Defending Australia Summit

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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28 May 2024

Well, thank you Michelle, for that introduction.

And can I thank The Australian newspaper for hosting tonight's event. 

Can I also acknowledge Matt Anderson and Kim Beazley and thank them for hosting us here at this, Australia's most sacred public site, the Australian War Memorial, and in doing so acknowledge all of those who have worn our nation's uniform throughout our history. 

There are many parliamentarians in the room, so for fear of missing a name, can I acknowledge my colleague, Shadow Minister for Defence, Andrew Hastie, and through him acknowledge all my fellow members of Federal Parliament. 

Can I acknowledge the Premier of South Australia, my good friend Peter Malinauskas, and thank him for his partnership in delivering what we are doing in relation to AUKUS. 

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to elders, past and present. 

A month ago, I was in Ukraine announcing the latest package in support of Ukraine's resistance against the appalling and terrible Russian aggression. 

And it is hard not to be taken by that remarkable country which is building agency for itself in the face of the most extreme adversity and with a determination to keep on living and perhaps with a nod to their president to do so with a sense of humour. 

As I was told about North Korean munitions now being used by Russian forces along with Iranian drones, I was briefed on a much tighter level of coordination between North Korea, Iran and Russia in the prosecution of this war. 

And as you speak with leaders in Ukraine, but not just Ukraine, in Poland and on previous occasions, countries in the Baltic, there is an almost sense of unanimity about what they believe to be Russia's expansionary intent. 

In order to get to Ukraine, we came via Turkey and prior to that, the UAE, which involved a circuitous flight around the war in Israel and Gaza. 

And it's a reminder of the tragedy of that conflict and the way it is reverberating throughout the world.

It is a symbol of the fragility of peace at this moment and it is itself a conflict which carries with it geostrategic significance. 

And then we come, of course, to our own region, where we are seeing the largest buildup of arms in the Indo-Pacific in decades, driven by the single biggest conventional military build up that we have witnessed in the world since the end of the Second World War on the part of China.

That build up is accompanied by a desire on the part of China to shape the world around it, which we weren't seeing 15 years ago. 

What it's doing is placing an increased pressure on the global rules-based order within our region. 

On treaties like the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, on ideas like freedom of navigation. 

We're seeing a much greater sense of strategic contest throughout our region, but in places like Pacific Island countries. 

And then on top of this came a sense that was given to me when I was in Honolulu just a couple of weeks ago, witnessing the change in the Indo-Pacific command, where people there were talking to me about how they perceived the precise moment that we are in right now. 

We've all understood the potential flashpoints that there might be in ground power competition going forward. 

But two years ago, no one would have put on that list, Second Thomas Shoal, and while I think it's likely that neither of the great powers would want the conflict there to escalate, we sit here tonight with a sense that escalation is possible. 

The way in which that has been described to me is an observation from people who guided American strategic policy throughout the Cold War.

An observation that right now, the protocols that are in place between the great powers about what their aims are, about what their red lines are, about, what they are seeking to do, are far less than existed during the Cold War. 

And all of that, of course, gives rise to the possibility of escalation when it's not intended. 

Now, what I've just described to you is really my last month. 

But actually, it is reinforcing what we all knew when we came to power just over two years ago. 

That we are living at a moment in time where we face the most complex, the most threatening, strategic circumstances since the end of the Second World War. 

And in the face of that, and in coming to Government as a new government, we believe that this was a moment which demanded foundational thinking. 

It demanded us taking a step back and having a root and branch review of our strategic landscape, but the posture of our Defence Force to meet that challenge.

In the first 100 days of our Government, we commissioned the Defence Strategic Review, which was undertaken by Angus Houston and Stephen Smith, and delivered its report in April of last year.

What it gave us was effectively a strategic blueprint to go forward. 

But it also asked us to do more work. 

A review of our combatant surface fleet, the establishment for the first time of the National Defence Strategy, the rebuilding of our Integrated Investment Program – Defence’s 10-year procurement schedule – so that it aligned with the strategic problems and posture that was articulated by the Defence Strategic Review itself.

And all of that has now been done. 

The last two years has seen one of the most significant recastings of our Defence Force posture, one of the most significant recastings of defence policy since the end of the Second World War. 

But to be clear, the moment demanded it. 

Now, what the Defence Strategic Review did was asked us to consider a number of insights. 

It demanded of us that we proceed not on a business as usual basis, and we certainly are not. 

It asked us to focus on the strategic mission at hand, in our region, but on the strategic challenge that we face. 

Gone are the days when we have a Defence Force which is capable of doing a range of tasks in a range of contexts, under a range of international constructs, in different parts of the world- be it East Timor to Solomon Islands, or Afghanistan to Iraq. 

What the Defence Strategic Review has asked us to do is to build a Defence Force which is focused on the single mission of dealing with the single challenge that we face today. 

That is a difficult call to live by.

In describing that mission, the DSR described the geography of our national security- and it's not our border, it is not the coastline of our continent. 

And it's a really important insight, because the challenge of invasion is not really what we face, in part because any adversary seeking to do Australia harm can do so much damage to our country without ever having to set foot upon our shores. 

We are an island trading nation, and trade as a proportion of our national income is growing. 

In 1990, it was about 32 per cent, just prior to the beginning of the pandemic, it had risen to 45 per cent. 

And so we are a nation which is deeply invested in those ideas which protect the physical manifestation of that economic connection to the world. 

Our sea lines of communication, principally, but also our air lines of communication. 

And so ideas like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and notions of freedom of navigation are utterly central to where our national interest lies and we need to have a Defence Force which is capable of protecting them, and that equals projection. 

Along with the idea of ensuring that, we are playing our part in providing for the collective security of the region in which we live. 

North east Indian Ocean, south east Asia and the Pacific. 

But in order to have a Defence Force which can do that, demands change, and that we rethink the capabilities that we have, we need to be all about projection. 

Long-range submarines, a highly-capable Navy surface combatant fleet; an Air Force which is able to operate beyond our shores; an Army which is mobile, which can engage in amphibious operations; and cyber. 

Impactful projection across the full spectrum of proportionate response that is the Defence Force that we need to build. 

But the DSR also asked us to think about our strategic challenge in its fullest sense, about what it is and what it is not. 

Now, there are many commentators out there who are keen to focus on worst case scenarios, of near-term contingencies in the context of great power competition. 

But if we spend a moment thinking about it as a middle power, we are never going to be a peer competitor- or a peer of China or the United States. 

That is obviously not the strategic problem that we are seeking to solve. 

That's not to say that we would not be relevant in the context of any contest. 

Our geography makes us highly relevant. 

But what we need to be thinking about is the world beyond that, a world which might be much less certain- and in a far less certain world, how do we create a Defence Force which enables us to resist coercion? 

That is our strategic challenge. 

That is the strategic problem which we are seeking to solve. 

And so that is the focus of what we are doing in terms of the Defence Force that we are trying to build. 

Now, you can't ‘do’ unless you fund. 

And in the last budget, we put $5.7 billion of additional funding over the Forward Estimates over the near term- and that, on its own terms, is the most significant increase in Defence funding over a four-year cycle in decades.

The ten-year number, $50.3 billion, is of significant historic proportions as well. 

But in the context of a rising Defence budget, there is still deeply difficult Defence budget reform. 

We are reshaping our Defence Force, accelerating some priorities and at the same time putting a lesser emphasis on others.


We are also seeking to reduce what had been historic levels of over-programming of the Defence budget, which was trending when we came to government, to 40 per cent over programming. 

Clearly what that means is that almost a third- or more- of what Defence was seeking to purchase, it had no money for. 

And that describes a situation where it is simply impossible to give agency to Defence planners going forward. 

And so in the context of reshaping our Defence Force and bringing down our over programming, there were difficult decisions which need to be made. 

So, when we inherited a plan to have 450 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, knowing that the vast bulk of those would never operate anywhere other than our continent, and that was not the challenge we faced, we were willing to make a decision to reduce the scope of that project. 

It came with controversy. 

But unless you make a decision, we cannot build the Defence Force of the future that we need. 

Given where we're at now, the job is to actually get on with the plan, and we're doing that as well. 

You can look at AUKUS; what we inherited with AUKUS was an idea, but we have turned it into a plan. 

The optimal pathway by which we acquire a nuclear-powered submarine capability will see an Australian flagged nuclear-powered submarine in the water a full decade ahead of what was planned when we came to Government. 

But it's not just the optimal pathway. 

We've established the Australian Submarine Agency. 

We've put through the first tranche of legislation. 

We've seen reciprocal legislation in the United States Congress and the Australian Parliament, which is creating a seamless defence industrial base between our two countries, which is fundamentally important in terms of seeing the sharing of technology, which will allow us to have a nuclear-powered submarine capability. 

We've got land swaps in South Australia which are enabling us to pursue work at Osborne. 

We are seeing more visits of nuclear-powered submarines from the United States as promised. 

And we have announced the strategic build partner for our submarines going forward. 

And tonight, I can announce that we have also determined the design partners for the building of the submarine construction yard, KBR and a joint venture of Aurecon and AECOM, which alone in that project will see 4,000 people employed. 

In the last two years, we have assessed our strategic circumstances, we have repostured our Defence Force, and we have rebuilt our Integrated Investment Program. 

We have funded it and we have demonstrated a willingness to make the hard decisions to realise the Defence Force which will guide us through a very difficult future in a way which will keep Australians safe. 

Thank you.

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