpack this a little in four key areas.
First and foremost, how we manage our alliance with the United States will be crucial.
In my Shangri-La speech, I referred to mateship and trust.
We are now in our second century of mateship with the United States. That matters a great deal.
Today this relationship is not just about our mutual support obligations, enshrined in the ANZUS Treaty.
Rather, it is about ensuring the alliance is more focused on, and responsive to, shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
As I discussed with key allies at Shangri-La, it is now about coordinating implementation of our respective Indo-Pacific strategies.
And it is about determining where we can have a better combined effect, particularly with our five eyes partners, where we need to develop complementarities, and where we must build self-reliance.
These will be important messages both I and the Minister for Foreign Affairs will be reinforcing not long from now at the next Australia‑United States Ministerial Consultations.
They will help guide how we focus lines of interoperability and where we direct effort to ensure that the alliance’s whole remains greater than the sum of its parts – in terms of the intelligence that guides us, the capability we operate, and the technology that advantages us.
Secondly, the Government is taking a more proactive and imaginative approach to how we engage other allies and partners.
We have made especially long strides in our engagement with Japan and France, both being key players in the Indo-Pacific region. Both relationships were reaffirmed at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
And we are exploring new opportunities for cooperation with India and the United Kingdom.
At the same time, our engagement with regional partners has gone from strength to strength – since being mainstreamed under the 2016 Defence White Paper as a core activity.
Under the Defence Cooperation Program, we have delivered wide‑ranging capacity-building and training support, both in country and in Australia, to a host of regional countries.
And we have been imaginative in how we do this.
A good example is the support we provided to Vietnam in airlifting its peacekeepers to South Sudan.
This served not only to assist our UN peacekeeping credentials, but also to enhance our standing in the region by helping others shoulder more responsibility for the global rules-based order.
These are all important investments in deepening trust, with practical benefits ranging from frank high-level dialogues with traditional and non-traditional partners, to expanded access in the region.
Thirdly, Defence is working more closely with other government agencies to broaden Australia’s influence in highly tangible ways.
An excellent example of this is the Pacific Step-Up, which the Prime Minister announced last November.
Building the resilience of our Pacific neighbours, and helping them reinforce their sovereignty, demands a whole-of-government effort.
No-one should be under any illusions about the strength of the Morrison Government’s commitment to the Pacific Ocean states, well beyond the $1.3 billion worth of assistance that already goes to the region.
Australia will do all it can to help members of our Pacific family further develop their infrastructure, providing what is needed and what is affordable.
We will also help guard against the impacts of climate change, and protect their economic interests.
Defence is doing its part to ensure we remain a responsive and effective security partner of choice.
Through both enhanced people‑to‑people links and maritime security assistance, building on the ten-year $2 billion Pacific Maritime Security Program.
The appointment of my colleague Alex Hawke to both the defence and foreign affairs portfolios is no accident.
It is an investment in continuing whole-of-government effort in this area, and I look forward to working closely with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister to this end.
Fourthly, the Coalition Government has, worked hard to put Defence’s relationship with industry on a more collaborative footing. The results are impressive.
There have been many achievements in the wake of the release of the 2017 Naval Shipbuilding Plan and the 2018 Defence Industrial Capability Plan, as well as the establishment of the Australian Defence Export Office.
This is about more than building a robust, resilient and internationally competitive Australian defence industry base – by placing trust in our industries and our people.
It is also about ensuring that our industrial base adds to Australia’s strategic weight – by fuelling innovation and developing and nurturing our own sovereign capabilities.
On a final note, let me emphasise an overarching capability that guides how Defence makes its contribution to Australia’s national power.
That capability is foresight.
Defence White Papers do not work on a set-and-forget principle, even comprehensively cast ones like the 2016 White Paper.
They remain under constant review to ensure we can deliver against shifts in the strategic environment and new technology challenges.
This comprises internal, classified processes that:
- stress-test our policy settings on a rolling basis;
- annually and comprehensively review Defence’s Force Structure Plan; and
- adjust budget and spending to achieve the Integrated Investment Program.
Getting the balance right between longer and short-term needs is no easy task, especially given the lead-times that some new capabilities require and the costs and risks associated with life-cycle extensions.
But as I noted at the Shangri-La Dialogue, “No country can bank on its past — or assume its own future.”
The Morrison Government is firmly committed to Australia authoring its own future in a prosperous and secure Indo and Pacific region.
Investing in a capable and potent defence force – one that can provide credible deterrence and withstand and counter coercion – will be an integral part of this commitment.
You, as national security and defence experts, know all too well that Australia’s security and our place in the region and the world are far too important not to be subject to rigorous contestation.
That is why the work of institutions like ASPI is so valuable – even if we don’t always agree with each other. That is a good thing.
I know this conference will provide important inputs to this end, and I very much look forward to being briefed on its outcomes.