Television Interview, Sky News Afternoon Agenda

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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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24 April 2023

SUBJECTS: Defence Strategic Review.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me live now is the Deputy Prime Minister. He's also the Defence Minister, Richard Marles. Thanks for your time. Is it fair to say, in sort of broad terms for our viewers who might be just tuning in, this report defines our challenge more clearly and also sharpens the response, that's essentially the key to this?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I think that's fair, but what it really does is retask the ADF's mission for the first time in 35 years. So that's really, I think, how to think about it. I mean, it does do something of an assessment about our strategic circumstances, but to be fair to the former government, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update was a pretty good assessment of the situation that we were in, and that was the first document which said that we are now within the ten year warning time in terms of any adversary seeking to do us harm. Whilst there is something of an update in the Defence Strategic Review, the main point of it really is to try and recast what should be the posture of our Defence Force in response to that. And so, really, today's announcement through the Defence Statement, which is at the front of this document, which is the Government's response to the DSR, is the first retasking of the ADF's mission that we've seen in 35 years. And it's one which very much sees that what we need is a Defence Force that has the capability to engage in impactful projection through the full spectrum of proportionate response.

GILBERT: And when you talk about impactful projection, the two priorities – or that re-tasking of the ADF that sort of jumps out at me as being the most significant departure from, say, the prescription from Paul Dibb all those years ago is the second one ‘to deter through denial any adversary that seeks to project power against us or our interests through our northern approaches. And thirdly, to protect our economic connection to our region and the world. They're the two key shifts, aren't they?

MARLES: I think that's right. But the final two points, which is about working with our partners to provide for the collective security of our region and even working with our partners for the maintenance of the global rules-based order. I mean, it's easy to wash over those and to see those as kind of obvious statements, but it is, in fact, where our national interest now lies. And you're right to highlight those first two that you read out. And so, while the defence of Australia will always be the primary purpose for the Defence Force, now, what we're really trying to articulate is that when you look at the jobs that the Defence Force is required to do, most of them lie well beyond our shores. And so in order to achieve those jobs we need to be able to have a Defence Force that projects. And another way of thinking about that is that we need to be able to hold any adversary at risk much further from our shores. In other words, an adversary that would seek to project power against Australia by, say, interrupting our economic connection with the world, our shipping routes. We need to give that adversary pause for thought. And you do that by virtue of having an ability to project. And that's why long-range, highly capable, nuclear-powered submarines become important. It's also why long-range strike missiles become important.

GILBERT: Is it almost like a fortress Australia approach with those missiles?

MARLES: I actually wouldn't say that because I don't actually think that the defence of Australia means a lot unless you've got the collective security of our region. If all you do is think about a fortress around our existing border, for example, I'm not so worried, nor is the Defence Strategic Review about the idea of someone trying to breach that fortress, someone trying to invade Australia –

GILBERT: But you do want to bolster the north?

MARLES: But again, we do, and that is about the asset that the north represents in terms of our ability to project from it. That's really the point about the bolstering the northern bases. But the point really is this: any adversary can do a whole lot of harm to Australia without ever having to set foot on our shores at all, you can do a whole lot of damage to us. The fact, for example, that we import most of our liquid fuels from overseas and indeed we import them mostly from one country, which is Singapore, right there sets up a vulnerability in terms of our way of life, which didn't exist in the mid-80s when Paul Dibb was doing his work. And that's what we need to protect, and in order to do that, you need to firstly have a secure region where the rules of the road are respected, and that's the point of those missions. But you need to be able to give pause for thought for anyone who would seek to disrupt that.

GILBERT: There's a suggestion as well, and accepted in principle by the government, that the ADF, when it comes to things like natural disasters or responding to climate emergencies, that the ADF should be the last resort. But we saw in the floods the ADF played a crucial role. So when the emergencies happen, we inevitably do turn to the ADF.

MARLES: That's true. And so, to be clear, when there are Australians who are in an emergency situation, the ADF will always be there to support. And no one is talking about changing that. Look, in truth it's always been intended that it be a resource of last resort. It's just that as we have been seeing more and more climate based natural disasters – flood, fire – we've been seeing a much greater call on the ADF's resources and it has become kind of more routine, and really what is being observed by the DSR, and we very much agree with it as a government, is that we need to make sure that the objective here, or the idea was always that the ADF be the last call to be made, not the first. And that we need to work much more, I think, with our states and territories around bolstering their resilience, so that they can respond in the first instance to as much of what comes from these disasters as possible.

GILBERT: I know that when in opposition, Mr Albanese did have a crack at the former government for not getting, and I think you did as well, not getting the ADF in sooner for the floods. My sources in that former government have told me that they wanted to get the resources in, but the ADF wasn't up to it. Are our humanitarian and emergency capabilities there?

MARLES: Well, firstly, the ADF is hugely capable and it does have capabilities that it can bring to bear here –

GILBERT: So you're comfortable with where it's at on that front?

MARLES: I come back to what I said at the start. Like, if people are in an emergency and there is a capability that only the ADF has, it will always be there to provide assistance and that's how it's always meant to be, and that's what we see happening in the future, and that's what the DSR is saying. But the point the DSR is making is that it does need to be the last call that's made, not the first. And if there are responses that can occur or need to occur in response to a natural disaster that can be done by other agencies, by other entities, by building more robust and resilient responses from the states, well, then we need to focus on that. Because if we don't, given the changing frequency of flood and fire, we're going to find a whole lot of our capability is taken up in this. And the point here is that the ADF is a unique capability in terms of being able to defend our nation and give expression to those five elements of the mission that was recast for it today, no one else can do that. Other entities can provide assistance during natural disasters. Sure, there are some unique capabilities that Defence have and they'll always be there when that last call needs to be made. But let's make it the last call.

GILBERT: Okay. And so you've said to me and to our viewers several times, the workforce challenge is one of the key issues facing the ADF over the next sort of 10-20- 30 years. The chapter here on workforce is only one page. Is that because a lot of it is classified?

MARLES: Yes, and there are a lot of challenges with workforce which exist in that realm. But the fundamental point to make about workforce is twofold; one is there is a glide path to increasing the ADF over the next 20 years, which we need to be able to meet. So the ADF is actually going to need to grow. The former government had a glide path of taking it from 62,000 to 80,000. If we're going to do anything like that though, we need to at least be in a position where the ADF is not going backwards and that's in fact, what we inherited when we came to government – that is the ADF was leaking people. So in the first instance, what's really important is that we are doing everything we can to invest in our personnel to grow, but actually to retain those that we already have. And part of that is about making sure that there are appropriate incentives in place to keep people in the Defence Force and we'll be talking about that more in the lead up to the Budget. Part of it, I think, is about telling the story of the fantastic opportunities which exist for people, particularly young people, to pursue a career in the ADF. You and I are both interested in sport, but I've got to say, as much as we watch professional sports teams, the greatest expression of team that I have seen anywhere and in any context, is our Defence Force. And they are genuinely remarkable in the kind of selfless culture that they have in operating as a collective unit or operating as a team. It's actually a wonderful thing to be a part of and I think we need to be telling that story more.

GILBERT: You spoke about taking on more risk as well in some of the acquisitions that the ADF makes. Say in terms of these missiles, what sort of risk should we be willing to absorb into that process?

MARLES: Well, when you walk down a path of acquisition on the scale that you are talking about, when you're doing defence acquisitions, there is inevitably a lot of risk. A lot of risk of things going wrong in delay, for example, as platforms being built, risk in terms of how particular platforms operate. And you can do a lot to try and plan that risk out, but you can also find that you are so focused on that that you slow the whole process down. Now, in some times that's appropriate, if those times are more benign than they are now. But in circumstances that we're in now, where our strategic circumstances are far from benign, we need to be getting capabilities into operation much quicker. And the only way you can do that is if you are prepared to walk forward, make mistakes, but get there and get there quicker. And the making mistakes bit, which is often a really important part of getting there, is the risk that we are talking about and we've got to have a much greater tolerance for that. And when you look back in history at how quickly capabilities were brought into operation, say, in the lead up to the Second World War, I mean, there was a huge acceptance of risk because people knew that mistakes didn't matter. What mattered was we get something up and running as quickly as we can and they were prepared to accept the risk. We're not quite there and we're not saying we're in a warlike situation, but we're not exactly in a benign situation either. And so we do need to be accepting more risk in the way in which we engage in procurement.

GILBERT: In the lead up to the last election, you were asked on many occasions, would you cut the Defence Budget? Far from that, this is growing it massively.

MARLES: It is –

GILBERT: are we talking sort of three, four per cent of GDP when it's all done? What sort of ballpark?

MARLES: Look, I don't think it's helpful to put a number on that over the medium term, and partly because there's a lot of work that needs to be done, and so those sorts of things end up being estimates at best. What we can be clear about is what we're spending over the Forward Estimates. And we've made that clear in the announcement that we've made today. What is also really clear to me and clear to the reviewers, and accepted by the Government unequivocally, is that what is clear is that if you look at the existing trajectory of growth that we inherited from the last government that we committed to maintaining when we went into last year's election, we're going to need to do more than that. And that is the principal statement that we're making today in respect of defence spending over the medium term over the next decade.

GILBERT: When you talk about the Review, because there is out of this Review a very short, sharp look at our Navy's surface fleet, things like the frigates and so on, what's driving that? Is it essentially a shift to reduce the number of those surface vessels, or are you thinking maybe increasing the number and having smaller vessels on surface? What's driving that?

MARLES: Yeah, good question. And firstly, we wanted to focus some attention on this issue on its own, because other than submarines it's the biggest capability question that we are talking about in terms of what the Defence Force has – certainly what the Navy has, but also, in fact, what the Defence Force has. And so we thought that it needs to have the attention of its own effort, albeit that needs to be done quickly. So we're talking about having this review done in the third quarter of this year. As I said to the Premier of South Australia when I was briefing him, the outcome of this review will happen before Geelong wins the next Premiership. But I think in terms of what is driving it, there are really two things. Firstly, when the current shape of our surface fleet was put together, that was prior to Australia moving down the path of a nuclear-powered submarine, which is a very enhanced and different capability. And it has implications in terms of what that means for what our surface fleet can do. Hunting submarines, for example, is something that other submarines do. We have a much greater capability to do that now – or will when we have our nuclear-powered submarines in place – so what does that mean in terms of what emphasis we should place upon our service fleet? Second point is that navies around the world are moving more in the direction of having a larger number of smaller ships rather than the opposite.

GILBERT: So like corvettes, things like that?

MARLES: Yeah. So a corvette is perhaps the smallest battle going ship – frigate. So a thought about whether or not you have a class of vessels in that class. Now, we do feel that there is some merit when we look right now, what we have planned is nine Hunter class frigates, twelve offshore patrol vessels. That's at the heart of our surface fleet. The back end of both of those we're talking about builds in the 2030s and really going through the 2040s. Okay, if we're thinking about it over that period of time, is there some merit, for example, in thinking about what those numbers look like, particularly in the back end of that build. So those sorts of issues will be examined by this review. But the other critical point to make about the review is that continuous shipbuilding in this country is fundamentally essential. We will build ships in Adelaide, we will build ships in Perth. We need that for a whole range of reasons, most significantly being our own sovereign capability. But also as we go down the path of building our own nuclear-powered submarines, actually, that's going to be a really important kind of workforce upon which to lever, really. So that is a non-negotiable. We will be building ships in Australia. The question is a short, sharp condition check at this moment to think about what does that look like over the fullness of time.

GILBERT: I know you've been very generous with your time. It is a busy day for you. Just finally, and quickly, this announcement has come on the eve of Anzac Day. Was the timing intentional? Was that part of the symbolism here?

MARLES: I wouldn't want to overstate that. We had talked about doing it in the first part of this year and we'd been looking at April for a while now, and the latter part of April, and that's when Anzac Day is. But I do think tomorrow, as we remember those who have served in our Defence Forces throughout our life, it is a moment just to reflect that we are moving into a pretty precarious period, and it really matters that we are making sure that those who are serving now and into the future do so with the most capable equipment that they can possibly have.

GILBERT: Deputy PM, Richard Marles, thanks, appreciate your time.




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