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Preparing for Major Change in Australian Defence: The September 2022 Williams Foundation Seminar

Dr Robbin Laird

14 October 2022

On September 28, 2022, the Williams Foundation hosted its latest seminar.

The focus was on the challenges which need to be addressed in making the biggest change to Australian defence seen in recent memory.

Rather than focusing on the away games and support for its major ally in such efforts, the focus was returning to the direct defence of Australia and what needs to be done with an adversary which can cut Australia off from global supplies.

As the new Chief of Navy put it:

“I believe it’s important to raise our eyes above the tactical level for a moment to reflect on why we build and employ an integrated force. And I say this because what we build and what we do with it matters only in so much as it enhances our national well-being.

“Our national well-being like all nations is derived from sustained economic prosperity, and peaceful coexistence with nations. And as a trading island nation connected to the global trading system by seabed cables, and maritime commerce, our economic well-being is almost exclusively enabled by the sea and by the seabed.

“Enablement though is not enough. Sustained economic prosperity has only been possible because these systems — freedom of navigation for commerce, and seabed infrastructure which enables our financial and strategic connectivity with the global trading system — have flourished in an environment of acceptance and adherence to the complex array of treaties, laws and conventions that for almost 80 years have been iterated, improved and almost universally supported.

“We call this the rules-based order, and we credit it with providing it with good order at sea in the collective interest of peace for all nations. Those of us who understand Australia derives its well-being from this system are alarmed that such norms are being challenged.

“We are concerned that the right to peaceful coexistence with other nations can no longer be assumed. As former minister for defence the honorable Kim Beazley stated in Perth last month, and I paraphrase, what right do we have to exist as a sovereign nation of only 25 million people occupying an island continent with room and natural resources the envy of the world?

“The answer is the rights conferred by adherence to the rules-based order. The very rights we have assumed to be enduring and beyond contest for decades. But that is no longer the case. This system is now being challenged and our government has commissioned the defence strategic review in response to these challenges.

“It is reasonable to conclude that that which cannot be assumed, must be guaranteed. And that is why the lethality and survivability of our defence forces is being re-examined. In this context, there is a direct and distinct nexus between the lethality and survivability of the integrated force and the survivability of our nation.

“And this relationship is recognized by our prime minister in the last month. The Honorable Anthony Albanese has stated that he sees the three key principles of our current security policy are to defend our territorial integrity, to protect our political sovereignty from external pressure and to promote Australia’s economic prosperity through a strong economy and resilient supply chains….

“Australia is a paradox. The geography which makes it difficult to invade and conquer Australia also makes Australia dependent upon seaborne trade. In other words, Australia might not be vulnerable to invasion, but the hostile power does not need to invade Australia to defeat Australia.”

Unpacking an understanding of the evolving relationship between the nation and the ADF is at the heart of reworking the defence of the nation in the years to come. The defence capabilities which have enabled the ADF to deliver significant but targeted warfighting capability will now be adapted and refocused on Australia’s direct defence and role in its region.

But how will this intersect with how national efforts unfold?

How will the necessary ADF mobilization potential intersect with the mobilization of the nation?

How will the ADF build out its workforce and be supported by the enhanced capability of domestic defence industry to support the ADF in a crisis or sustained conflict?

The pandemic as a prologue to the kind of macro crisis which faces Australia highlighted the need for more secure and stable supply chains.

How can Australia build resilient supply chains and with whom?

How to build the knowledge base with regard to what needs to be protected by such an effort and what can be left to the forces of globalization?

The fuel challenge is notably significant as the geopolitics of fuel and setting climate change standards without regard to geopolitical reality will only leave Australia and the liberal democracies vulnerable to energy supply extortion. It is difficult to miss what is going on in Europe and its relationship with Russia as a basic lesson in the relationship between geopolitics and energy.

And the question of Australia’s geography is a foundational point for understanding how the ADF will re-deploy and re-calibrate as the nation prioritizes infrastructure in the regions in Australia central to the projection of power from the continent to the first island chain of Australia and beyond. The importance of shaping enhanced capabilities for operations from the North of Australia was a frequent point made in various presentations to the seminar.


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