IP23 Sea Power Conference, Senior Leaders View from the Top

07 Nov 2023

Today I will discuss the context for Australia and the challenges and opportunities ahead for a sea power. I recognise I am amongst an informed audience, so my aim is to provide the Australian perspective, acknowledging that there are many other voices and ideas perspectives in the room.

We all caught a glimpse of the glittering blue waters of Sydney Harbour when we arrived here today. We have also heard about the spirit of sea rights. That, with Australian’s love of sand, surf and swimming and the fact we are an island nation would lead many to presume Australia’s abiding identity is a maritime one. Particularly, noting that more than 85% of Australians live within 50 kilometres of our coasts. But, alas Australia has no Trafalgar. No Jutland. No Battle of Midway that evokes imagery of a nation whose fate is tied to and determined at sea. Historically, our maritime dependency has been largely ignored and our maritime security during crisis has been assured by others. Despite the fact our links to the ocean have connected Australia to the world for thousands of years.

Australian military historian Peter Edwards noted that the image of our Navy to many Australians is either of our ships and sailors serving far from our shores under the overall command of a more powerful ally, such as during both World Wars. Through disasters and tragedies, such as the HMAS Voyager collision with Melbourne, HMAS Hobart being hit by friendly forces in Vietnam and the fire aboard Westralia. Or finally, through our counter drug, counter piracy or border protection operations. Yet, Australian sailors fought valiantly in all our major wars. From Gallipoli – where a small Australian submarine made history, to Vietnam, Korea, across the Atlantic, the Pacific campaign, in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea – in all these places our Navy sailors gallantly represented our nation. And in all those places many remain on eternal patrol. I am proud to lead a Navy that has contributed so much to global and regional peace and security.

But challenges to peace and security abound today. Not just for Australia, but for all states, big and small, who value equality, sovereign rights and lawfully determined international order. It is order sustains us. It is the bulwark against regional instability and it safeguards prosperity for all. While the impact of sea power may not have been historically well understood in Australia, now, there is increased government and public awareness of three emerging challenges: the modernisation and expansion of maritime forces in our backyard, the erosion of respect for international law and the realisation of our maritime trade vulnerabilities.

Firstly - let’s be frank. Within our region sovereign rights of coastal states to unilaterally exploit their natural resources in their exclusive economic zones is being challenged. The Indo Pacific region is home to more than half of the world’s population, nearly two thirds of the world’s economy, eight of the top ten exclusive economic zone claimants and seven of the world’s largest militaries. Australia is the custodian of the third largest exclusive economic zone in the world. So, destabilising actions should, and do, concern us. I offer that it should concern all coastal states in the Indo Pacific.

Amongst my friends from Indo Pacific nations who join us here today – there are a myriad of causes for concern. Illegal and unregulated fishing, pollution, illegal exploitation of lawfully recognised resources, maritime crime and vulnerable maritime trade. Despite our differing priorities – we share the same concerns and want the same end state – a peaceful, prosperous and stable region for all. Guaranteed by adherence to international law.

Secondly, the Indo Pacific is also home to the biggest military modernisation and expansion in the last eighty years. The PLA Navy has more than doubled its fleet of principle combatants in a decade – a 100% increase in just ten years. In the same period Vietnam has established a submarine capability. Japan has grown to a force of 44 destroyers, 23 submarines. And our good friends from India have 68 warships currently under construction.

Finally, maritime trade vulnerabilities complicate these factors, as highlighted during COVID-19. Australia’s unique landscape highlights specific trade vulnerabilities. Including: our displacement from major shipping lanes, our reliance on over 90% of our consumables being imported and the lack of a manufacturing industry in Australia. Our connection to the world and financial markets is what sustains our imports and exports. Our links to markets race across the globe to us through undersea cables. The sea lanes and undersea cables are the arteries and veins that supply the heart of Australia; our livelihood. They are our economic connection to the world, and our vulnerability. We are no longer a nation that rides on the sheep’s back.

Former British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald put it well when he said:

“Our navy is the very life of our nation. We are a small island…We have to import our food. A month’s blockade, effectively carried out, would starve us all in the event of any conflict. Britain’s navy is Britain itself and the sea is our security and safety.”

Indeed, Australia, like Britain, derives our economic wellbeing and therefore our national security from the maritime domain. In this sense, Australia’s Navy is Australia itself.

Navies are on the frontline of the challenges in our times; these are sea-based challenges. While, much of the contest and competition plays out on the sea far away from home, it ripples back to shore and reverberates across all nations. Thus, a prepared Navy is required to assure a prosperous nation.

A particular challenge for Australia is that, at times, we have neglected our navy. Chief of Naval Staff Australia, Admiral Hamilton said in 1948:

“The Royal Australian Navy is comparatively weaker today than it was in 1914 or 1939. In 1914 the Battle Cruiser AUSTRALIA was a sufficient deterrent to divert Von Spee’s squadron to South America. In 1939 the RAN consisted of five fairly modern cruisers and some destroyers, this was a formidable force at this period. Unfortunately, as the war progressed into what has been termed the Air Age the RAN fell out of step with modern navies”.

Australia’s Defence Strategic Review has helped correct our course. It will guide us through the challenges of today, taking a considered, data-driven approach to what our Fleet and our Defence Force should look like. This will guarantee a constellation of credible, connected capabilities across an integrated Australian Defence Force. The inaugural National Defence Strategy for our national security will take a whole of government and whole of nation approach. What does this mean for how the Navy will navigate the challenges ahead? Simply, Navy’s role in defence of the nation will be articulated clearly, strategically, and in concert with other elements of national power. Credible, Australian naval power depends on it.

Australian naval power takes a graduated, tripartite approach through diplomacy, deterrence and defence. Firstly, we use diplomacy via our floating embassies to grow friendship, promote partnership and sustain membership to the idea of an ordered world, governed by law. A commissioned Australian warship is Australian territory. It is a floating embassy. And we support our Heads of Mission around the globe in advancing the national interest. Secondly, a strategy of deterrence aims to cultivate ambiguity in the mind of an adversary. It strives to cause an aggressor to delay or cease military action against us due to the potential cost. Finally, defence uses a strategy of denial, denying the adversary the ability to use the sea against us or to advance their own interests. In considering our preparedness, consider this:

“A wild boar was sharpening his tusks on a tree trunk one day. A fox asked him why he did this when there was neither huntsman nor danger threatening him. “I do so for a good reason,” he replied. “For if I am suddenly surprised by danger I wouldn’t have the time to sharpen my tusks. But now I will find them ready to do their duty”.

Similar to this tale from Aesop’s 6th Century work, Fables, a Navy must be ready today, it is not something that can be turned on when you need it. It is either there or it is not. So, we will be ready to do our duty tomorrow. Be in no doubt, Australia aims to promote prosperity and stability in our region through diplomacy and through deterrence. But, if our security cannot be assumed, then it must be assured through credible naval power. The diplomacy, deterrence and denial strategy of our Navy protects Australia’s vulnerabilities, all of which are girt by and bound to the sea.

And having said that - yes, there are challenges aplenty. But, every challenge, contains within it, the seeds of opportunity. Traditionally, naval supremacy and advantage on the seas was calculated by pure numbers; the hull to hull by gunnery and speed ratio. Or in modern parlance: hulls, missiles and hypersonics with a dash of various information effects.

Lucky for our small nation, this platform-centric approach is now in question in the digital age. Now, exquisite electronic networks mean a modest fleet of connected platforms, traditional and asymmetric, can add up to something more than the sum of its parts. Particularly, when we acknowledge the value of all voices by learning from and listening to our partners.

Here, the illegal and immoral Russian invasion of Ukraine provides a compelling example. Similar to Australia, maritime trade is critical to Ukraine’s survival. Ukraine is one of the worlds’ largest producers of grains and exports over 90% of it to Africa, the Middle East and Europe – via the sea. The Sea of Azov and Odesa in the Black Sea Region are blocked off, with maritime transport companies diverting and suspending almost all shipments to the area. Russian Federation Navy vessels have hit at least 10 commercial ships since the invasion. At least 90 have been trapped in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov for months on end. The economic ripples are a global concern.

I highlight this because Ukraine reminds us that the sea is a source that sustains coastal states. Our national security is often determined beyond the horizon, not on our shores. And it is here I think our lessons arrive. In our region, backing our neighbours, building partnership in the face of coercion and not giving in to illegal actions or illegitimate lawfare makes us stronger. Partnership makes us stronger. Partnership forged by the sea, by nature, transcends geography. These are partnerships of principles.

Like-minded partnership is why, in the last two years, an increasing number of European navies have been present in the region. France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, to name a few. Representatives from these countries are back in the region and they are with us here today. Many Indo Pacific nations hosted our European partners’ ships and crews. Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam are among them. Representatives from all of those countries also join us here today.

What do all these nations have in common with Australia and the Indo Pacific? Dislocated as we are from one another, in time and space? All our nations have shared interests. As coastal states, we understand that our prosperity, indeed our security, is determined by the seas that connect us. For, while Ukraine might seem far away to us here in the Pacific, and likewise, the Pacific may seem remote to Europeans; what happens on the sea reverberates globally. The sea connects us and it binds our fates.

These trends will continue to transcend geography due to shared interests and commitment to an ordered, lawful world. A world of adherence and assurance. Adherence to international law and assurance of sovereign rights for all states. Together we can assure a peaceful and prosperous region for all, regardless of the size of us individually. Whether your challenges are responding to coercion on the water, addressing illegal and unregulated fishing, engineering a solution for a design problem, conducting research to inform today’s issues or preventing exploitation of your legally recognised resources; here at this conference and in your partnership with Australia, your voice is valued. A key tenet of Australia’s national mindset is partnership – we will uphold our alliances and deepen our connections with our neighbours. For us, friendship is the fulcrum of a prosperous maritime future.

Thank you for allowing me to share my view from the top to kick off the conference. This will be a serious conference talking about maritime security matters because maritime security really does matter. Welcome to you all – we have much to discuss over the course of this week, including discussions with leaders in a variety of fields who operate at the maritime nexus. And I look forward to hearing your voice, to learning from you and to working with you to secure a free and open Indo Pacific.