Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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 September 2023

SUBJECTS: Army restructure; Surface Fleet analysis; Timor-Leste relationship.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Richard Marles, welcome back to the program. So, you've announced there in Townsville that you're moving people and equipment, armoured vehicles, helicopters with significant growth in Townsville itself, I think up to about 500 troops. But you're going to make a lot of these movements organically as current postings come to an end. How long will this restructure take?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're doing it over the next two or three posting cycles and the bulk of it will really be done over the next two, so that's really over the next four, five, six years. A posting cycle every two years. So, it doesn't happen immediately. It gives time to adjust from the point of view of the Defence Force personnel who will form part of this restructure, this can just happen in the ordinary course of their expected posting cycles in their careers. But what we will see is a much more focused and effective result at the end of this. This is really about trying to move our combat brigades to continuing to have core capabilities, as they've always had, but to also have a specialisation which is really focused on the task at hand of the Defence Force. And that's at the heart of what the rationale behind the restructure that we're doing.

JENNETT: Yeah, the rationale is pretty clear. It does always come back to sheer numbers of people, though. Defence has plenty of experience in these restructures. As history often guides us, do you have estimates for what I imagine is the inevitable departure of personnel who are simply not up for these sorts of moves?

MARLES: Well, actually, we feel that this provides for a lot of incentive for people to stay in the Defence Force, in the Army. I mean, recruitment and retention, I guess as you're highlighting, is a challenge for the Defence Force, has been so for a number of years. And the Defence Force, like many other parts of the economy, has felt the impacts of the pandemic in relation to the need to retainall the challenges in retaining our workforce. But what we're going to do here is make sure that we have three world class combat brigades with clear tasks defining what those combat brigades are about. And that's really the best thing we can do to provide an incentive for people to pursue a career in the Army and also to stay in the Army for their careers. And that's really what we're looking at doing here now by having a focus of heavy armour here in Townsville, by making sure that in Darwin we've got a light and agile brigade and in Brisbane having a brigade which, if you like, is kind of halfway between those two. What we've got there is brigades which have particular tasks, along with their core capabilities of combat brigades, which gives people a sense of mission in terms of the future careers that they can have in the Defence Force and in the Army. That's actually why we think this will help retain.

JENNETT: Okay, so at least in the transition period, is it reasonable to contemplate that you'll dip downwards, you'll go backwards from the stated ambition of growing defence out to 80,000 members at least in the short term?

MARLES: Well, we are seeking to grow the Defence Force through to 2040. Coming out of the pandemic, there has been a challenge in relation to recruitment and retention in the Defence Force and we've seen over the years prior to us coming to office the Defence Force shrink in numbers, and that's what we are trying to turn around. I think this restructure helps the effort in terms of recruitment and retention. I think this will be a positive in terms of having more people in the Defence Force rather than less, because what it does is provide a much clearer sense of mission and direction and opportunity for those who are serving in the Army. And that's why we think that this is a really important part of the challenges that we're facing in relation to recruitment and retention.

Of course, coming out of the Defence Strategic Review, one thing we did was put in place a three star Lieutenant General, Natasha Fox, who is particularly focused on Defence Force personnel, looking at the whole of the challenges facing us in relation to recruitment and retention. This is part of it, but we're looking at other means by which we can try and encourage people to stay and get people to join.

JENNETT: All right. One geographic question that fits into the strategic rationale centres on Adelaide, which is going to be home to the air defence systems and long-range strike. How long does it take and by what means could those assets be moved to where they would have to be moved, which is directly north?

MARLES: Well, those assets are designed to be highly mobile and they can be moved very quickly to the place from which they would operate from, they're assets that can be moved by air and the like. But the important point here is that in terms of long-range fires, integrated air and missile defence, this is really high-tech. This is going to be the cutting edge of technology within the Australian Army. And so having this developed and based in Adelaide, close to where we see so much of Australia's defence industry, so much of the innovation that occurs within the Defence Force, the Defence Science and Technology Group, it provides a really important synergy. So, part of the architecture of this is that we've got that high-tech element being stood up in Adelaide and our combat brigades are being consolidated in our northern bases, which was identified in the Defence Strategic Review as being the key platform for Australia's military projection. And this is really about bringing that architecture into effect and making sure, as I said, that we go from a recent history of having like combat brigades without a particular specialisation to having combat brigades which retain a core set of capabilities, but which have, in addition to that, a particular specialisation which will allow them to focus on particular tasks.

JENNETT: All right, well, everything's interconnected in Defence, of course, you've no sooner moved one restructure off the plate, and that leads me to ask, have you received the next – the Naval Surface Fleet review? Is that in your possession?

MARLES: It's not, but the rather infamous promise that I made a few months ago was that we would receive this by the time Geelong won the next Premiership. That now is going to be a few years down the track, but the answer to your question is we will be receiving it tomorrow. So, the Surface Fleet review has been working at a pace and we've obviously been engaging closely with them. We basically had set Grand Final Day as the deadline and we are anticipating being handed the outcome of that review tomorrow. And from there, the Government will work through its processes in pretty short shrift to provide a response to that over the next few months.

JENNETT: Well, by that you actually mean into next year, as I understand it. Maybe you can clarify that for me. But also an associated question, is it your starting position that all eight Anzac frigates must remain in the water until fully replaced?

MARLES: Well, we will be working through the recommendations of the review when we receive it, and I don't want to pre-empt any of the specifics in relation to that. In answer to the first question, we will provide a response to this in the next few months, in the early part of next year. And there will be, as we understand the review coming forward, quite a bit to work through. But we've got the time to do that. I mean, this is looking at the surface fleet that we will develop over the course of the next 10–20 years and beyond. And it's really important that that is done, done in a context where we are now obviously developing a nuclear-powered submarine capability. And this review, which I'm confident is a really important piece of work, enables us to make these decisions in the timeframe that we need to.

JENNETT: And must future surface ships be existing design or currently in service somewhere in the world?

MARLES: Again, I don't want to pre-empt the result of the review and the government's response to it. We have been very clear about the fact that we want to operate platforms which are operated by other countries, if that's at all possible. And that has been the focus of the way in which we have made decisions up until now. What the decisions that we made, for example, in relation to us acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine capability. Obviously, if a platform is being operated by a friend and ally, it does distribute and share some of the risk, the learning associated with the operating of that platform. So, it is undoubtedly a key consideration in terms of how we structure the surface fleet.

JENNETT: All right, a key consideration. One more just within our neighbourhood. Richard Marles, Timor-Leste now has a comprehensive strategic partnership with China and stated aspirations to expand military programs with that country too. How is this trend in cooperation between Dili and Beijing not undercutting Australia's prime role as security partner with Timor-Leste?

MARLES: Well, we've got a long history in relation to Timor-Leste and an ongoing engagement with Timor-Leste at a defence level and obviously at a broader bilateral level. We've seen that in the way in which we've done various defence exercises with Timor-Leste and their engagement in those exercises, and the way in which we have our military-to-military relationship with Timor-Leste, and that will continue. We are very happy with that relationship. What we understand here is that in terms of our national security and the collective security of our immediate region, we need to be investing in our relationship with Timor-Leste and focusing on that. And that is what we are doing. Obviously, Timor-Leste is its own sovereign nation, they have a right to have a relationship or talk with whichever country they want to. What we need to be making sure is that we are focused on our own bilateral relationship with that, that we're investing in and that continues to grow, and we are confident about that in respect of Timor-Leste.

JENNETT: All right, well, these are strategic trends that I'm sure we'll be talking about long into the future. Richard Marles, you've been generous with your time as ever. Thanks for joining us again on Afternoon Briefing.

MARLES: Thanks, Greg.


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