Address to the Australian Defence Magazine Congress

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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21 June 2023

I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the Canberra area, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and pay my respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging.

As the Assistant Minister for Defence, I also pay my respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have served our nation in the past and continue to do so today.

Our host, Ewen Levick, Group Editor of Australian Defence Magazine;

Parliamentary colleagues;

Chief of the Defence Force;

Senior Leaders of Defence;

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we mark this 20th year of the ADM Congress, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on how much has changed in the two decades since the ADM first decided to bring together Government, Defence, Primes and small to medium enterprises in this Congress format.

Twenty years ago, Australian forces began combat operations in Iraq.

And we were only two years into Australia’s longest war, in Afghanistan.

It was the year Australia would mark the one year anniversary of the Bali Bombings.

And the 2003 Defence Update was released with a focus on threats posed by terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Two decades on, Australia has changed profoundly.

Our strategic circumstances are radically different.

We face the most challenging strategic circumstances we’ve seen since the end of the Second World War.

That is the fundamental fact that underlies the discussions that will occur at this Congress.

Indeed, that’s the fundamental fact that underlies the Defence Strategic Review, and the Government’s response to it, as we plan for the future of national defence.

The Global War on Terror era, although politically and militarily very significant - and of profound personal significance for the families of those killed and wounded - it did not pose a threat to the regional strategic order.

Intense great power competition is the defining feature of our region and our time, and has the potential to threaten our interests, including the potential for conflict.

In our region today we see increasing competition - economically, militarily, strategically and diplomatically - alongside a contest of values and narratives.

Military build-up is growing, strategic warning times are shrinking and technological innovation is accelerating.

Inflation and supply chain challenges are continuing to disrupt the global economy and growing climate risks are magnifying instability.

This is the framing for the National Defence Statement, which defines a new strategic posture for the ADF and outlines immediate actions to reprioritise Defence’s capabilities in line with the Defence Strategic Review’s recommendations.

Next year, the Government will release a National Defence Strategy, to be updated biennially.

It will encompass a comprehensive outline of Defence policy, planning, capabilities and resourcing, including reprioritisation of the Integrated Investment Program to align with the intent and recommendations of the Review.

This will involve reprioritising planned investments while maintaining the overall level of Defence funding over the forward estimates.

I think at this juncture, while it may seem obvious, I do think it is worth pointing out that the Government’s approach is not “Business as Usual”.

The Defence Strategic Review, the National Defence Statement and the work that is already underway on the National Defence Strategy, and the work that is advancing within Defence, and will be discussed at this Congress – none of it is ‘Business as Usual’, and it would be wrong to view it through that lens.

The Government is implementing a blueprint for change to Australia’s strategic policy, defence planning and resourcing, for the short, medium and long term.

In response, Defence is overhauling its contracting frameworks and delivery approaches.

A new organisation has been established – the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator – to rapidly pull through innovation into capability, to get it into the hands of the warfighter.

And I know the Chief Defence Scientist, Professor Tanya Monro, will have more to say to you today about the innovative way that the Accelerator will approach its work, both within Defence and in partnership with industry and universities.

As you all know, hard decisions have been made to cancel or reprioritise Defence projects or activities that are no longer suited to our strategic circumstances.

$7.8 billion of spending has been reprioritised over the course of the next four years.

But the Defence Budget will still grow above the trajectory we inherited, reaching 0.2 per cent of GDP higher by the end of the decade.

We promised all Australians that our Government will ensure that Defence has the resources it needs to defend our nation and deter potential aggressors, and in the Budget, we delivered.

What we have done – and what are continuing to do - is sharpen the quality of the defence spend, so its aligned as closely as possible to the strategic challenges we face.

And the Government is also overhauling the way we approach Defence industry.

The Defence Industrial Development Strategy that will be released later this year will set out:

∙           The strategic rationale for a defence industrial base;

∙           More targeted and detailed Industrial Capability Priorities;

∙           A plan to grow industry's workforce to deliver a viable industrial base and increase Australia's defence exports;

∙           Reforms to defence procurement to support the development of Australian defence industry and respond to the Review;

∙           Mechanisms to improve security within defence businesses; and

∙           A detailed implementation plan.

I want to reaffirm here the Government’s commitment that Defence industry will be our critical partner in delivering the infrastructure, capability and skills we need to meet this moment, to respond to the challenges in our strategic environment and keep Australia safe and secure.

Defence industry plays a vital role in equipping and sustaining the Australian Defence Force and that role will only grow in importance.

But we need to be very clear that business-as-usual is in the past.

And speed and agility will be a key metric for the future for industry as much as it will be for Defence itself.

And that impetus holds true across the board, whether it’s services on a base, or new infrastructure, or innovation or new capabilities.

The Government has taken immediate actions to reprioritise Defence’s capabilities in line with the Defence Strategic Review’s recommendations:

∙           Investing in conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS partnership;

∙           Developing the ADF’s ability to precisely strike targets at longer-range and manufacture munitions in Australia;

∙           Improving the ADF’s ability to operate from Australia’s northern bases;

∙           Lifting our capacity to rapidly translate disruptive new technologies into ADF capability, in close partnership with Australian industry;

∙           Improving the growth and retention of a highly skilled Defence workforce; and

∙           Deepening our diplomatic and defence partnerships with key partners in the Indo-Pacific.

As you hear from all the Defence speakers at this Congress, you will hear them all coming back to these priorities.

In many cases they are not just whole-of-Defence priorities.

They require a whole-of-government – and indeed, a whole-of-nation uplift and effort, if we are to achieve them.

First and foremost, that includes the acquisition of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS partnership.

This is a decision of generational consequence. 

I’m pleased to acknowledge that this has been both recognised and embraced by our State partners, particularly the Premiers of South Australia and Western Australia, who see the ambition of this project, who see the dividends in terms of jobs and workforce and investment, and who are determined to see it succeed for their state, and for the nation.

To make it clear, the delivery of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines will see $30 billion invested in Australia’s industrial base out to the mid-2050s and there will be a massive infrastructure upgrades and expansion amounting up to $18 billion.

It is estimated $6 billion will be invested in the Australian industry and workforce over the forward estimates.

This is expected to create up to 8,500 direct job opportunities for Australian workers to support the local submarine and shipbuilding industry.

To support this, Australian workers will be placed into US and UK shipyards to observe and learn, then bring those skills back to Australia to support this program.

We expect the first tranche of industrial workforce representatives will commence overseas placements later this year.

Primary construction works will occur at Australia's future Submarine Construction Yard in Osborne, South Australia, to ensure it is ready for the SSN-AUKUS build to commence by the end of the decade.

At its peak, up to 4,000 workers will be employed to design and build the infrastructure for the Submarine Construction Yard in Osborne.

The Australian Government will invest up to $8 billion over the next decade to expand HMAS Stirling, supporting around 3,000 direct jobs, and in turn the local economy.

The collective effort of thousands of highly-skilled Australian scientists, engineers, project managers, operators, technicians and submariners will be required over the coming decades to deliver this program and maintain this capability throughout its life.

Following the announcement of the Optimal Pathway, Defence has hosted a number of Industry engagement activities across the country reaching over 1600 participants.

Defence is also seeking expressions of Interest via the Industry Capability Network (ICN) Gateway which can be accessed through the Defence website. Information provided through ICN will help Defence identify how Australian Industry can best contribute to the nuclear-powered submarine enterprise.

I’m pleased to say the ICN Gateway has received more than 290 responses since it was launched.

I know that there will be a number of presentations at this Congress about AUKUS, and about the acquisition of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines.

On its own, this effort will stretch Australia’s industrial base.

But it is not on its own – it is part of a National Defence blueprint that has been judged to be absolutely necessary to enhance Australia’s national security and contribute to the collective security and stability of our region.

From delivering on long-range strike and the establishment of Australia’s Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise, that I know Air Marshal Leon Phillips will address, to responding to hacking and cyber challenges, to the very significant problem of recruiting and retaining the workforce we will need.

We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing our national security challenges.

So the Government is addressing the recognised national security threat of climate change alongside all the challenges we face, and we will be looking for industry to partner with us to make real and effective change.

And because a whole-of-nation challenge requires the full skills of the nation to be brought to bear, we will continue to insist that industry works with us to ensure that the talents, skills and abilities of indigenous Australians are harnessed to these great endeavours, whether it is work on the Defence Estate, or innovation, acquisition, sustainment and maintenance of our vital defence capability.

We also don’t have the luxury of waiting for easier conditions in the construction and labour markets to achieve the infrastructure we are going to need, especially in our northern network of bases, ports and barracks, where the Defence Strategic Review identified that work must commence immediately. 

Significant works have to be done on the Defence Estate to make it fit to support the new capabilities we are acquiring and creating, and to meet the commitments made by the Government in response to the Defence Strategic Review.

The Government has allocated the right resources, but the quality of spend is critical, and Government will be watching very closely to ensure that every dollar is spent wisely.

That means prioritising works where they will deliver the greatest benefit, repurposing existing infrastructure where appropriate, and leveraging concurrent investments by local and state governments.

The Government is taking a holistic approach to the challenges of Defence.

And we see industry as our partners to achieving change.

There are great challenges ahead of us.

But I firmly believe that the Defence organisation, the industry and the nation are both ready and able to achieve them, and that our country will be stronger and more secure as a result.


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