Australia’s defence: shifting frames from land to the sea

By Kim Heriot-Darragh

This article was written by Perth USAsia Centre Research and Program Fellow Kim Heriot-Darragh.

Ten years ago, Australia’s prevailing view of its defence force was Army-centric: we thought mainly of soldiers fulfilling unconventional roles in Timor-Leste, Afghanistan and Iraq. Our Navy and Air Force contributed deeply to those missions (and to others, like Operation Sovereign Borders) – often sustaining a punishing tempo in the process. But in the popular imagination, defence operations were carried out on land, and by the Army.

That view is shifting. More Australians are acknowledging the oceans’ importance to our environment, our wealth and our security. Fewer need convincing of the dangers that Indo-Pacific naval competition presents. Australia’s Sea- and Air- power experts continue shaping our intellectual approach to defence issues as they always have, but now the broader community is paying closer attention.

This shift was on full display in Sydney this month during the Sea Power Conference, hosted by the Royal Australian Navy’s think tank. The event brought together senior naval officials from the region, as well as technical and academic experts to help break down siloes and drive pragmatic cooperation.
Of particular interest to Perth USAsia Centre, and our continuing efforts to focus on Australia’s relationships with Indian Ocean-facing countries, was the Australia India Institute’s Sydney Tech Dialogue, hosted by Dr David Brewster.

The Dialogue highlighted the need to address some vexing impediments to defence industry cooperation with India – which is central to the future of our relationship.

For New Delhi, defence industry cooperation represents a measure of Australia’s trust – and willingness to invest – in India’s future over the long haul. For Australia, it is a prerequisite to unlock even deeper cooperation with India to help secure the region we share.

The political interest is there. The devil now lies in the doing. We can start by demystifying our respective defence ecosystems and regulatory frameworks to ensure that industry – particularly start and ups and small-to-medium enterprises – can engage counterparts confidently as they identify opportunities.

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