24 April 2023
SUBJECT: Defence Strategic Review.
HOST: Richard Marles is the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and he joins us now. Minister, this is such a radical reshaping of our Defence Forces and our strategic outlook, so why is this so urgent?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we really face the most challenging set of strategic circumstances that we have in decades within our region, where we're witnessing the biggest conventional military build up that we have seen since the end of the Second World War. That doesn't happen for no reason. It shapes our landscape. And at the same time, our economic connection is much greater with the world today than it was back in the 1980s, when we last assessed our strategic posture, which is what we've announced today. One example of that is that most of our liquid fuels today come from just one country by sea, and that's from Singapore. In the mid-90s, all of that was produced onshore. And so there's an obvious vulnerability associated with that. And we really do have a very difficult environment in which we're witnessing a very significant buildup of conventional military power, and so it's in that context that we need to make sure that we are as self reliant as we can be.
HOST: A couple of things, given the urgency in the Review, why will it take until 2024, Minister, for the strategy document to come out? And what's behind this Land 400 vehicles being cancelled? Is that just shifting money around because of the state of the budget?
MARLES: Well, it is about trying to reprioritize the shape of our defence force so that we are thinking about what sort of a defence force we need for the posture that we want. I mean, what we've really done today is retask the mission of the Australian Defence Force for the first time in 35 years. And a lot of that is to make sure that we have a much greater ability to project – the language is to hold an adversary at risk further from our shores. But what that really means is that anyone that was seeking to impact our connection, our economic connection with the world, say, our sea trade, for example, that we can give them pause for thought. Now, that means there are certain capabilities that we need, there are others we don't need as much. And so, in terms of the fighting armoured vehicles, that was an example where we felt that we could reduce the number of those vehicles that we were planning to produce and with the money that we get from that, enable us to have a much greater projection through longer range missiles, for example. An ability to transport our Army is another example. But the focus here is thinking about ways in which we can have a much greater projection to protect Australia's interests, because so many of them lie beyond our shores.
HOST: Minister, if we use that example, can you answer clearly if that happened today, another country, let's just say it's China, tries to seize control of a shipping lane that we need to get all of the fuel you're talking about. Could Australia do anything to prevent that right now?
MARLES: Well, the way in which we do something to prevent that, Hamish, is by giving an adversary who was minded to do that a reason to have pause for thought.
HOST: Yes, sure, which is why I asked the question – if we need to radically reshape our strategy in order to do that, does that mean that right now we can't?
MARLES: I guess if the question is, do we have capabilities which project today, in 2023, we do. Collins class submarines are an example of that, but they're a really good example of why we need to be thinking about what the future looks like, because that's a capability that we understand by virtue of it being a diesel electric powered submarine is one which is going to diminish as we go through the into the 2040s.
HOST: So, is there any country other than China that might do exactly what you're talking about?
MARLES: Well, when we talk about the large military build up, it is China which is engaged in that military build up. But we're also living in a world where you see other powers like North Korea, which operating in a range of domains, including cyberspace. We've obviously seen what's happened with Russia in terms of Ukraine. I mean, all of this speaks to a world in which the global rules-based order is more under threat now than it's been for some time. And for an island trading nation like Australia, where so much of our national income comes from the way in which we connect to the world and engage with the world, we're deeply invested more than most countries in the rules of the road being abided.
HOST: I get the Review and why it was needed. But what I don't get, Richard, what's Defence been doing all these years, buying all this stuff we didn't need? Why did we need a review to tell us that we didn't need land vehicles and we needed missiles? I mean, it seems that they've been sitting around, a lot of highly paid generals, doing bugger all.
MARLES: Look, I don't think that's completely fair, Steve, but a review is actually the process by which you get exactly that information and which enables government to be able to make the decisions that we are now making. Look, the posture that we've had over the last 30 years, which has essentially, and very crudely as I simplify it, been defending the continent, being able to be a significant player within our region and being a good global citizen. Three concentric circles, if you like. I mean, that has served us well. And what we've sought to have with our Defence Force over the journey is what's described as a balanced Defence Force, meaning one that has the capability to operate in each of those circles. So, we've been able to defend our country. We've been able to lead a mission such as in East Timor or Solomon Islands. We've been able to play our part in a multinational mission in Afghanistan or Iraq. But as we think about the future, we have a much more focused issue that we need to respond to and a much more focused mission for the Australian Defence Force. And that's why we've done this Review, to put ourselves in a position where we can articulate a retasking of the Australian Defence Force, which we've done today, and to then make a set of decisions which will start right now, but in truth will go over the next decade which will reshape the Defence Force to give expression to the posture that we've described today.
HOST: Okay. Minister, thank you so much for your time tonight.
MARLES: Thanks, Sarah.