RUSI Keynote Address

24 Apr 2023

Distinguished guests, Ladies, Gentlemen and members of the Royal United Services Institute, it is an honour to have been invited to deliver the key note address here today. I would like to thank Mr Paul O’Neil and RUSI for the invitation, and I am humbled by the presence of such a distinguished audience. I sincerely hope I do not let you down…

Today we address the contribution of maritime forces to conventional deterrence in Europe. There could scarcely be a more appropriate time to address this topic.

Today I will reflect on conventional deterrence in the maritime domain from a contemporary Australian – Indo-Pacific perspective.

As an Australian from the ‘far side of the world’, our island nation faces a different context to western Europe, but we are all united by shared concerns about increasing militarisation across the globe, and we are equally determined to deter acts of aggression against our interests – especially in the maritime domain.

I will frame my remarks through the triarchy of Diplomacy, Deterrence and Defence, but I will focuss on Deterrence. I will invoke the European theatre on occasion, because what happens here, reverberates across the oceans to all corners of the globe.

But I will focus my remarks on the Australian experience, for I submit to you that the success or otherwise of Deterrence efforts in the Indo Pacific in the next decade will reverberate across the globe and may ultimately determine the future for all of us.

And I will, of course, also discuss the context around our Defence Strategic Review – the results of which were unveiled on Monday.

But let’s start with Ukraine and the Rules Based Order.

In 2022 Diplomatic efforts to stave off an invasion failed, and in 2023 Deterrence and Defence have again become a global concern. The tenor and vibrancy of conversations around defence planning today indicates increasing determination to get Diplomacy and Deterrence right, to delay or prevent a need to focus on Defending our nations with force. I submit that this stems from increased pressure on the rules-based order – the array of rules, treaties, norms and conventions that has underpinned security, prosperity and defence planning for decades.

The catalyst for these concerns can be debated, but, Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, and their wanton disregard for civilian casualties and the laws of armed conflict, has reminded us that peaceful coexistence of nations is dependent on adherence by ALL nations to a set of rules, norms and principles that bestow equal rights to ALL nations, rather than only to large and powerful nations.

And when powerful nations choose to ignore these rules, disregard diplomatic overtures, and seek to advance their interests by force, it is necessary to acknowledge the limits of Diplomacy and to review options to ensure national interests are upheld. After all, that which is both a Vital Interest AND cannot be assumed, must be assured.

Absent the assumption of universal adherence to a rules-based order – which has arguably underpinned peace, security and prosperity since World War II – nations who can afford the investment look to means to assure their security.

It is this context that has driven our Government’s Defence Strategic Review. So let us explore this inflection point through the lens of Australian and the rules based order.

Australia and the Rules Based Order

Australia is a three-ocean nation whose prosperity is derived from the sea lanes and data cables under the sea which criss-cross the globe and connect our island to the modern world. Our 1.5 trillion dollar annual economy comprises roughly 900 billion dollars in imports and exports, and the large majority of the remainder is dependent on the high data rate sea bed data transfer and communications cables that connect us to the global financial system.

We live in an interconnected maritime region that is being reshaped, and our strategic environment is becoming more challenging.

In short, it is becoming more dangerous and volatile.

The Indo Pacific is now home to the largest military build up anywhere in the world in the last 70 years.

And while we do not question the right to invest in and develop defence capabilities. We submit such development must be done transparently, and with strategic reassurance, to allay concerns and suspicion fuelled by misunderstandings of intent.

Australia desires a region characterised by a strategic balance. A region where major powers contribute to economic prosperity and underpin regional security, and where international law and the sovereignty of all states – big and small – are respected.

It is now the Australian government’s view that enhancing our own defence capabilities will be essential for reducing the likelihood of conflict in our region.

And as a three-ocean nation dependent on seaborne international maritime trade, cutting edge naval capabilities are now particularly important for Australia.

Patrolling this vital terrain and maintaining watch over the modern data highways powering our nation is a key mission for our Australian Defence Force – especially our Navy.

We are a peaceful middle power, and we seek to avoid conflict through Diplomacy be enhancing our effective partnerships with our neighbours and friends.

But we also seek to deter conflict by investing in capabilities that might deny nations efforts to impose their will against our interests by force, by imposing the prospect that such action would result in costs disproportionate to any possible gain. So, our approach to Deterrence involves much more than just military capability.

Today, more than at any point in my career to date, the Navy is an integrated part of a whole of government approach to protecting Australia’s interests, along with those of our allies and partners.

Deterrence is achieved by the Australian Defence Force through employment of credible military power, but also through supporting proficient statecraft and diplomacy. After all, we are all more powerful together, as likeminded partners and friends, than we are as individual nations.

This approach reflects the reality that a nation’s security, and its ability to contribute to a peaceful and prosperous region, requires government to effectively harness all elements of national power, and that Defence strategy must be nested within this grand strategy. It is this context that has driven our Nation to focus on developing a National Defence Strategy in the coming year, rather than relying on occasional White papers to describe our region and frame our defence planning. And I contend that this strategy must successfully grapple with the erosion of sanctuary formerly provided by geographic isolation.

A few words on Australia, the Tyranny of Distance, and the implication for the Royal Australian Navy

Both the tyranny of distance, and protections offered by distance, have been central to defence policy decisions in Australia since federation. However, with technological advances and our reliance on our connection to the international community, distance no longer provides the protection it once did. Australian historian TB Millar observed that:

“Australia is a Paradox: the geography which make it difficult to invade and conquer Australia, also make 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.”

Indeed, in the Intercontinental Ballistic and Cruise missile age, the concept of range is changing, and missile defence – and offence – is now a vital capability. Globalisation and the development of long-range conventional missiles means that the sanctuary provided by geographic isolation has been eroded – for Australia and for the rest of the world.

It is in this context that using a simple framework of Diplomacy, Deterrence and Defence in discussing Australia’s Naval Power allows our people to understand how their actions contribute to the national interest.

Firstly; Diplomacy in the maritime context. The employment of a country’s Naval forces is a visible expression of our government interests, priorities and our national identity. We see this today in the operational cycle of our Fleet which is deliberately crafted to reflect government priorities and to project our national identity and values into the region. We operate a relatively small navy, and where and when we deploy our ships is a conscious choice driven by how impactful that projection of capability will be assessed through a national interest lens.

Today, there is an expectation that the Australian Navy is constantly present in regions of strategic interest to Australia and that we are focused on enhancing international relationships and progressing national interests.

This expectation leverages a key Naval strength. Our ships are effectively floating embassies. Our ships and our people are present where our national interests are most acutely engaged. We support our embassies and high commissions – on and from the sea - across the Indo Pacific, working to deepen our regional partnerships and to promote appreciation for and adherence to the rules-based order.

In this context the surface combatants of our Navy continue to be a vital, visible expression of our national interests. We need them, but we need them to be capable of long-range operations across our region, and we need them capable of impactful power projection- for Diplomacy, Deterrence and Defence missions. The Defence Strategic review has recommended a complete review of the size and lethality of the Navy’s surface force – a review which has already commenced, and which will report to government by the end of September.

But Australia’s Submarine forces, on the other hand, are ill suited to diplomacy roles. They fulfil a different function. They are the centrepiece of our Deterrence strategy and an essential capability for defending our nation from threats on and under the seas.

Deterrence. Credible naval power – wielded wisely, integrated with all other elements of national power, interoperable and visibly partnering with likeminded nations – illuminates the risks of conflict in the minds of those who would consider using force at or from the sea to achieve their aims. For an island, trading nation, much like the United Kingdom, submarines are an essential cornerstone of deterrence.

Their very strength – stealth – limits their utility in a diplomatic role but enhances their effectiveness as a deterrence capability. A nuclear propelled submarine adds the advantages of speed, reach and unlimited endurance. Add to this a lethal array of torpedos ad missiles and you realise the potential to strike at sea and land targets with little to no warning, across the entire maritime domain. These unique attributes make them a powerful deterrent to states that might consider using force at sea to compel our island nation to act against our interests. This ‘potential lethality’ is difficult, and very expensive, to counter, and ultimately act to raise a difficult question mark in the minds of those who might mean us harm. And if Deterrence fails?

Well, I think we should all shudder to think about what a capable nuclear submarine force could do to opposing maritime forces, or to an opponent’s maritime trade.

A couple of words on National Defence

But what is National Defence? The Ukraine experience is instructive. National Defence has phases. Phase One being surviving and not losing. National Defence is about survival first, victory second, and then acceptance of a new normal at some point in the future.

When Diplomacy and Deterrence fail to discourage an adversary from using force to further their aims, conversations between governments turn violent. That violence continues until one side loses the economic means, the resources, or the will to fight.

Through this lens the realities of Australia’s economic dependency on the maritime domain and the challenges it poses for our capable but modest Navy, now come sharply into focus and, I expect, will be a key focus of our new National Defence Strategy.

Australia’s prosperity, following in the great British tradition, is reliant on free access to the maritime domain. Universal, or near universal acceptance of and adherence to the array of treaties, laws and norms that makes up the Rules Based Order has since World War II assured that maritime nations like ours have equal and unfettered access to the sea lanes and maritime commons upon which global prosperity depends.

But in a contested environment, this freedom of access – and the security and economic wellbeing of law-abiding maritime nations - is increasingly uncertain. In this context – and in the foundational spirit of RUSI I will invoke historical perspective to look for some guidance.

Writing in 1948, official WWI correspondent C.E.W. Bean, reflected on the historical abnormality that until 1914:

”…British command of the sea had given us in Australia 126 years of [peace and] freedom without fighting for it…”

We took the deterrence and protection provided by the Royal Navy for granted.

Despite the advocacy of the first professional head of my Navy, Vice Admiral William Creswell, for a more capable Australian Navy, and the RAN’s obvious utility during the First World War; Australia was to become more dependent on the Royal Navy to deter aggression between wars, and at the commencement of the Second World War it was smaller than it had been at the outset of the First.

The Royal Australian Navy’s high rate of losses – including seven of the pre-war strength of only thirteen warships by 1942 – then punctuated by the sinking of the Royal Navy’s mighty HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse of Force Z off Singapore in December 1941, highlighted the inadequate size and strength of our Navy, and the failure of our strategy of reliance on a great and powerful benefactor to deter aggression and military adventurism.

Yet since 1942, through the Cold War and its aftermath, we have relied on the might of the United States Navy to underwrite the Rules Based Order as guarantor of our free access to the sea. And like the Royal Navy of the 1930s and 40s, it is not as large as it used to be, it is pulled in many directions, and it cannot be everywhere, all the time.

These lessons of history resonate as we again seek to meaningfully contribute to the peace and prosperity of our region as a trusted and capable partner. And it is this context that underpins Australia’s pursuit of a more lethal submarine capability and an integrated Defence Force designed for impactful power projection, whose future structure has been illuminated by the Defence Strategic Review – the results of which constitute an inflection point for my Navy.

The AUKUS agreement which first flagged the intention to replace our Collins class diesel electric submarine with nuclear propulsion – I stress, not nuclear armed; the recently released optimal pathway to introduce that capability to the Australian Navy; and the Defence Strategic Review are all reactions to a world which has changed markedly in the last three years.

One of the fundamentals of military planning is understanding changes with respect to their impact on critical vulnerabilities, and I think that in Australia, like many other countries, the obstruction of the Suez Canal by the EVER GIVEN, the impact of COVID 19 on global supply chains, and the impact of the Ukraine Invasion have heightened public awareness of our economic dependencies and increasingly influence public conversations.

The decisions announced this week by the Australian Government reflect the rapidly changing regional strategic circumstances in which Australia finds ourselves. These circumstances demand that Australia be able to generate national power capable of deterring coercion or violence against our vital national interests, and capable of defending them should deterrence fail.

The risks that this entails are very real and sharpen our focus. I am particularly conscious that it is our sailors and officers who find themselves at the forefront of tactical interactions in the South China Sea tied to strategic discussions between nations.

Since World War 2 the might of the US Navy and adherence by most nations to the Rules Based Order has enabled development of an interconnected world, fuelled by sea trade, and animated by the data transmitted via undersea cables. This rules-based order developed slowly and ultimately allowed hundreds of millions of people be lifted from poverty in recent decades. To paraphrase my good friend Amiral Pierre Vandier – ‘while peace has encouraged a degree of disarmament, disarmament has not assured ongoing peace…’

So, the decades of peace wherein Australia could largely rely on the strength of a single, friendly, great power to safeguard the Rules Based Order has been replaced by competition between major powers, with the associated risk that the interests of other nations may be determined by their position on the hierarchy of power rather than their rights recognised under law.

But today, we are more dependent than ever on maritime trade and therefore on the stability afforded by adherence to the rules-based order. The bulk of imports and exports arrive in Australia by sea. The bulk of the data which enables our connection to the international economy travels by seabed cables.

These supply routes, the cables and infrastructure under the sea is therefore our vital terrain. As such, we seek the continued freedom of the sea so that Australia, and all maritime nations, may prosper and be secure.

But we are not alone in our dependence on the sea. Most Indo-Pacific nations are maritime nations. To paraphrase our Foreign Minister, Senator the Honourable Penny Wong, Indo-Pacific nations share a responsibility to maintain peace through Diplomacy, we also have a responsibility to play our part in collective Deterrence of aggression.

Australia’s National Defence approach, seeks to effectively employ all elements of national power – military, diplomatic, economic and strategic – integrated and focussed on imposing an unacceptable cost on military adventurism against our national interests.

One of my predecessors Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, captured this nicely:

Fear of the consequences of that Naval power is what deters armed adventurism. Our ability to deploy decisive lethality to sanction anyone who might wish to use armed force against our nation and its interests deters conflict and contributes to maintenance of peace and security around the world.

So having established the maritime context within which Australia thrives I will finish by summarising the Defence Strategic Review findings with respect to what Australia will do to enhance our Diplomacy, Deterrence and Defence capability.

My government has directed that Defence must have the capacity to:

Defend Australia and our Immediate region.

Deter through denial any adversary’s attempt to project power against Australia through our northern approaches.

Protect Australia’s economic connection to our region and the world.

Contribute with our partners to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific; and

Contribute with our partners to the maintenance of the global rules-based order.

To maximise the deterrence, denial and response options for the government, the Australian Defence Force must harness effects across maritime, land, air, space and cyber.

Our Navy must have enhanced lethality including through its surface fleet and conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines underpinned by a continuous naval shipbuilding program.

Our Army must be optimised for littoral operations in our northern approaches and continue to provide long range strike capability.

Our Air Force must provide the air support for joint operations in our north by conducting surveillance, air defence, strike, and air transport.

We must also continue to develop our cyber and space capabilities.

A National Defence Strategy is to be delivered in 2024 and produced every two years – taking account of the increasing speed of change in our region.

The Government’s priorities for immediate action are:

One, Investing in conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS partnership;

Two, Developing the ADF’s ability to precisely strike targets at longer range, and manufacture munitions in Australia;

Three, Improving the ADF’s ability to operate form Australia’s northern bases;

Four, Lifting our capacity to rapidly translate disruptive new technologies into ADF capability, in close partnership with Australian Industry;

Five, Investing in the growth and retention of a highly skilled Defence workforce; and

Six, Deepening our diplomatic and defence partnerships with key partners in the Indo Pacific.

In sum, the Australian Defence team will be refocussed on a strategy of deterring an adversary from projecting power through Australia’s northern approaches and we are investing in capabilities to hold an adversary at risk at greater ranges from Australia.

Investments in the maritime domain include upgrading the existing and future surface combatants with long range guided weapons such as Naval Strike Missiles, Standard Missile 6 and Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles.

Additional investments are also being made in sea mines, unmanned air, surface and underwater systems – which will act as force multipliers complementing our crewed systems.

And while the nuclear powered submarine program will be a centrepiece of Defence planning from this point forward, we will conduct an independent review to determine the optimal and complimentary force mix for our surface navy to inform developments of the next generation Fleet.

Australia’s intent to transition our Submarine Force to Nuclear Powered platform is a clear expression that our Government must have the ability to create hesitation in the mind of those who would consider initiating conflict with Australia.

It is presenting a strong deterrent to unilateral alteration of the status quo. It contributes to Australia’s ability to be a trusted and capable partner to our friends and allies. Ultimately, it means for all our friends and partners that we are stronger together.

The Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has captured the calculus of diplomacy and deterrence eloquently only this month:

“We must ensure that no state will ever concludes that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks. This is fundamental to assuring the safety and security of our nation and our people. Our foreign and defence policies are two essential and interdependent parts of how we make Australia stronger and more influential in the world. Together, they make it harder for states to coerce other states against their interests through force or the threatened use of force”.

In Conclusion.

The oceans we rely upon are vast, and only nuclear powered submarines are near invisible and endurance to appear almost anywhere in the battlespace. It is the right investment or our next generation submarine capability. Whilst I acknowledge that nuclear powered Submarines alone do not represent the totality of a nations Naval Power, and are not the solution to every challenge facing our national security, nuclear powered Submarines are nevertheless an important capability that our nation is acquiring to work with our allies and partners in deterring potential adversaries in our region and protecting all of our national interests. As history demonstrates time and time again, weakness invites armed adventurism, not the reverse.

Our history of owning and operating submarines has taught us that it is a national endeavour; and that success only comes when Government, Industry, Education, Infrastructure, Allies and Navy are all working together. This was the case with the Oberon class boats; it was and is, with the Collins era, where we built, and have continually optimised, a sovereign capability through our industry partnerships, our people and our allies.

The introduction of a next generation nuclear powered submarine capability, and enhanced strike capability in the guise of Tomahawk and Naval Strike Missile for our Navy mark intent to shift away from a balanced ADF structure towards a much more focussed design to impose an unacceptable cost on a potential adversaries’ aggression or to deter them from unilateral alteration of the status quo.

National defence is not, and cannot simply be a military endeavour. Proficient statecraft and diplomacy to build relationships and partnerships across the Indo Pacific and beyond, working with economic, strategic and military domains under national leadership is key to deterring violence.

Australia’s reliance on the oceans to connect us to the world has always meant that the Australian Navy and our people are active across our region, and indeed across the globe, for over a hundred years.

Today, this role as active diplomats remains core business to our Defence Force, and is in the DNA of our Navy and our Officers and Sailors.

However, that is not the role of our submarine force.

The recent Defence Strategic Review has reinforced that there is an inextricable link between the security of our seas and the prosperity of our nation.

For Australia, we face the unavoidable reality that a nation dependent on the sea and seabed for its economic wellbeing must be capable of defeating threats on, over and under the sea.

Having said that, we ‘all in’ on a strategy of Diplomacy and deterrence because, to quote Professor Sarah Paine of the US War College:

“There is only one win-win solution. It is to share the oceans, trade in peace, and continue to hash out universal rules that we can all live by.”

So, Ladies and gentlemen thank you for your attention, thank you for your service to your nation and for your contributions to our collective security, and thank you to RUSI for this humbling opportunity to address to you today.