Television Interview, ABC 7.30

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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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21 February 2024

SUBJECT: Surface Fleet Review.

SARAH FERGUSON, HOST: Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister. Minister, welcome to 730.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good evening, Sarah. FERGUSON: Is this the last chance to get the makeup of Australian naval forces right in the face of China's massive military buildup?

MARLES: Well, having made this decision it is very important that the nation sticks to it. That we take our surface combatant fleet from 11, which is what it is today, up to 26. What we're trying to do, in a strategic sense, is in the face of great power competition, where outcomes are uncertain, is making sure that we, over the course of the decade, become a much more capable nation which is able to maintain our way of life no matter what happens in terms of that great power competition. And we do that by contributing to the collective security of the region in which we live, the maintenance of the rules-based order. And that really does require an ability to project, which, of course, is why we've acquired nuclear-powered submarines, but why we also need a highly capable surface fleet, which we've announced today.

FERGUSON: So, listening to you, obviously the analysis of the situation that Australia faces now is critically important. So, let me ask you this: If the Chinese maintain their military buildup at the rate that it's at now, have your analysts told you how big China's military capacity will be by the time Australia's first new ships get in the water?

MARLES: Well, it's obviously difficult to predict that trajectory, but we can obviously look over the past and see that what is happening is that China is engaged in the biggest conventional military buildup in the world since the end of the Second World War. And what that has done is give China a much greater ability to seek to shape the world around it, which is what it's seeking to do. And it's in those circumstances that we need to be making sure that we are as capable as possible. It's not that anyone is imagining that Australia is going to be invaded. As we've said before, there's a whole lot of damage that can be done to Australia before anyone would need to set foot upon our shores. But it is trying to ensure that no matter what potential threats there are of coercion, we are in a position to maintain our way of life, that we have the capability to deter coercion. And that's what the building of this surface fleet will seek to do.

FERGUSON: In this plan, the number of ships decline before they grow again in 2031. Is that based on any actual analysis that China is less likely in that period to either carry out an invasion of Taiwan or a blockade of Taiwan?

MARLES: Well, again, I wouldn't want to construct the development of our Navy against any particular scenario. What we are thinking about is how we maintain our way of life around the way in which we are connected to the world and our region, and specifically, therefore, the importance of our sea lines of communication, of our economic connection to the world, which is manifested through those sea lines of communication, and the importance of being able to deter any coercive actions against Australia from any adversary. That is the strategic challenge that we are trying to address. Now in terms of the number of surface combatants, what we inherited from the former government was a declining navy in the sense that it has been the oldest surface fleet since the end of the Second World War. Today, we did announce that HMAS Anzac will not sail again. That's a decision that would have had to have been taken by any government in our situation, but it's why we have accelerated, sped up the acquisition of new surface combatants during the course of the next decade. What was anticipated under the former government is that we would have our first new surface combatant in 2034, which would have been the first of the Hunter class. By accelerating the general purpose frigate we will have four new surface combatants over that period of time entering service for the Royal Australian Navy. So, we certainly do see there is an urgency in building capability.

FERGUSON: If there's such an urgency, why not buy a number of foreign warships ready to go into service more quickly to fill that gap?

MARLES: Well, what we've announced today will be one of the fastest acquisitions of a surface combatant that our country has seen. And we've specifically said that whilst the building of the general frigates through to a run of 11 will underpin continuous naval shipbuilding in Perth, we need to have that capability online as quickly as possible. And so the first three of those will need to be built overseas–

FERGUSON: Yes, but–

MARLES: And in looking class of vessel that we would choose. Well, can I just make this point? In looking at the class of vessel we choose, a critical factor is that we are looking at a vessel which is in the water right now, which has a production line running right now, so that we can acquire it right now.

FERGUSON: Let me move on to another set of questions. How does this plan help the Navy stay ahead of the extraordinary technology curve that we're seeing with China, in particular, building huge capacity in drone warfare?

MARLES: Well, we clearly have an eye to future technological capability. In all the combatants that we are looking at acquiring, there is room to evolve and to grow them. That's part of how you conceive of this, so that the ship that you buy or that you put into service on day one, becomes quite a different ship towards the end of its life, so that you do have the capacity to put new technology on it. When you look at the Hunter class frigates, they will represent the most cutting-edge, anti-submarine warfare technology that exists in the world today–

FERGUSON: Sorry, let me just interrupt you for a moment, but I want to get very specific about the question I asked, which was about the capacity of these ships to deal with what is a very rapidly evolving technology in drone warfare. So, I'd like you to answer that question specifically. How does what you've announced today prepare the Australian Navy to confront fast moving drone warfare?

MARLES: Well, drone warfare can happen in a range of different circumstances. Having our most significant frigate, in terms of the Hunter class frigate, being as stealthy as possible, as quiet as possible, which is what we're talking about, cutting edge technology in respect of that will be really important in terms of meeting a range of threats, Large autonomous threats. We have announced that part of the makeup of the 26 surface combatants will be Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels. They will give us enormous increases in vertical launch capacity. We will seek to crew them, albeit that they are a technology that can operate without a crew. But importantly, they will bolster, augment, complement the vertical launch capacity that we have with both our Air Warfare Destroyers and our Hunter class frigates. Now, all of that is capacity that we're putting in place to meet the threats of the future, including autonomous vehicles.

FERGUSON: Well, let me ask you a more specific threat, because what I was asking you really about is the threat, particularly from swarms of drones. And obviously, there's a whole series of drones being developed by the Chinese. But let me ask you the question in a different way. What lessons have the Australian– has the Australian Defence Force learned from the war in Ukraine, where a country without a navy has managed to sink or seriously damage, I think it's 21 Russian warships, close to a third of their Black Sea fleet, using mostly drones?

MARLES: Well, the lesson that we take from that is that is really at the heart of the question that you asked earlier, which is you need cutting edge technology. And that means that the ships that you put to sea have to have the best array of sensors, have to have the greatest visibility, have to have the lowest noise profile, so that they are harder to detect, and have to have the best defences available on them. Now, that is what we are talking about in terms of putting in place the modern surface fleet that we've announced today. I come back to what– the Hunter class frigates will be the best anti-submarine warfare technology. What that means is that they have those arrays of sensors and they are quiet. What we will do with the general purpose frigate is make sure that that is at the cutting edge as well. But the most important thing we can do is get to those general purpose frigates as quickly as possible, which is why we have announced a rapid transition from the existing Anzac class frigates to the general purpose frigates in the way in which we've described today and that has involved bringing forward those vessels.

FERGUSON: I guess my question is that given what we know, given what we've seen happening in the Red Sea, with the Houthis attacking with quite lo-fi drones, but causing a great deal of trouble for the US Navy, given what we know about the Chinese, why is there no mention of drones in the review that we read today, in the announcements that we read today?

MARLES: Well, the announcement that we made today is about the composition of our surface fleet. All the countries that you've just mentioned have a surface fleet. Now, we're doing a whole lot of other work. We're doing a whole lot of other work that I'm not going to talk about publicly in relation to autonomous systems that we might bring to bear and in defending ourselves against those autonomous systems. But today's announcement is about making sure that we have the most lethal surface fleet that we can have and the most defendable surface fleet that we can have, and that includes defending that surface fleet from threats, asymmetric threats such as drones.

FERGUSON: Defence Minister Richard Marles, thank you very much indeed for joining us. MARLES: Thanks, Sarah.



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