Transcript, Q&A - The Sydney Institute

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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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4 April 2024

SUBJECTS: Defence; Defence spending; Training of Ukrainian recruits in the UK.

GERARD HENDERSON, HOST: Would it be fair to interpret what you’ve said tonight, into the long-term – when you’re talking about the medium to long-term – the downgrading of Army and an upgrading of naval and air defence forces?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No, I wouldn't accept that. There is certainly an upgrading of our Navy, so that that part I definitely accept. What we will be doing with having a nuclear-powered submarine capability is really, in many respects, the biggest single leap in our military capability, arguably, since the establishment of the Navy back in 1913. But I think in terms of both the Army and the Air Force, our focus is on projection. As I said in the speech, what we need to be doing is building impactful projection through the full spectrum of proportionate response. What this will see is a much more mobile Army, an army that we can move around our region. It imagines that the defence of Australia doesn't really mean that much unless we have the defence of our region, and we make our contribution to the collective security of the region in which we live. We don't see that the future is about fighting a land war on the Australian continent, we do see that what we need with our Army is to be making our contribution to regional security. So in that sense, actually, we're enhancing Army's ability to be more mobile. And that same logic would apply in relation to the capabilities that we seek to bring to bear with our Air Force. And again, underpinning all that impactful protection, if we think about that, long-range strike missiles form a key part of the capabilities that we're seeking to enhance, and whilst that applies to Navy, it very much applies to Army and Air Force as well. 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: In the days when Rex Patrick was in the Senate, he used to talk about the difficulty of actually sending our submarines out to sea, because let's face it, who wants to be a submariner? And with nuclear submarines, which have the capability of staying underwater for longer, it's an even more unpleasant lifestyle. So what is our current capacity in terms of submariners? 

MARLES: Again, I don’t accept that the entire premise of that. There’s no doubt that being a submariner is a challenge. But there's also no doubt that when you meet submariners, they love the job that they do. And I've had the experience of spending time with our submariners, and being on HMAS Rankin, one of the Collins class submarines, overnight. And what becomes really clear is that, I mean, it is a unique working environment, there are huge opportunities that come with it, and people love doing it. But I think the challenge going forward– and I should say, sorry, in relation to nuclear-powered submarines: you are right, they will be able to stay under water for longer, which is obviously why we are seeking to acquire that capability. You know, the submarine is much bigger. I mean, I've been on a Virginia, I've been on a Collins class submarine, you can tell the difference. There is a challenge in growing our submariner workforce. We have time to do it. But that time starts now. And the point I would make, and did make in the speech is: we have officers and submariner crews who are working right now gaining experience on nuclear-powered submarines in the US. We will be providing that opportunity in both the US and UK, that is part of the arrangement that we've reached with the US and the UK in terms of AUKUS and Australia acquiring this capability. And we're confident that in fact, we will be able to grow the submariner force, and that there will be something to encourage people to be part of that force. I mean, this is, it genuinely is an exciting opportunity. 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: It feels like the difference between a cyber war versus a traditional war is fading. How do you think about cyber war versus traditional, physical war?

MARLES: When you say “is fading”, what do you mean?

AUDIENCE QUESTION: The two almost coming together as one. 

MARLES: I mean, if what you're saying is that cyber is now a contemporary domain of warfare, that's definitely true. We are very focused on that. We've got more of our Defence Force personnel engaged in cyber, and through the Australian Signals Directorate, which would be our key capability in the cyber domain. That is an agency which is growing rapidly. And we are investing tens of billions of dollars increasing our capability there. So we certainly see, and again I referred to it in the speech, that cyber is one of the key domains of not just future warfare, but warfare today. And we need to be making sure that we are as resilient as we can be in terms of our cyber defences, and as capable as we can be in terms of what we bring to bear in that domain. I think one of the things though that comes with, which is relevant to how we think about our strategic landscape and conflict is that, whereas in the traditional domains of air, land, sea our geography is hugely consequential – you know, we are an island surrounded by oceans and we have distance, and that gives us a degree of protection – of course, the cyber domain knows no geography at all. And that completely changes the way in which we need to be thinking about what capability we bring to bear.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I wonder if you could comment about the mega Defence project and smaller projects, and the expertise required to manage all of that. I detect, perhaps from your speech tonight and other statements, a bit of dissatisfaction about the Defence Department capability and the general Defence expertise. Major projects often require rethinking of what expertise is required, and I wonder if you could share your thoughts about how you think about the procurement, the expertise, the management of all those ambitious programs you've outlined? 

MARLES: Thank you, Michael. It's a really good question. Actually, I think there is really significant expertise within the Department of Defence in respect of dealing with really large projects. I mean, that has been in many ways their bread and butter over a long period of time. I think it is less a question of expertise, and more a question of what philosophy is brought to bear in the execution of that expertise, which I think goes to the question of the timeliness and acting within budget of major projects. Minimum Viable Capability is, I think, a really critical concept, which was articulated in the Defence Strategic Review. I mean, what it's really making clear is that when you put additional bells and whistles on any given platform it comes with cost, increased design, and greater risk in terms of time blowout. And so if you want to deliver things on time and on budget, you know, the right philosophy is Minimum Viable Capability. And so I think, it's not about expertise, it's really about how we think about it and in a sense the job we therefore ask our folk to do. I do think that we need to be more nimble, particularly in the way in which we are dealing with small and medium companies and, if you'd like, smaller projects and capabilities which are not of the same order of magnitude in terms of dollars, but can be clearly really impactful. I think one of the things that we have seen play out in Ukraine is just how potent asymmetric capabilities can be thought through the prism of cost. Meaning very cheap platforms, very cheap platforms, are having devastating impacts on very expensive platforms. So it's that asymmetry which is leading us all to think about, you know, what is the kind of full breadth of capability that we need to bring to bear. I mean, I do think we are going to need nuclear-powered submarines. That's a very big platform, that's going to cost a lot of money. But it will be incredibly important in terms of our ability to project power. But at the same time, you know, I think there's a whole suite of smaller platforms, which are actually quite cheap, a lot of them in the autonomous domain, which can have great potency as well. That is a bit of a new frontier. And so I think, you know, there's no criticism here, I just think it's a case that all of us are learning how to get that capability into action much quicker, and we need to be doing that much quicker. But I guess what I would say to you is, you know, this is this is a problem that we are very much thinking about a lot, and trying to make sure that we are keeping up to speed. You know, as I think as I said, I think the war in Ukraine is really kind of turbocharging this dimension of how we think about warfare. 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I just wondered, has your government considered the possibility of Donald Trump becoming the next president? Is he likely to honour the AUKUS agreement and support Australia? 

MARLES: Firstly, obviously, we deal with the US administration which is in power now and we'll continue to deal with them. And we are very pleased, more than pleased actually, I mean, I think that the constructive nature of the way in which we are working with the Biden Administration is as good as any working relationship between our two nations in the history of the Alliance. We clearly think about, you know, whatever contingencies might arise post November. I think the way to answer that question is that when we look at the legislation that went through the United States Congress at the end of last year, legislation which provided for the sale of the three Virginia's to Australia, but legislation which reduced the barriers between our two defence industry landscapes, or ecosystems in a way which we've never seen before – and it really is completely transformational for the way in which we relate to the United States – all of that legislation was supported across the American political spectrum, including Republicans, including Republicans who supported Donald Trump. So I think we do have a sense that looking to the future, AUKUS is something, and the arrangements that we've reached under AUKUS is something that will be honoured by future American governments, as I think they will be by future Australian governments and future UK governments. What gives us a sense of real confidence that AUKUS will survive the journey, I think, is fundamentally that it's in the strategic interests of the three countries, and that's ultimately what drives but that is then reflected in the fact that it has bipartisan support, again, in all three countries. So I mean, of course, we think about the future, but actually, we approach the future with a sense of confidence about the arrangements that we've reached.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Last few days on the web there have been headlines: Australians training the Ukrainians to beat the Russians. We've got a group of men over there have we? Are they over there? And what's the agreement? And what are they doing?

MARLES: We’ve had, for some time, Australians in the UK training recruits for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. I had the privilege really of being able to see that happen firsthand, in February of last year. So it's really been in place now for much more than a year and we're committed to continuing that training, which is a UK-led initiative, through the course of this year. It’s really important. I mean, it's important because Ukraine, the Ukrainian Armed Forces now is very much a citizen’s force. The people I met a year ago, literally a month before I met them had been clerks, truck drivers, construction workers, with as much military experience as me, that’s none. And yet they were facing, completely eyes open, in a totally heroic way, the prospect of their own mortality in a matter of months, because of what they believed in. And certainly having met those Australians who were doing the training then, and I met them on their return to Australia, I think our servicemen and women are doing us proud, but they are also feeling that they are engaging in maybe the most significant thing that they will do wearing Australia's uniform. So it is something we are doing, we're committed to keeping on doing it, and we're very proud to do it.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Is Australia, or Defence, able to benchmark itself against other OECD nations as to how effectively it converts expenditure to increase capability in Defence?

MARLES: That's a good question. There are various benchmarks around, I think it is fair to say that translating big Defence projects into action is a challenge for every country that does them. I think one of the things that becomes clear is that, you know, you get capabilities when you stick at it. And so every big, complex project has its moments, you’ve got to work through them, we're very mindful of that. But all– certainly the key countries that we work with, our peer countries, face similar challenges to us and we all look at ways in which we can do this better and more effectively. And certainly we need to be doing that going forward. 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: The [overprogramming] you referred to can't just be the consequence of the politics of the matter. What type of reactions are you getting within Defence (inaudible)? Are they on board with all of this, or? 

MARLES: Yeah, I think– I mean, it's again a really good question. I mean, they are. What I said before is: the programming of the Defence budget, which I tried to go through in some detail, and it's a topic which doesn't get a lot of air time – and if I'm being really honest, it's not something I would have been able to articulate in the way that I can now when I first came to this job – but where I'm at now, I cannot tell you how significant this is, and how significant it is that we get this under control. There is a legitimacy to having a degree of overprogramming in the way in which I’ve described. It is the principle of managing a cube. But where overprogramming has got to right now, the numbers are not adding up. And what it means is that one of the consequences I described is that it really is bad for Defence morale. I mean, people are working on programs and they are not sure whether those programs are ever going to come to fruition because the numbers just don't add up. So if anything, you know, Defence have been making clear to us if we’re to be, and it’s really a call to action, that if we’re to be a serious government, we need to tackle this. And it's so easy, when the lead times are so long and when you're churning a Defence minister every 18 months, to not have to worry about this because it's going to be somebody else's problem 10, 15 years from now. But obviously, that's not going to cut it in terms of the strategic circumstances that we face and the place where we need to place Australia. That's why we really are determined to deal with this issue now. It does mean making hard decisions. It does mean taking some programs and not going ahead with them. It means re-profiling some. It means delaying others, re-scoping them. But unless we do that, the numbers don't add up. But doing that is something which I actually think builds morale, because people now know that what's going on is real. This is not make believe money, or make believe announcements, or hoopla – it's actually fair dinkum. And whilst there are difficult decisions that you need to digest, at least there is a sense that what's happening is fair dinkum and real. And I think, you know, I couldn't be happier with the response that we've received from within Defence in respect of that. But when you think about it, that makes sense, because it means that people are going to work each and every day with a sense of purpose about what they’re doing.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Minister Marles, the head of the Defence Force, General Campbell, recently remarked that there is no place, or words to the effect that there's no place in the Australian Army for exceptionalism. On reflection, it seems to me that our VCs, our Victoria Crosses of the past, don’t deserve the epithet exceptional? I would have thought they were (inaudible)

MARLES: So General Campbell made that comment in a particular context, and it was in the context of the Brereton Report which looked into the alleged events in Afghanistan. And the point that he was making was that, you know, every regiment, every unit within our Defence Force has its role. If you like, they are all special, they are all exceptional and they all play their part. You know, when I heard General Campbell say that, and I very much agree with the sentiment that he's describing, he is really speaking to the idea of team. That we are as one. And I genuinely believe, and this comes from someone who is a sports fan, and one of the fun things I get to do having barracked for Geelong all my life and representing that area, is I get to know that that football club quite well. And when you think about what it does as a professional sports organisation, its whole businesses is team, and they are an amazing organisation. But nothing I've seen at its best expression comes close to the expression of team I've seen in the Defence Force. And General Campbell is really speaking to that idea. Now, I don't think that runs at odds with the idea that we seek to highlight moments of great bravery, which is what the Victoria Cross is. I think the inspiration that comes from those who have in a completely selfless way, in disregard for their own life, which is the idea behind the VC, have acted in a way to save others. He was not, he was not trying to make an argument that kind of recognition shouldn't occur. I think that recognition is actually really important. And the system of medals and honours and awards through the Defence Force does recognise individuals, but it serves as an inspiration to everyone on the team. But what he was saying is that particular units of the team are not more special than others. Everyone has the role to play and team needs to be what they’re about. 

HENDERSON: Final quick question. When you spoke for us at our annual dinner about a year and a half ago, you mentioned the problems with recruitment. You've got low unemployment, a lot of competing industries, a lot of competing for men and women with skills. How is that going in the ADF?

MARLES: Yeah, good question again. The answer, glass half full, is that, you know, we've taken a lot of steps to increase the, if you like, the quality of the offer for people in the Defence Force. We’ve put in place bonuses for those who continue their service, we put in place a better offer in relation to housing. We're doing better, I think, in terms of the way in which the process of recruitment, by which we are shortening the period from people's first expression of interest to the point where they are actually wearing a uniform. So we have made some concrete steps and changes and that is being reflected in a reduction of the separation rate. In other words, retention is improving. And it is also starting to show up now in recruitment as well. That's glass half full. I guess glass half empty, going forward, is that to meet the challenge of what we seek to do in terms of growing the Defence Force through to 2040, we need to do better and we need to be thinking about what we've managed to achieve so far, and grow it further. I mean, when we came to office what we had was a shrinking Defence Force. The lack of retention was outstripping recruitment. And, you know, we are starting to turn that around, but there is there a way to go on this journey. 

HENDERSON: Many thanks. 


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