2019 Federal Election: Implications for WA’s Defence Sector

“Be alert”, was the exhortation from LTGEN Peter Leahy AC (Retd), the former Chief of Army, who summed up Australia’s present national security environment to an audience of over 45 senior industry professionals at the BGC Centre in Perth on 20 February 2019.

Speaking at an event organised by WA DEFENCE REVIEW, in partnership with Perth commercial law firm, Bennett + Co – LTGEN Leahy summarised the prevailing world security landscape. He was joined at the dais by Colleen Yates, CEO of Regional Development Australia-Perth (RDA-Perth), who outlined WA’s best prospects for economic development, noting the prominent role the State already plays in the national economy.

A strong advocate for WA industry since her appointment in 2013, Colleen has approached her task by commissioning major sector reports that set the scene for investment to flow into prospects identified. One of these injected much needed context for WA’s defence sector, markedly contributing to the enhancement of WA’s defence sector profile Australia-wide.The latest report shows the potential for WA to leverage its natural lithium resources along a value-adding chain culminating in manufacturing batteries for the world market. At each stage, the returns to WA multiply exponentially.

Expanding on his “be alert” introduction, keynote speaker LTGEN Leahy noted that both cyber space and outer space are becoming militarised zones. Social media has been weaponised and used to undermine the political processes of nations. Secrecy is a luxury of the past in an age of state sponsored hacking. The world has become dependent on vulnerable satellites to facilitate systems and processes essential to our way of life. “If war breaks out in these two zones”, he said, “no-one wins.”

The time-tested defence of diplomacy is losing effectiveness as the global rules based order crumbles under a retreating US Administration, even as totalitarian leaders are testing the boundaries. Economically, globalisation is under threat, we are undergoing a trade war, inequality across the world is increasing, and nationalism is on the rise.

Closer to home, LTGEN Leahy believes the Australian Army is overextended and its numerical strength should be increased. Army basing in Australia reflects the geo-politics of colonial times, rather than current reality, but it is politically and socially unpalatable to effect wholesale relocations. LTGEN Leahy argued that Army numbers should be increased and that an additional base be located in Western Australia to reflect the shift in threat profile to the Indo-Pacific. In considering the defence of Australia’s North West, he counselled all to remember the pre-World War II example of Japan invading Manchuria to gain access to its natural resources.

Australia, he says, should have a national conversation about its values. It’s no longer satisfactory to go to war just because the US does, a nation whose moral authority has increasingly eroded. We need to decide where we stand on issues; for example: how would we react to China invading Taiwan? Prime Ministers alone should not have the power to take the nation to war; there needs to be an informed consensus.

LTGEN Leahy believes China is already embedded inside Australia’s “decision cycle” and is in a position to disrupt. The Western Allies have “missed the boat” on the South China Sea and are now reduced to making “freedom of navigation” voyages. Australia has been too long in the Middle East and its past time to rebalance to our own region, where China is far ahead of us with its Belt and Road initiative. In terms of military strength, disparity can be seen in but one comparison: while Australia aspires to having 12 submarines, China is planning 98.

War, he says, in the 20th Century was largely about protecting and extending democracy, but in the 21st Century, it is more likely to be about religion, with radical groups and causes increasingly dominate the global security environment for the rest of the century.

In conclusion, LTGEN Leahy urged that Australia take a three-pronged approach to the above issues: a) by developing a national security strategy; b) by appointing an independent national security advisor, and c) by committing to an appropriate national security budget.

Straight talking indeed from a man whose life’s work, study, and experience revolves around national security. For those of us not already alarmed, there is good reason to be alert in the lead up to this year’s imminent Federal Election!