Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles has prioritised the need to bridge the divide between the 2020 strategic update’s warning that Australia could face a major conflict within 10 years and current plans to strengthen the Australian Defence Force over several decades.
In his first speech in the United States since taking office, Marles said the fresh force posture review he’d commissioned was to be delivered early next year in tandem with the report of the nuclear-powered submarine taskforce to identify the optimal pathway to obtaining eight potent submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.
He told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that the two comprehensive reports would help determine how best to equip and structure the ADF and how to enable it to integrate and operate more closely with the US and other key partners.
Marles said the new government would make the investment necessary to increase the ADF’s range and lethality so that it could hold potential adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia. This would include longer-range strike weapons, cyber capabilities and area-denial systems tailored to a broader range of threats, including preventing coercive or grey-zone activities from escalating into conventional conflict.
‘We will invest in the logistics, sustainment and depth required for high-intensity warfighting, including guided munitions. This will in turn require deeper engagement with industry to accelerate capability development and strengthen our supply chains.’
He said his priority would be the ‘game-changing’ AUKUS trilateral partnership with the US and the UK that included delivery of the nuclear submarines. ‘For a three-ocean nation, the heart of deterrence is undersea capability,’ Marles said. ‘AUKUS will not only make Australia safer; it will make Australia a more potent and capable partner.’
In planning the submarine acquisition, the government was acutely aware of the obligations of nuclear stewardship, he said. ‘We are focused on the whole enterprise: safely stewarding sensitive technology, building the workforce and industrial capacity to support the capability, and ensuring this initiative sets the strongest possible non-proliferation standards.’
Noting that AUKUS was much more than just a capability program for the submarines, Marles said that good progress had been made on advanced capabilities under AUKUS and that he intended to keep that momentum going. The goal was to supplement and strengthen US industry and supply chains, not to compete with them.
‘A good example is Australia’s guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise. This project will not only build Australia’s guided weapons stores; it will establish a trusted second source of critical munitions supply to the US. But doing this efficiently and quickly will require the alliance to work across both government and industry. In tandem with other initiatives and other partners—such as our Loyal Wingman program, hypersonics cooperation, and through AUKUS—we have the ability to build a technological coalition that can maintain our competitive edge.’
Marles said that Australia’s inclusion in the US’s national technology and industrial base was a vital first step towards integration but implementing it would require change. He would propose measures both sides could adopt to streamline processes and overcome barriers to procurement, investment, information- and data-sharing systems, and export requirements. Integration could not come at the expense of robust security to protect sensitive information and technology.
In the years ahead, the US and Australia alliance would need to operate in a much more challenging strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific while contributing to a more effective balance of military power aimed at avoiding a catastrophic failure of deterrence, he said. ‘Events in Europe underline the risk we face when one country’s determined military build-up convinced its leader that the potential benefit of conflict was worth the risk.’
In addition to AUKUS, he said, Australia needed to continue the ambitious trajectory of its force posture cooperation, drawing on its strategic geography and industrial base to maximise deterrence and reduce the risk of conflict. That meant engaging in increasingly sophisticated exercises, bilaterally and with regional partners.
‘We will move beyond interoperability to interchangeability. And we will ensure we have all the enablers in place to operate seamlessly together, at speed.’
The US–Australia alliance was formed in the crucible of war, Marles said, but since the ANZUS Treaty was signed in 1951, the alliance had far surpassed its origins. Driven by the two nations’ geopolitical interests and by their profound commitment to democracy, open economies and free and just societies, it had become a cornerstone of Australia’s foreign and security policy.
Marles said he’d always felt that realists had never quite understood that the treaty was less a piece of paper than it was a network of people—politicians, policy officers, intelligence officials and soldiers: ‘Professionals who grow up working together, serve in each other’s institutions, deploy to combat zones, and come to each other’s aid. Professionals whose commitment to each other depend less on a treaty’s text than on a set of shared convictions.’
Australia and the US had to prepare for a tougher strategic environment with a military build-up occurring at a rate unseen since World War II, he said. That included the development and deployment of new weapons that challenged the nation’s military capability edge, the expansion of cyber and grey-zone capabilities that blurred the line between peace and conflict, and the intensification of major-power competition in ways that both concentrate and transcend geographical confines.
Marles said these trends compelled an even greater Australian focus on the Indo-Pacific. ‘For the first time in decades, we are thinking hard about the security of our strategic geography, the viability of our trade and supply routes, and above all the preservation of an inclusive regional order founded on rules agreed by all, not the coercive capabilities of a few. In particular, we worry about the use of force or coercion to advance territorial claims, as is occurring in the South China Sea, and its implications for any number of places in the Indo-Pacific where borders or sovereignty is disputed.’
Australia knew its security and prosperity could not be achieved through a geographical focus alone, Marles said. ‘Geography can’t deliver resilient supply chains or stop cyberattacks, it won’t halt deglobalisation and the worrying reversals of trade and investment liberalisation, and it can’t arrest the dangerous erosion of the global rules-based order,’ he said.
‘For all its imperfections—and the cynicism that often greets this phrase—this order was put in place after the world’s greatest calamity precisely so states would have a mechanism to resolve disputes via dialogue rather than conflict. That’s something that benefits us all, big states and small, and we accept its weakening at our own peril.’
Marles said it was clear that the threat of climate change was a national security issue and the new government would make dealing with it a pillar of the alliance. ‘It’s a threat from which no one and no country is immune. And it is a threat that demands action,’ he said.
‘When you stand on the shores of our Pacific neighbours, as I have, you understand the intense vulnerability felt by those living on small islands. The Pacific Islands Forum, of which Australia is a member, has been consistent in declaring climate change as the single greatest threat to livelihoods in our neighbourhood—it is an existential threat.
‘Given this reality, the Pacific is the part of the world where the US rightly looks to Australia to lead. And we will.’
Australia would not take that role for granted, he said. ‘Pacific island countries have choices about their partners. And we will work to earn their trust. The Pacific has been clear in saying that geopolitical competition is of lesser concern to them than the threat of rising sea levels, economic insecurity and transnational crime. Australia respects and understands this position. And we are listening. And while we will not ask our partners to pick a side, I am confident that an Australia which collaborates and invests in shared priorities with the Pacific is an Australia which will be the natural partner of choice for the Pacific.’
Marles said the global nature of security explained why Australia was standing with Europe at this crucial time. ‘Russia’s war against Ukraine is not just a brutal attempt to subjugate a sovereign state. It’s a calculated application of violence, intended to roll back the post-Soviet order from one founded on sovereignty and self-determination to one governed by the rule of might and force. Where only great powers are truly sovereign and where the choice of smaller states is to be either a vassal or an enemy. This can’t be allowed to succeed. Only by ensuring such tactics fail can we deter their future employment, in Europe, the Indo-Pacific or elsewhere.’
That was why Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Kyiv this month to honour the extraordinary valour of the Ukrainian people and to nail Australia’s flag to a European and global order of sovereign states and free peoples, he said. ‘In this I want to commend the leadership of President [Joe] Biden. Once again, the United States is proving the pivotal power.’
Marles said critics of alliances needed to answer why countries like Australia would be better served going it alone. The alliance with the US afforded Australia capability, technology and intelligence advantages it could not acquire or develop on its own, he said.
‘I want to acknowledge the comments of my counterpart, [US Defense] Secretary Lloyd Austin, who has underlined that it’s not just the fact of our alliances that gives us an advantage; it’s our ability to operationalise them in ways that transcend sovereign boundaries that’s truly unique. In a more contested world, those countries that are able to pool their resources and combine their strengths will not only have a competitive advantage; they will be less vulnerable to coercive statecraft.’
Brendan Nicholson is executive editor of The Strategist.
This article was published by ASPI on July 13, 2022.