The 30 March 2023 Sir Richard Williams Foundation Seminar Report

By Robbin Laird

The latest Williams Foundation Seminar was held on March 30, 2023 in Canberra.

It was entitled “Sharpening the Edge of Australia’s National Deterrence Capability” and focused on the strategic transition of Australia and the ADF in meeting the challenges of the decade ahead.

The Chairman of The Sir Richard Williams Foundation, Air Marshal Geoff Brown (Rtd.) provided his assessment and a look ahead for the next seminar to be held in September 2023. Brown felt that the seminar provided perspective on where Australia stood as it addressed its way ahead in the new situation. There was confidence in the force in being, but clear recognition of the need to craft adaptations in the years ahead.

This seminar provided a sense of the transition point; the next one will focus on some of the key challenges or problems which need to be addressed moving forward.

One key element of the seminar was highlighting progress in coalition cooperation in the Pacific. Brown noted that the current PACAF, General Wilsbach, has made a strong working commitment with Australia and this has been reflected in “how close that relationship has become in the wake of the common F-35 acquisition.” The presentation by Air Marshal Chipman reinforced this key point of a deepening of a collaborative working relationship.

Brown noted that when Australia engaged in developing the Wedgetail, both the UK and the U.S. hosted RAAF crews to become familiar with air battle management on the AWACS. Now with Australia seeing the U.S. and the UK adopting the E-7, “we are paying back a debt.”

VADM Mead highlighted the nature of the nuclear submarine enterprise, and identified how an established capability, the Virginia Class submarine, was coming to Australia sooner rather than later and was another example of coalition cooperation in the Pacific.

Brown underscored that strengthened coalition cooperation was a key part of deterrence. “Our ability to work together and the systems work we have been doing certainly adds complications to any Chinese calculations about conflict and its outcomes.”

Brown then highlighted the presentation by Secretary Pezzullo. In Brown’s perspective what Pezzullo conveyed was the importance of investing in Australia’s deterrent capabilities now rather than risking a major conflict where the costs would be significantly higher. The old expression, “penny wise and pound foolish” comes to mind as a warning about the importance of having a more resilient Australia with greater deterrence impact versus a less focused Australian effort.

The seminar extensively discussed the need to build a different kind of defence industrial capability to support Australia and the allies. The gutting out of industry in Australia, or the West more generally in favor of a globalization transfer of industry to China has left us very vulnerable. Brown argued: “We need in shore production; we need to consider paying a premium in order to have the industrial capability we need in case of a crisis. Globalization only works if a rules-based order is respected; China isn’t thus changing the nature of the challenge.”

Looking forward to the next seminar, Brown characterized the way ahead as follows: “We dealt with the big picture in this seminar. We will address specific national challenges we need to meet and how we might do so. It is very difficult for Western countries to maintain focus. We need to identify those strands of capability we need to commit to and support consistently in the years ahead.”

The seminar report can be downloaded below:

30 March 2023 Seminar