Indo-Pacific Sea Power Conference 2023 - Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell

8 November 2023

GENERAL ANGUS CAMPBELL: Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here with you today at the 2023 Indo-Pacific Sea Power Conference. I wish to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land upon which we meet – the Gadigal people – and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. I also pay my respects to all those who serve or who have served in defence of country and nation in time of peace and war.

And to Admiral Hammond, thank you very much for the invitation and the opportunity to address you today.

At this conference considering Fleet 2035 – Sea Power and the Future of Maritime Warfare, my remarks will today look to the intersection of the sea and national power. President John F Kennedy once said we are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch, we’re going back from whence we came. Humanity has long admired the enormous power of the sea and pondered our relationship with it. Across time, space and cultures, the sea has been considered capricious. One moment placid, terrifying and awesome the next. Those who have been able to master it have reaped enormous rewards while those unable to do so have often been at its mercy.

The sea shapes us, feeds us, constrains us and plays a crucial role in regulating our planet’s climate and weather. It is absolutely central to economic prosperity and national security. For these reasons nations have sought to maximise their capacity to utilise it for commerce and military gain, which is why geopolitical power and the ocean have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for millennia.

Indeed, many of history’s greatest geopolitical rivalries have played out at sea. Think of Athens and Sparta, Carthage and Rome, the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, Elizabethan England and Hapsburg Spain, or the Soviet Union and the United States. While the exact form and intensity of these great rivalries differed, they were all underpinned by a profound competition for control of the sea and its resources. And as the great American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan stated, whoever rules the waves rules the world.

As an island girt by sea, the waters of the Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans Australia is well and truly a maritime nation. Of the world’s largest countries by land mass, Australia is sixth and the only one of that top six to be completely surrounded by water. Our coastline is the sixth longest in the world and our exclusive economic zone is the third largest in the world, accounting for around 10 million square kilometres of water, an amount larger than the continent itself.

Economically 98 per cent of Australia’s merchandise trade passes through Australian ports while 91 per cent of all fuel consumed in Australia is imported. Australia is also the world’s largest commodities exporter with our ports exporting over 1.5 billion tonnes of commodity cargos annually.

Furthermore, Australia’s $1.6 trillion economy is dependent upon the high data rate sea bed communication cables that connect us to the global financial system. For these reasons Australia is a acutely aware of the ocean’s strategic importance. Indeed, our prosperity and security ultimately depend upon the sea.

Since the end of the Second World War Australia has experienced economic growth driven by the exponential expansion of post-war global sea-borne trade. Our region, the Indo-Pacific, is now the world’s economic and strategic centre of gravity. It is home to more than half of the world’s population, nearly two-thirds of the global economy and seven of the world’s largest militaries.

The economic prosperity enjoyed by Australia and the Indo-Pacific region more broadly has been largely enabled by unimpeded and free access to and use of the sea, governed by agreed rules and norms and underpinned by naval power. It is perhaps a quirk of history, circumstance and necessity that given our dependence on seaborne trade and communication we did for our first century of federation as a nation attend perhaps more to a continental rather than a maritime approach to our strategic circumstances with our army routinely deployed and always the largest component of our force. An observation that academics will no doubt contest, but perhaps also an observation of less importance as we build a highly integrated force for the 21st century encompassing five interdependent domains and featuring a navy growing in capability and size and an army increasingly optimised for littoral warfare.

As a middle power Australia values rules, and we have benefited greatly from the post’s World War II international order, as have all those willing to commit to it. But as you know, that order is under great strain with some nations preferring a rebalance in favour of what they might describe as the privileges of power. Strategically, the proliferation of advanced sensors and weapons are radically altering the traditional regional balance of power. We are now living in a time of rapid technological advances and a changing calculous between detecting and concealing, striking and shielding, human and machine, civil and military, overt and covert.

Advanced missile systems are the exemplar breakout technology of the day with ballistic, manoeuvring ballistic, cruise, hypersonic manoeuvring, hypersonic boost glide and fractional orbital bombardment all being fielded or explored here in the Indo-Pacific. The use of coercive statecraft, law fare and influence operations in the grey zone between peace and war continue to undermine traditional understandings of the international rules-based order and test the threshold for conventional military response.

Economically, strategic infrastructure investment races, coercive trade practices, debt trap diplomacy, the prioritisation of supply chain assurance and resilience and trade diversification agendas are all aspects of an underlying breakdown in the globalisation consensus of the last few decades.

Diplomatically, the effort to sustain, reinforce and evolve an international system under great strain, indeed in some cases attack, is a constant demanding task. Climate change is occurring at pace, especially here in the Indo-Pacific, with a hotter environment and larger, more intense climate events occurring more often.

And finally, in terms of the world of information, we are on the cusp of an extraordinary new era characterised by both knowledge and uncertainty. Information and disinformation with significant implications for deterrence. We live in an era and region of great power competition, an era that will last for some time. This was a point affirmed in National Defence, the Australian government’s response to its recently initiated independent consideration, the Defence Strategic Review.

National Defence seeks to combine all elements of national power through a whole-of-government approach recognising the aggregation and integration of national power as the best way to harness the full potential of our national resources and strengths in times of crisis. In contributing military power to this effort, National Defence determined the Australian Defence Force’s traditional balance force structure is no longer fit for purpose. For this reason it recommended Australia adopt a more focused and integrated approach to its defence as well as the ability to project power to shape the strategic landscape and deter threats.

Fundamentally, National Defence is an approach that demands the nuanced application of national power in response to a strategic environment in which the boundaries between competition, coercion and conflict are increasingly blurred. The ADF’s approach to this increasing ambiguity is termed integrated campaigning, and it involves military power being brought together with all other elements of national power and, as directed, combined with the military national power allies, partners and like-minded friends.

National Defence also directed at the primary area military interests for Australia is the immediate region encompassing the northeast Indian Ocean through maritime Southeast Asia and into the Pacific. Given the inherent archipelagic character of this geographic area, naval power is and must continue to be an essential element of Australia’s total national effort. Sustained and credible naval power is central to effectively shaping our strategic environment. Forward deployed naval assets play an essential role in diplomacy acting as visible expressions of government intent and priorities. They also fulfil a vital international engagement function through port visits, exercises and activities with regional partners. They are for all intents and purposes, floating diplomatic missions.

But beyond diplomacy and engagement, Australia’s naval forces are indispensable in defending our nation and our northern approaches as well as the sea lines of communication and maritime trade that are the lifeblood of our national economy and connection to the outside world. This is our navy’s unique purpose to fight and win at sea.

But to credibly exercise a strategy of deterrence as directed in National Defence, the lethality and survivability of Australia’s surface and undersea naval forces must be enhanced. To that end Australia has embarked upon the largest recapitalisation of its naval fleet since the beginning of the Second World War to ensure the shape, size and scope of the fleet is appropriate to the levels of risk we now face.

The most prominent illustration of these efforts is Australia’s acquisition of conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines through pillar 1 of the AUKUS program. Australia has successfully operated a potent and enduring submarine capability for many decades. Indeed, the Collins-class submarine remains one of the most operationally capable diesel electric submarines in the world today. It will continue to be critical to our deterrence and defence capability in coming decades as we transition to nuclear-powered submarines. But in time the Collins-class will lose the most critical characteristic of a submarine – stealth. The trends affecting our region demand stealth as well as high levels of speed, range, manoeuvrability, survivability and endurance from our submarines, all characteristics of nuclear‑powered submarines.

The optimal pathway will establish Australia’s ability to safely operate, own, maintain and regulate a sovereign, conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine capability. And it bears constant repeating: we will always be fully compliant with our international obligations and we will not seek and do not want nuclear weapons. If you have been told otherwise, you have been lied to, perhaps not by the person speaking directly to you but quite deliberately by those who are originators and peddlers of such disinformation. They seek to undermine our collective security. Do not be fooled.

The future of sea power lies not only in crewed surface and subsurface vessels but also in uncrewed, unmanned and autonomous systems. They have the potential to provide the Australian Defence Force with important, stealthy, multi-role maritime capabilities complementing and enhancing the agility and potency of the navy’s current submarine and surface combatant force.

Indeed, we’ve already seen the effectiveness of uncrewed sea vessels in real-world military operation applications. The Ukraine Navy, in particular, has been a prolific user, successfully employing uncrewed sea drones to attack Sebastopol Naval Base and the Kerch Bridge. Operations involving the use of uncrewed sea vessels like those undertaken by Ukraine are only going to become more common as advances in autonomous warfare and artificial intelligence continue.

Australia is already well along the path to developing its own future uncrewed sea power capabilities through the Ghost Shark Underwater Autonomous Vehicle Program. This program will provide the RAN with a long range autonomous capability that can form advanced intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance and targeting operations and will enhance our interoperability with allies and partners.

Australia has also committed to a sovereign continuous naval shipbuilding industrial capability, acquiring and building nuclear-powered submarines, advanced surface combatants and sophisticated unmanned maritime vessels is a whole-of-nation undertaking, creating opportunities for Australian industry across the country. But acquisition is only part of our challenge. These systems and capabilities will and do require substantial ongoing sustainment and maintenance. Ultimately, my overriding concern is to ensure the men and women of the ADF possess the capabilities, sustained and enabled, for the defence of Australia and its national interests. I’m confident Australian defence industry will continue to play a vital role in equipping and sustaining the ADF both now and into the future to achieve that purpose.

Ultimately, the success of our Defence Force in carrying out its mission and in crewing and utilising the capabilities we are acquiring lies in the character of our people and the culture of our teams. They are at the heart of all we do and are the most important component of military capability. I’m committed to fostering and building an inclusive and respectful culture of ADF professionals committed to the defence of Australia and its national interests.

And after two years of Covid national lockdown without migration while the economy continued to grow to full employment, the ADF, as many other defence forces, now has to overcome a significant challenge to recruit, retain and grow our workforce. While the workforce challenges confronting us are many, they are not insurmountable. And lead indicators suggest we are moving in the right direction. There’s some time to go and there’s work to be done, but the innovation is impressive.

The ADF remains determined to meet these challenges and to be an employer of choice in order to attract the best possible talent from all backgrounds, regions and walks of life throughout Australia.

Australia’s efforts to strengthen its defence capabilities, especially in the maritime domain, are a prudent response to what we see as a rapidly changing strategic environment. We are seeking to be open, transparent and reassuring about our plans. And we will continue to do so and, indeed call on all regional nations, whether great, middle or small powers, to do the same.

Our efforts aim to field a force that promotes, supports and upholds a sustainable balance of power that deters those who would seek to use force to achieve their aims. As imperfect as it may be, an order predicated on the rule of law is always worth striving for. In its absence exists a hierarchy of power in which middling and small nations fall victim to the predations of others more powerful than themselves – a point vividly borne out by current events in Ukraine.

The rule of power over the rule of law is not an idea or a state of being that Australia wishes to see succeed, whether here in the Indo-Pacific or anywhere else. That’s why Australia sees deterrence delivered through enhanced, credible defence capabilities, strong partnerships and clearly communicated intent as essential for reducing the likelihood of conflict in our region and realising our goal of a secure Australia in a secure region.

Once again, thank you all for being here today. I wish you well for this important conference. Thank you.

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