The Chief of Air Staff’s Global Air & Space Chiefs’ Conference 2023

13 July 2023


CAF Speaking Engagement

Good morning Air and Space Chiefs from around the world, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to start by thanking Air Chief Marshal Sir Rich Knighton for his kind invitation to speak with you all today, and congratulate him on his recent appointment to Chief of Air Staff. I know we will strengthen our close partnership and friendship throughout your tenure.

Many of us here today derive our customs and traditions from the Royal Air Force.

Last week was NAIDOC week in Australia, a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. It was an opportunity for all Australians to reflect on 60,000 years of custom and tradition—the oldest surviving culture on earth. I have the privilege of leading a modern Air Force in an ancient land.

Its an intersection of cultures that is entirely complementary. Its helped me understand my task is not to run an Air Force, but to look after it. So let me share with you my approach to looking after the Australian Air Force, in a challenging present and an uncertain future.

Australia is on the sourthern flank of the Rimlands, connected to Asia by an archipelaegic bridge, at the fulcrum of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This is the Indo-Pacific region.

It is a region that connects the world’s mineral and energy resources from the Middle East and Africa, to the powerhouse economies in East Asia, and on further to the markets that have driven global prosperity for over 70 years.

And its a region that has emerged as the epicentre for major power competition. A rising power seeking greater influence; an established power seeking to uphold the character of international cooperation that has underpinned an extraordinary period of security and prosperity around the globe. Neither is going away—which is to say, we now live in a multipolar region.

Australia looks through this region to the rest of the world. We do so with the humility of a middle power. With the aspiration of preserving an international order where the rights and sovereign choices of all nations are respected. And with the realism of knowing, that in a multipolar world, that can only be achieved with a stable balance of power.

Recently Australia’s Prime Minister delivered an address to the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore. He noted if this breaks down, if one nation imagines itself too big for the rules, or too powerful to be held to the standards that the rest of us expect, then our region’s strategic stability is undermined and individual national sovereignty is eroded.

Stability is not a passive state of affairs—it’s achieved through strength and active diplomacy. Diplomacy in turn requires transparency, dialogue and compromise.

It is axiomatic of Australia’s strategic culture, that we seek to work with allies and partners in defence of shared interests.

But the Indo-Pacific region lacks a collective military alliance, as Europe has in NATO. We rely instead on a number of multilateral fora to promote dialogue and cooperation.

None is more important than ASEAN. Australia’s strategic partnership with ASEAN and our respect for ASEAN centrality is a key tenet of our foreign policy. Similarly, the Pacific Island Forum and the Indian Ocean Rim Association help bring our region together.

The Quad relationship between Australia, India, Japan and the United States seeks to foster an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. It doesn’t displace other forums, but creates a new pathway for regional cooperation.

This mesh network of multilateral forums lacks NATO’s central organising principle, but it helps to create the strategic space nations need to exercise sovereignty, resolve disputes, build consensus and collectively resist coercion and belligerence.

It would be strategically myopic for the rest of the world to view the Indo-Pacific region in isolation. Here’s a fact that might surprise you—we are closer to Beijing here in London than I am normally in my office in Canberra. It is impossible to imagine—particularly in the wake of COVID-19—that a calamity in the Indo-Pacific region would not reverberate around the globe.

The emergence of the cyber and space domains along with the convergence of digital technologies means we are all now more interconnected than ever. What matters in the Indo-Pacific matters here in Europe, and vice versa.

And nothing brings that into sharper relief than the current crisis facing Europe in Ukraine.

The attendance by the Australian Prime Minister at the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania speaks to this global connectedness. As does Australia’s on-going and consequential support to the people of Ukraine.

This week the Prime Minister announced Australia will deploy an E-7A Wedgetail to Germany to help surveil the skies over an important military assistance gateway. To ensure the essential supply of military assistance is not disrupted by Russian attack.

We stand with Ukraine for the long haul, and will now help our allies and partners keep her vital lines of communication open.

Defence Strategic Review

This whirlpool of geo-political, geo-strategic and geo-economic factors present a range of traditional and non-traditional security challenges.

In response, the Australian Government has just undertaken a Defence Strategic Review, which directs ambitious reform to our force structure, posture and preparedness.

It is recognition that our strategic circumstances are deteriorating and that we must strengthen our readiness to respond to a more specific set of challenges.

Australia will focus our efforts on National Defence, underpinned by active statecraft to preserve the regional balance of power. This requires Australia deepen our diplomatic engagement, while building stronger military capabilities that help deter coercion and lower the risk of conflict.

Informed through net assessment, Australia will execute a strategy of denial to hold potential adversaries at risk further from our shores.

To maximise our deterrence and response options, the Australian Defence Force will continue our evolution to an integrated force, harnessing effects across all five warfighting domains.

We have commenced our organisational alignment to this new approach with the move of Space Command into Joint Capabilities Group. We are joined today by my good friend, and Chief of Australia’s Joint Capabilities Group, Lieutentant General JJ Frewen, who now has responsibility for force generating Australia’s space power. He‘s here continuing the work of strengthenning our partnerships in space.

Australia has also centralised the management of our most precious resource—our people. To ensure we prioritise our people evenly across all five domains and to the parts of our organisation that integrate warfighting functions across the domains.

We‘ve established a Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance enterprise under a new 3-Star command. Air Marshal Leon Phillips will strengthen our stockholdings of guided weapons and address supply chain vulnerabilities, which will include an uplift in our sovereign capacity to manufacture and sustain weapons in Australia.

In order to fund these essential changes, we will accelerate a number of acquisitions and reprioritise others. These adjustments are being delivered with urgency. A renewed effort to cut through bureaucratic process and expedite the delivery of capability to our flight lines.

How long have we aspired to make these changes? To reduce red tape, embrace innovation, accelerate capability to the warfighter. How many times have you heard that said? Well in Australia, our assessment is that our strategic circumstances now demand that of us.

So what does all this mean to Air Power and Air Force more specifically?

When I came into this role as Chief of Air Force, I made clear my priorities to build a ready, resilient and resourceful Air Force.

Readiness requires us to focus on delivering capability today while simultaneously investing in our capability for the future. Readiness demands tactical and operational excellence in high-end warfighting, integrated with the joint force, across Government and with our allies and partners.

And it means having the capacity to sustain high intensity conflict.

Resilience requires a deep understanding of our vulnerabilities and an acknowledgement that we will fight with degraded systems in contested environments. Our Air bases are no longer sanctuaries. We must be capable of conducting agile operations, manoeuvring across a dispersed and hardened network of airbases. Both to survive, and to maintain the initiative.

This approach will drive changes in combat support, logistics and command and control. We look to your example in Europe, in Finland, Sweden and Norway especially, for inspiration in this important work.

These changes require a workforce that is innovative and resourceful. Constantly challenging ourselves to accelerate. Working with industry and academia to put minimum viable capabilities on the tarmac, while building development pathways to integrate technology over time.

I don‘t aspire as Chief to be the smartest aviator in the room. What I aspire to do is create is an environment that harnesses the resourcefullness of my workforce, on our Weapons Course and through our Air Warfare Centre. I have enormous trust and confidence in their ability. My objective is to create an environment permissive to their solutions.

This is an innovation environment. Innovation for strategic purpose and operational effect.

This is the approach we’ve taken with the MQ-28A Ghost Bat. We will deliver an uncrewed combat aircraft that will team with crewed platforms to increase the lethality and survivability of our air combat system. My team is working hard on the operational concepts, I’m working hard to ensure the capabilty delivered achieves its value proposition. This is where Australia has placed our stake in the future of air combat.

And we are increasing workforce strength to optimise the productivity of our assets.

This of course is not without precedent. At the outbreak of World War Two, the Royal Australian Air Force comprised 3,500 personnel with 12 operational squadrons operating approximately 250 aircraft.

By the end of the war, we were the fourth largest Air Force in the world, behind the US, UK and Russia. More than 152,000 people, operating nearly 6,000 aircraft from 70 operational squadrons.

We‘re not preparing to mobilise on this scale today, but we are scaling up to make best use of our resources.

So what lies ahead for the Australian Air Force?

Like all of you here today, my driving purpose is to avoid the calamity of major war. We aspire to deter through strength and diplomacy. If successful, we‘ll encounter a future of enduring strategic competition. A future, as a middle power, of enduring struggle to force generate the capabilities our nations need to preserve our sovereignty.

The fundamental role of air power for national defence remains immutable.

We face a future of continuing investment in technology, locked in a race for technical advantage, for longer range weapons, and more effective countermeasures.

To fly higher and faster, turn tighter and think quicker, and to integrate more efficiently across the domains.

I don’t feel confident predicting what future technologies we will need to achieve these outcomes. But I do feel confident we can build an organisation capable of delivering them over time.

We must continually innovate tactically and operationally, focussed on National Defence, to bring these technolgies rapidly into service. Applying Air Power for asymmetric advantage.

Importantly, we will apply greater scrutiny to the vulnerabilities of global supply, and bake in sovereign resilience.

And because, as a middle power, we see the imperative for cooperation, we will continue our efforts to be a strong regional partner. Australia remains a loyal and dependable mate, committed to a fair go for all.


Let me close with an obvious statement: we no longer think of our future as a distant contingency or concept, its become a continuation of our contemporary circumstances, a reality accelerating rapidly toward us.

Australia is embarked on a substantial recalibation of our national security policy. A middle power strategy for navigating major power competition. Preserving Australia’s sovereignty through our commitment to regional security and the collective strength of our allies and partners.

This is deterrence. Our strategy of denial. And through our strategy of denial, integrated across all warfighting domains, balanced across all elements of national power, instrumented through the art of whole of government campaigning, in cooperation with allies and partners, Australia aspires to preserve a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.

I’ll pause there. Thank you for you attention. I look forward to your questions.