John Blackburn on Defense Resilience

By Defence Connect

On this inaugural episode of Defence Connect Insight Podcast, hosts Phil Tarrant and Steve Kuper are joined by John Blackburn AO to delve into the complex and somewhat controversial subject of Australia’s national resilience.

Blackburn explains the difference between natural and unnatural disasters, why import dependency on other countries for products such as medicine and fuel is a national security risk, and how these shortcomings affect Australia’s defence capabilities.

He reflects on the country’s complacency as a point of vulnerability, what the government needs to do to provide a guiding hand toward economic security, and the importance of being forward-thinking rather than reactive when it comes to dealing with national crises.

Enjoy the podcast,

The Defence Connect team

Stephen Kuper in his March 3, 2020 article entitled, “Perfect storm reveals startling vulnerability and declining ‘national resilience’,” drew upon the Blackburn interview to focus on the supply chain vulnerabilities facing Australia and the need for a focus on strategic resilience.

Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) John Blackburn AO, Chair of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia, spoke with Defence Connect to explain in detail the breadth of Australia’s vulnerability and most critically susceptibility to external shocks to global supply chains and global growth markets the nation is dependent upon for long-term economic stability.

Blackburn said, “More than 90 per cent of our fuels are imported; that’s a vulnerability because our Government has not done a thorough supply chain risk analysis. The last time we had a National Energy Security Assessment conducted in Australia was 2011; the world has changed a lot since then. Whilst the scale of our fuel imports is a concern, it is just one example. Australia also imports 90 per cent of its medicines and there does not appear to be any medicine supply chain risk analysis either.”

“According to a 2019 US Congressional Commission report, almost 90% of pharmaceuticals taken by Americans are generics, most of which are imported from China or India. Most US active pharmaceutical ingredients are imported from China or India, with India actually sourcing a large number of inputs from China.”

Expanding on this, Blackburn stated, “The US Commission concluded that import dependencies for medicines from China is a national security risk. India has noted the same concerns for their dependence on China.”

“If you consider the impacts of the Coronavirus on global supply chains, the risk to our critical imports, such as medicines, is a significant concern that has not been analysed. What could happen with all the other critical imports that we depend on? The western world has incrementally moved manufacturing to China because it is cheaper, without thinking about the resilience impact in the face of disasters such as pandemics or conflict. Countries like Finland have analysed their supply chain risks and as a result they stockpile medicines, fuel, and some foods. That shows a much more sophisticated approach to national resilience than ours.”

Time for a conversation with the Australian public

It is becoming abundantly clear to the Australian public that the nation is struggling to respond to the myriad economic, political, strategic, environmental and infrastructure challenges that are arrayed against it and, accordingly, the public discourse and Australia’s leaders need to take a direct role in designing, implementing and communicating a coherent national response.

Blackburn explained the necessity of such an approach, telling Defence Connect, “I think the very first thing we have to have is an honest conversation with Australians about our vulnerabilities and our lack of resilience.

“We need the Government to have a mature conversation with us. Perhaps they could say that we are facing some complex risks and that our economy will probably stagnate, at best. We have a deteriorating security situation in the region. We need to discuss what realistic options exist to address these risks and to improve our resilience to future shocks.”

Blackburn added, “We can keep promising jobs and growth, but that’s just slogan. We will have to make some hard decisions in the next decade and as previous generations had to when faced with similar situations. The hard economic decisions taken by the Hawke, Keating and Howard Governments positioned us to be able to withstand the GFC. We do not have the same economic strength today to deal with the challenges we now face, from bushfires, to floods to a pandemic, and we do not appear to have the political will to proactively address them.

“Australia’s geographic position and the continent itself present Australian policymakers with a unique and complex series of challenges – ranging from cyclical droughts, monsoonal rains and ravaging bushfires, the geographic isolation “tyranny of distance” being replaced with a “predicament of proximity”.

Equally important factors that traditionally fall under the national security category but would be equally at home in the resilience category are factors like energy, water and resource security, infrastructure and industry development, diversity and economic diversity, competitiveness and traditional hard power concepts like defence and intelligence all serve as essential components for a nation’s resilience.

Australia has recently undergone a period of modernisation and expansion within its national security apparatus, from new white papers in Defence and Foreign Affairs through to well-articulated and resourced defence industrial capability plans, export strategies and the like in an attempt to position Australia well within the rapidly evolving geostrategic and political order of the Indo-Pacific.

Each of the strategies in and of themselves serve critical and essential roles within the broader national security and national resilience debate.

Additionally, the formation of organisations like the National Resilience Taskforce, state-based Energy Security Taskforces, and supporting organisations like Infrastructure Australia and broader government departments all serve to provide an intricate yet competing tapestry muddying the water and decision-making process for political and strategic leaders.

Each of these organs and constituencies in the form of state and territory governments have their own individual agendas and lobby accordingly for Commonwealth support and assistance, further complicating a national response, hindering both national security and national resilience in an age of traditional and asymmetric disruption.

Blackburn explained the importance of a cohesive, integrated response to national resilience and by extension, national security, “Our Government departments are doing great work in their respective fields; organisations like the CSIRO are doing great work in terms of hydrogen and energy security, but the problem is each of these entities is largely siloed.”

“We should expect that there is a co-ordinating authority within the government system which can support the development and implementation of a national resilience policy framework. Unfortunately, that is not the case and we are seeing the results of that today; we need a co-ordinated, integrated response,” Blackburn explained to Defence Connect.

The individual nature of the aforementioned respective strategies, combined with the competing interests of the respective portfolios and departments are further exacerbated by a lack of cohesive, co-ordinating authority managing the direction of the broader national interest and implementation of a resulting strategy.

It is important to recognise that this realisation does diminish the good work done by the respective ministers, assistant ministers and opposition representatives.

But recognising the limitations of siloed approaches to the increasingly holistic nature of national security in the 21st century requires a co-ordinated, cohesive effort to combine all facets of contemporary national security and national resilience policies respectively – into a single, cohesive strategy. 

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