In only a short time much has happened to impact Defence planning and strategic thinking vital for the national wellbeing and freedom of Australia. Only recently we were reflecting on the effects of the bushfires that had ravaged Australia, the commendable role of the ADF and the Navy in particular. The congratulations afforded to the efforts of the ADF in that regard were well warranted, and the human impacts of the fires and rebuilding must not be lost as we focus on managing the current pandemic. As we reflected earlier in the year, though, it is important to ensure that the use of Navy in response to such operations does not diminish its prime operational capabilities nor distract from its core Defence role – to deter those who would do us harm.
The swift and drastic action taken by the Commonwealth and States (predominantly working well together) has limited the health impacts of COVID-19 on Australia. The rapid and widespread impacts of the pandemic across the world has had a devastating human and economic toll.
Significantly, there have been heightened international tensions, in the relationship between China and the USA most obviously, but also, and of concern for Australian strategic thinkers, regionally. The strategic situation and the economic impact of the fallout of COVID-19 globally as well as on our near neighbours has the potential to adjust the strategic make-up of the region, with the possibility of increased regional instability as a result. This is concerning, with an ever more urgent requirement to balance the economic friendship we have with China against its rivalry with the USA and take account of any changes of the international influences in our region, especially in the South China Sea.
One issue we must be sure to keep before government, and I encourage you to keep it at the fore with your Federal Member of Parliament, is that our national wellbeing will be jeopardised should COVID-19 be used as an excuse to reduce or defer Defence expenditure.
While the Navy League encourages the ongoing bipartisan Australian political position on defence and strategic dealings and commends recent cooperation, now is not the time to let slide the commitment to national defence and Australian defence industries.
The Navy League has long supported the government commitment to increasing defence expenditure to 2% of GDP and recommending that this target should increase to 3%. While we do not wish to downplay the severity of the financial landscape that confronts the nation, we must ensure that our decision-makers do not let that negatively impact on the Defence budget and our national security spend.
If anything, this current situation has made more desperately urgent the need to maintain a strong navy and a capable maritime industry. While we do not discount the massive operational impact that COVID-19 will be having on the Navy, our strategic environment is facing pressures that only months ago were difficult to foresee.
There changed circumstances combine to encourage a re-think as to the wisdom in our plans to produce locally built submarines and surface ships at a time when effective naval operational capabilities will be of increased importance. Furthermore, ensuring that small to medium enterprises crucial to the shipbuilding supply chain are not only able to continue to operate, but are supported to ensure they thrive in this challenging local environment is essential to bolstering the Australian maritime industry.
In all, the COVID-19 pandemic should remind us that while things can change very rapidly, it is our long-term strategic wellbeing that must guide our military leaders and strategic decision makers.