ADM’s 6th annual Northern Australia Defence Summit saw strategic leaders, industry, and government officials convene in Darwin this week to discuss Indigenous engagement and strategic issues facing Australia in the region.
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner opened proceedings with a discussion of the wealth of natural resources in the Territory, the state’s regional ties, and its importance to Australia’s strategic posture.
“You only need to look at a map to see how the north matters,” Minister Gunner said. “We aren’t near Asia. We’re in Asia.”
Brigadier Mark Brewer, Director General US Force Posture Initiative, highlighted the growth of the US force presence in the Territory, which is approaching the capabilities of a Marine Expeditionary Unit.
BRIG Brewer also asked whether the ADF needs to invest more in its training facilities.
“Are our training areas fit for purpose?” BRIG Brewer asked. “I think we need to ask ourselves whether our traditional approach of heading out into the bush and training on areas with a few containers stacked on each other, which we call an urban facility, are now fit for purpose.”
Professor John Blaxland, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, gave a thorough SWOT analysis for Australia. Strengths included economic stability; weaknesses included strategic complacence; opportunities involved relationships with SE Asia and South Pacific states with large economic zones; and threats stemmed from the presence of Daesh in SE Asia, interstate competition in northeast Asia, and the Rohingya crisis, which Prof Blaxland expects to hit Australia in the next 12 to 18 months.
Dr Malcolm Davis from ASPI observed that the US is demonstrating a willingness to “push back hard” against China in the South China Sea and elsewhere. This makes the possibility for conflict “very real”, particularly given language emerging from the Trump administration labelling China as the ‘evil empire’.
Dr Davis also argued that the ADF should think hard about the survivability of surface naval assets, particularly the LHDs, in a high-intensity conflict.
Colonel John Papalitsas, commander of the Regional Force Surveillance Group (RFSG), opened his speech with a video featuring Indigenous NORFORCE soldiers.
“Walking through the bush, for me, is like walking through a library,” a soldier said. “It’s a book, and I can read it to you.”
RFSG are now carrying Indigenous weapons of war in ceremonial procedures, a historical first, to “merge the warrior traditions of Army and Aboriginal nations.”
COL Papalitsas also noted that RFSG has conducted continuous operations for over 30 years, spanning 52 per cent of Australia and five per cent of the world’s total landmass. The force has particular strengths in cultural engagement, with some soldiers speaking as many as 17 languages and regularly acting as interpreters on operations.
In addition, RFSG recruitment teams engaging in remote communities in Queensland have increased employment and education rates, whilst simultaneously decreasing rates of domestic violence and nuisance incidents requiring the involvement of Queensland Police.
Following COL Papalitsas, Minister for Defence Industry Steve Ciobo said that the Commonwealth is seeking to create more stable funding for Defence, raising the possibility of detaching the budget from the two per cent GDP floating benchmark currently in use.
Minister Ciobo also spoke of improving relations with Indonesia. “This relationship with Indonesia has been severely underdone. It’s underweight in terms of trade, severely underweight in terms of investment.”
He described the recent free trade agreement as “sub-par” in comparison to other Australian free trade agreements, but recognised it as a “game-changer” for bilateral relations and a “big opportunity” for people-to-people relationships.
Other speakers, including former Defence Chief ACM Sir Angus Houston, AVM (Ret’d) Margaret Staib, and Defence Export Advocate David Johnston also touched on the conference’s core themes: strategic challenges, Indigenous engagement, and working with industry to develop the Defence sector in the Territory.
More information on the Northern Australia Defence Summit 2018 will be available in the December/January edition of ADM.