OPINION - LABOR’S FORCE POSTURE ANNOUNCEMENT

21 September 2021

MATT KEOGH MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY
SHADOW MINISTER ASSISTING FOR SMALL BUSINESS
MEMBER FOR BURT


When steering the biggest ship, you’ve got to turn the wheel slowly – for it’s not that it’s not worth turning the ship around, rather it just takes time.

Defence is the biggest ship. If you’re to make significant change in Defence, you need to do so with conviction and a specific level of insight.

We know that our geo-strategic situation has vastly changed.

In the 2020 Defence Strategic Update the red flag was raised – it’s now clear a previously expected ten-year strategic warning time for a major conventional attack against Australia is no longer an appropriate basis for defence planning.

Reduced warning times mean defence plans can no longer assume we will have time to gradually adjust military capability or our preparedness in response to emerging challenges. With the completion of many Defence projects not due for a decade, this is of significant concern.

Upon the release of the 2020 Strategic Update, we in Australian Labor expected a review of Defence Force Posture would follow – that’s not been the case.

It’s high time we look at our new geostrategic environment and plan accordingly. Specifically, are our forces positioned in a way that they will be able to best confront future challenges? 

A Federal Labor Government will initiate a new Defence Force Posture Review.

The Review will ensure the Government is considering both long-term strategic posture and given fast moving events in the region, short-term needs – with a key focus in the Indo-Pacific region. 

It will respond to the continued emergence of cyber security as a central challenge to Australia’s strategic positioning in the coming decade.

The Coalition Government has never conducted a fully-fledged Force Posture Review.

Only two Defence Posture Reviews have occurred in recent times – former Defence Minister, now WA Governor, Kim Beazley’s mid-1980’s review and one under former Defence Minister Stephen Smith in 2012.

The Labor Government’s 2012 Force Posture Review, undertaken concurrently with the US’s own force posture review, resulted in significant reforms including the Marine Rotational Force in Darwin and upgrades to defence assets in Northern Australia.

Eight years is simply too long for the Coalition to neglect planning on defence posture, particularly as we have seen our strategic circumstances deteriorate.

Defence industry will, of course, be key to enabling implementation of this force posture review.

Without pre-empting the findings of the review, I would expect that from this review, opportunities in defence industry will flow.

Indeed, the US are currently undertaking their own global force posture review, focusing specifically on the Indo-Pacific region.

This renewed focus on the region, and indeed our strategic position in it, may provide an opportunity for Australian defence industry to work with our ally as they refocus in our region. 

Similarly, the emergence of cyber security as a central strategic concern for both Australia and the US could provide great opportunity for our cyber innovators.

Aligning our forces, and the work undertaken in the region will only grow the opportunity that is Defence Industry.

What’s critically important is that our force posture is correct for the strategic environment that we face and that we subsequently, have good alignment between the force posture and the industry supporting our forces.

Ultimately, everything done by Government and everything you do in industry has the same objective – ensuring the best outcomes for those in uniform, defending our nation. 

We must take advantage of both our geostrategic position and our excellent industrial base to ensure our ADF gets the support it needs in this new strategic environment.

There is an awful lot of rhetoric that comes from the current Federal Government, many glossy brochures – but we need practical alignment with the real world.

We need delivery.

Through a force posture review, defence priorities would be clear, and, the Australian Labor Party’s commitment to measurable, transparent and auditable Australian industry capability requirements would help provide direction for defence industry companies.

One of the constant concerns I hear from defence SMEs is the lack of clarity around opportunities in defence – both from the department and prime contractors.

I don’t have to tell any of you of ongoing chatter from primes referencing a lack of capability in Australia and they’re “forced” to go offshore. While true in some instances, we should be working harder to stand up a more sovereign defence industry here at home. Ideally – to stand up our own indigenous primes.

Now as I said at the beginning of this piece, you’ve got to turn the wheel slowly.

There is not an immediate solution to some of the gaps in our industry or to the scale in which we operate. These things do take time but they must be started.

We must ensure Defence Industry businesses receive the investment they need to scale up. This will be supported by Labor’s announced National Reconstruction Fund, which will provide up to $15 billion of capital to invest in job creating projects through loans, equity and guarantees to support and grow Australia’s sovereign capability as well as research and development for the future.

But it’s not enough to be pouring money into businesses hoping they will grow (albeit an excellent start). We need to play the long game here.

We must be encouraging more young people, from primary school onward, to be getting into the spaces that we need. Learning those vital STEM skills that will set them up for a future in shipbuilding, in cyber, in automation, in space. 

Defence industry, and indeed the complementary resources sector really can generate good, reliable, well paying jobs for life. It’s incumbent on all of us to spread that word.

So while the ship turns slowly, we must right the course strategically.

A Defence Force posture review is key to that.

This opinion piece was first published in AIDN National 3rd Quarter Newsletter on Tuesday, 21 September 2021.