Australian Command and Staff Course Address

22 Feb 2024


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure to be here for this event. I would like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people on whose traditional lands we meet today. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

It is also appropriate to acknowledge the 19 ships and 1,234 Australians who are at sea today. Alongside them, I know there are soldiers and aviators also deployed across the world. All of our service members working hard with friends and allies, to sustain the peace upon which our prosperity depends.

I acknowledge that I am speaking to an educated audience today; all of you are knowledgeable in your fields and invested in the future of your country and your service. Therefore, I look forward to the Q&A component of the presentation, where I am open to a question on any topic. I would also like to use this address as an opportunity to discuss the outcomes of the Surface Fleet Review which was announced earlier this week, what it means for our Navy and our international partners and friends. But first, I think it is important to set the scene on what led us to here.

What is a Navy for?

So, let me start by asking a question for you to think about, while I try to answer it myself. In our era, what is a Navy for?

Land combat has been written about for millennia; naval strategy has had far less writers and experienced less popularity until Alfred Thayer Mahan starting writing in the late 19th century. Even then, Mahan was heavily criticised by his superiors for putting pen to paper. Mahan is normally remembered for his pronouncements on the employment of naval forces in decisive sea battle. More importantly to us today though, he recognised the impact of maritime trade on national power. Mahan argued that the generation of national wealth is through sea commerce. He stated that, “the necessity of a navy…springs therefore from the existence of peaceful shipping, and disappears with it.”

What does Mahan mean by this? Maritime trade stimulates prosperity in national economies, but a nation’s reliance on shipping presents a critical vulnerability that can be exploited. Therefore, peaceful shipping, and accordingly prosperity, cannot be assumed, it must be assured. Navies are this assurance. Free and open access to the sea has been assumed under the Rules Based Global Order that has enabled our mutual prosperity since WWII. However, this order is now under challenge, across multiple theatres.

Mahan’s prescience on what he described as, “deranging the enemy economy”, also known as commerce raiding, has been used countless times in history. From the Anglo-Dutch Wars in the 17th Century, to the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and the two World Wars, commerce raiding has featured as an effective tool of warfare to shrink an adversary’s national power by crippling national economies.

One example from recent history is during the World War II Pacific Campaign, the U.S. Navy’s submarine force annihilated Japan’s merchant marine, depriving the country of oil and reducing the population to starvation. This deprived Japan of the critical resources it needed to continue the war against the United States.

The conflicts of today remind us once again that maritime trade is a prime target for states and actors to flagrantly disregard international law. Ukrainian shipping in the Black Sea has suffered immeasurably, leading to a humanitarian crisis in 2023. The Houthi attacks on Allied shipping are ongoing in the Red Sea, driving up prices of marine insurance and from that, the commodities we use every day.

Mahan’s observation that attacks on maritime trade derange economies was indeed astute. The Ukraine conflict gives us more lessons. It has reiterated the importance of logistics, the criticality of rapid learning, the necessity to embrace and integrate new technology, and the value of partnerships.

In a world where more than 71% of the earth’s surface is covered in water and most goods are carried by the sea, securing shipping lanes and protecting maritime trade is a herculean task. No single nation can protect their interests alone, which is why universal adherence to the Rules Based Order has been so effective. Therefore, I submit that we derive our economic wellbeing, and indeed our national security, from the sea. Navies provide the assurance for prosperity. That is what navies are for.

Australia’s Unique Position

So what of Australia’s situation specifically? In just a few years, COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and the grounding of Ever Given, which forced the closure of the Suez Canal in March 2021, has sharpened community focus on how connected Australia is to global supply chains, and how vulnerable Australia could be to their disruption, or as Mahan put it, “derangement”. Our national wellbeing – our economic prosperity is fundamentally dependent on guaranteed access to the maritime commons.

Australia is a maritime nation, girt by three seas and entirely reliant on the sea for our prosperity. Australia’s connection to the world is through the global trading system: seabed cables and maritime commerce are the arteries and veins that supply the system. When we talk about the importance of economic prosperity, we are talking about Australian people’s lives and livelihoods. So much of our everyday lives arrive via the sea: our cars, their parts, the fuel that runs them, the electronics goods fundamental to our modern lives, the textiles which clothe us, the food on our tables, the diesel which fuels the vehicles required for agriculture and even the road transport which moves food to the supermarkets, arrives in Australia via the sea.

This reliance on sea trade and our geography makes a paradox of Australian Defence. To paraphrase Historian TB Millar:

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

The reality of Australia’s tyranny of distance has been exacerbated by the deteriorated strategic environment in our backyard, the Indo Pacific.

Indo Pacific Strategic Environment

These challenges are not just Australian challenges, but challenges for all states, big and small, who value equality, sovereign rights and lawfully determined international order. Order sustains us. It is the bulwark against regional instability and safeguards prosperity. However, let us be frank. Within our region the sovereign rights of coastal states to unilaterally exploit their natural resources in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) is being unlawfully challenged.

The Indo Pacific is home to more than half of the world’s population, nearly two thirds of the world’s economy, eight of the top ten EEZ claimants and seven of the world’s largest militaries. So, destabilising actions should, and does, concern us. It should concern all coastal states.

The Indo Pacific is also home to the biggest military modernisation and expansion in the last eighty years. China’s defence budget eclipses the next 17 highest spending countries in the Indo Pacific, combined. The PLA Navy has more than doubled its fleet of principle combatants in a decade. They have commissioned an average of 7.2 corvettes per year for the last decade. Similarly, Japan’s principle combatant fleet has increased by 43% over the last decade, they now operate 42 destroyers. India’s principle combatant fleet has increased by 16% in the last decade. Their destroyer fleet has increased by 50%. Conversely, Australia’s principle combatant fleet declined by over 9% in the same time period. Our frigate fleet has declined by 42% over the last decade. These factors have complicated our Navy’s ability to rise to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Defence Strategic Review

Thankfully, Australia’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR) has helped correct our course, to guide us through the challenges of today and meet those of tomorrow. The Defence Strategic Review uses the words ‘navy’ or ‘naval’ 41 times. This compares to 18 references of ‘army’ and 13 references to ‘air force’ or ‘aviation’. Not because Navy is more important. Our Defence force will integrate across services, we must to be effective.

But rather, because the maritime domain is the nexus of contest, competition and conflict in our era defined by dwindling resources and degraded international order. Our Fleet, and all the rates and workgroups that animate it, are at the vanguard of the challenges in our era. But, we must remember that fleets are representations of a nation. They are human and steel works of national art – for the national interest. They should be designed and crafted against our own strategic requirements. Fleets should not be reproductions. We do not build them in the image of others. We must, and we will, create our own Navy, for our own context.

Surface Fleet Review

The announcement on the changes to our surface Fleet earlier this week articulate this strategic focus clearly. The DSR identified that a review into our Navy’s surface fleet was required. An independent review that could analyse what our Fleet should look like to meet the tasks set to us by Government. An Independent Analysis Team conducted the review and provided recommendations to government. The announcement earlier this week is the government’s response. For those who have not heard, the announcement constitutes the most consequential investment in our surface Fleet in generations.

Our Fleet will be optimised in size, lethality and overall capability. This will mean 26 surface combatants for Navy comprised of 6 Hunter Class frigates, 3 Hobart Class destroyers, 11 General Purpose Frigates and 6 Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels. This is an additional $1.7 billion investment over the Forward Estimates and $11.1 billion over the next decade in Navy’s Fleet and Australia’s shipbuilding industry.

Our Navy will shift from having a balanced fleet, to a focussed one. We are not a large country by population. We must prioritise and focus on what government requires of us. In his capacity as Defence Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles highlighted the challenges inherent in achieving those objectives:

“Australia’s defence capabilities cannot match those of major powers. Australian statecraft is only viable if it is underpinned by the ability to project force and power: to deter military threats, and defend Australia’s national interests within our immediate region”.

Fundamentally, Australia is a small country. We have a small military. We cannot afford to chase every desirable capability. Every dollar must generate the maximum possible military power. The announced changes to our surface fleet follows the consequential changes to our submarine fleet, through the nuclear powered submarine announcement, and our Fleet Air Arm, with the expansion of the MH-60R force.

These changes were all borne out of the DSR, which affect our entire Defence Force. Instead of operating as a joint force, our ADF will now strive to become an integrated force. Together, our three services will develop a credible constellation of capabilities to generate effects in time and space. So, how will we use our focussed and integrated maritime power to safeguard national prosperity, address the challenges to the Rules Based Order and working with our international partners? Through Diplomacy, Deterrence and Defence.

Diplomacy, Deterrence, Defence

Firstly, Diplomacy. As I look around the room and see faces from a number of countries, I am reminded of the supreme importance of diplomacy to both Australian and regional security. As highly visible, rapidly deployable, and persistent representations of a nation’s military power, warships are floating embassies and their sailors and Officers are ambassadors for their nations.

They make a powerful statement to friends and potential adversaries. A warship in a port is a symbol of the relationship between two nations. Close diplomatic ties grow friendship, promote partnership and sustain membership to the idea of an ordered world, governed by law and underwritten by mutual respect. As we are living the maritime century in a maritime region, this is more important than ever.

Partnerships are also a matter of necessity for Australia. As a relatively small nation in the complex and changing strategic environment of the Indo Pacific, our partnerships with like-minded nations are vital. They form a complex tapestry of geographic, economic, military and personal connections that promote shared understanding, in a region where the risk of misunderstanding has escalated. Our commitment to our partners and our friends in the region is unchanged. Rather, the uplift in our capability will ensure we can continue to meet our obligations in the region.

Secondly, Deterrence. A strategy of deterrence aims to cause an aggressor to delay or cease military action against us due to the uncertainty or fear of the potential response. Our Navy achieves deterrence through credible Naval Power. Naval Power that is integrated with all other elements of national power, wielded wisely and interoperable with like minded nations.

The various announcements as a result of the DSR will optimise Australia’s Defence Force to ensure we can deter action against us. The result of this constellation of credible force, raises a question in an adversary’s mind; is the cost of maleficence worth it?

Finally, Defence. Where diplomacy and deterrence fail to prevent an adversary from using force, a strategy of denial denies the adversary the ability to use the sea against us or to advance their own expeditionary interests. Here, the maritime outcomes of the DSR are key. The nuclear powered submarine for Navy, long range fires for Army, drones and space for Air Force, the list goes on. The diplomacy, deterrence and denial strategy protects Australia’s vulnerabilities, all of which are girt by and bound to the sea. Thus, on the Australian maritime power, rests the nation’s future.

National Defence Strategy

By the numerous announcements made in the last 18 months, it is clear that there is significant investment in and changes to our Defence Force. To keep us on course, as an integrated force, we will see the development of the National Defence Strategy, to guide the Defence Organisation through the most consequential change of our times. Navy’s role in defence of the nation will be articulated clearly and strategically and in concert with other elements of national power. Credible Australian Naval Power depends on it.

The inaugural National Defence Strategy will provide practical, as well as strategic, guidance. It will energise our efforts to optimise our ADF to meet our strategic circumstances. In the words of Field Marshal von Molke:

“Strategy is a system of makeshifts. It is more than a science, it is the application of science to practical affairs; it is carrying through an originally conceived plan under a constantly shifting set of circumstances. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult kind of conditions. Strategy is…a matter of understanding correctly at every moment a constantly changing situation, and then doing the simplest and most natural thing with energy and determination.” Energy and determination must now be our mantra.