Opening Address at 2023 Chief of Air Force Symposium

27 February 2023


I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Narrm, the Wurundjeri and Bunurong peoples of the eastern Kulin nation. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging; and to Elders of all First Nations communities that join us today. I extend that respect to Aunty Deb, out Air Force Elder, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who serve with pride and distinction in the Australian Defence Force.

I am very pleased to welcome many of our friends from around the world for this symposium, it’s been four years since we have been able to gather for the Australian International Airshow, and it is wonderful to be reunited.

I especially acknowledge the attendance of:

The Honourable Richard Marles MP, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence.

The Air and Space Chiefs from, Bahrain, Belgium, Brunei, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Iraq, Ireland, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Timor Leste, United Kingdom. The United States is represented by senior leaders from all five Services, and the OSD.

Delegations representing Air and Space Chiefs from: France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. As well as NATO and the UN.

Senior Enlisted leaders from Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States joining our Warrant Officer – Air Force Ralph Clifton.

Chief of Army, LTGEN Simon Stuart and Commander Fleet Air Arm, Commodore David Frost.

Industry, Academia, and Government leaders, and the many aviation leaders in the audience and online, joining us today. Welcome.

We understand in Australia that our security in prosperity will be delivered in partnership with our friends, our allies and partners. Those partnerships rely on shared understanding, mutual interest and trust, buttressed by strong people-to-people links. I thank you all for your efforts to join with us here today. You strengthen our collective security simply by being here to share your insights and perspectives, and deepen our friendships around the globe.

To bring our collective focus to where we are meeting, here in the Indo-Pacific, I’d like to start today with a brief historical account from the Guadalcanal campaign in WW2. With only three weeks’ notice, Admiral Nimitz knew that he would not have at his disposal the resources needed to prosecute all of his objectives. Nimitz’s mantra to his theatre commanders was to “do the best we can with what we have”. This mantra was repeated on a number of occasions in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbour.

Nimitz faced precarious times and until America’s industrial capacity mobilised to deliver the carriers; capital and support ships and combat aircraft that he needed to enable the central Pacific strategy, many of the earlier battles; including the battle of the Coral Sea just off Australia’s coast were fairly close run things. Balancing political and strategic objectives to provide the American public with a decisive victory, these battles demanded Nimitz and his commanders take calculated risk; when to engage to seize the initiative and when to disengage to preserve their forces. Of course, when the might of America’s industrial capacity did kick in, Nimitz enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority.

Underpinning Nimitz calculations was a deep appreciation for the strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific Region. The Indo-Pacific is both a dynamic and a physically vast and diverse region and is an arena of increased competition among powers, great and growing. I subscribe to the view that strategic geography will always shape our approach to Defence and National Security. Like Nimitz, we must contend with the vastness of the Indo-Pacific and back-in combat power with force projection infrastructure, communications and logistics.

I think it is safe to say that we have caught up with our future. Technology has advanced so rapidly that many of the future concepts we aspired to are now within our reach. Our strategic warning time has shrunk, evidenced by the indicators and warnings that might have cued us to prepare for crisis or conflict in our region, are now behind us. What was once our future, is now upon us. We are no longer delivering a force structure that can be strengthened over a 10-year period to deter conflict, we need a force structure that will deter conflict today.

This presents significant challenges for middle powers, like Australia, to protect and advance our Defence and Security interests. Or more to the point, it’s an impossible challenge were we to take it on alone! Forging trusted and purposeful partnerships based on shared values and interests is absolutely at the core of peace and stability of the Indo-pacific region. In my mind, there is no better exemplar than last year’s Exercise Pitch Black. Over 100 aircraft and 2500 personnel, from 17 nations gathered to take part in this Exercise. This was a powerful demonstration of how allies, partners and friends can integrate and work together in the interests of collective peace and stability. And it came at a time when Europe was once again plunged into crisis.

It is important we learn from the Ukraine war, and understand how the lessons might apply to the Indo-Pacific region. Putin has experienced something in Ukraine that military theorists have long known: War is the realm of chance. Nations who pursue their interest through aggression forfeit control to chance.

It is obvious, despite technical and numerical superiority, that Russia has failed to achieve air control over Ukraine and that air power has been poorly integrated with their scheme of manoeuvre. We recognise part of the story, through its absence, is the importance of air control; something we have taken for granted in our recent combat experience.

Ukraine has made excellent use of highly mobile ground-based air defence to deny Russia use of their airspace. There is much to learn from Ukraine’s tactics: agility, layered defence and deception, as we consider how we might manoeuvre to project air power across our northern infrastructure. We have seen the value of interdiction and joint fires, though conversely, how quickly precision stores are consumed in high intensity conflict. And how challenging they are to replenish. Magazine depth is an essential consideration to force readiness.

And we have seen intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance and targeting systems play a critical role in exploiting battlefield opportunities. Ukraine appears to enjoy a home ground advantage; with sufficient resilience to maintain situational awareness, even fleetingly, and capacity to deny their enemy’s ISR and targeting effort.

We have seen a proliferation of low cost drones and loitering munitions delivering ISR and fires to great effect. They don’t replace the roles of contemporary combat aircraft, but they might serve as a useful complement. Drones certainly present a challenging threat to our forces on the ground. We are considering the potential of low cost drones that bring mass to our air combat system and we are considering what new measures are necessary to defend against them.

The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated the roles of the space and cyber domains in modern conflict. Use of civilian capabilities in conflict is not new, but the resourcefulness to use commercial companies, such as Starlink, to provide situational awareness sets a new precedent. Cyber-attacks, including through Visat, show the multi-domain threats that must be countered to compete on the battlefield. And information operations have clearly been a priority for both nations.

It remains unclear whether Russia’s experience in Ukraine is the result of short-comings in equipment, readiness or doctrine. Ukraine has been masterful in mobilising their national resources, international allies and partners, and industry, which has surely contributed to Russia’s strategic miscalculation. Certainly the extraordinary courage and audacity of Ukraine’s people has played a role. An important lesson in its own right. Ukraine has demonstrated that war is not just the realm of chance, but also the realm of innovation and initiative.

To frame our upcoming panel discussions; we might consider how Nimitz might have Boosted Combat Capability in the context of the Ukraine War. We are no longer in a position where major capital ships and sophisticated aircraft like the F35 can be wheeled off the production lines at the same rate as Corsairs or Wildcats in WWII. The modern day version of the Nimitz mantra to do the best we can with what we have may be to inject and integrate low cost, high volume capabilities to augment and force multiply existing force structures - this would include capabilities designed to deliver kinetic; disruptive and deception effects on mass as well as those designed to increase the survivability of key nodes and critical infrastructure.

We might apply a similar logic to our operational design. To manoeuvre as a force across our infrastructure delivering air power when and where it’s needed. To manoeuvre for asymmetric advantage, this is how a small to medium size Air Force might generate lethal and survivable combat power – both in competition and in conflict!

When I came into this role as Chief of Air Force, I made clear my priorities to be ready, resilient and resourceful; I will explain what I mean by these terms and how they are relevant in our discussions today. Readiness requires us to focus on delivering capability today while simultaneously investing in our capability for the future force – one cannot be at the expense of the other - we must manage strategic risk over time.

Readiness demands tactical excellence in high-end warfighting, integrated with the joint force, across Government and with our allies and partners in pursuit of our national interests. And it means having the capacity to sustain a high intensity campaign, as we see today in Ukraine.

Ensuring resilience requires a deep understanding of our vulnerabilities and preparing to operate with degraded systems in contested environments. Fundamental to the Royal Australian Air Force’s resilience is protecting our Air Bases and critical supply lines, and where necessary generating alternate pathways to sustain air and space power that are less vulnerable to disruption.

The Royal Australian Air Force licenses all aviators to be innovative and resourceful in delivering air and space power. In some cases, we will pursue options that expedite planned upgrades to our capability or exploit alternate innovative technical solutions. At other times, our resourcefulness will require interim, risk-informed operational and tactical workarounds. The common imperative is to boost our current capabilities and rapidly introduce emerging technology for best advantage. To do the best we can with what we have.

The theme for today’s Symposium, Boosting Capability Delivery, has been chosen because we recognise that while significant advances have been made in the acquisition and sustainment of military capabilities, the rate of change in both our strategic environment and technology requires us to rapidly assess and deliver emerging capabilities in order to gain meaningful advantage.

I have no doubt our discussions today will enrich our collective understanding of both the challenges and opportunities we face as a community of likeminded actors striving to enhance the security and sustainability of our world. Today, we will explore the evolving strategic and operational context in which we all operate; challenges and opportunities in enhancing capability delivery processes; the potential for Sustainable Aviation Fuel to enhance supply chain resilience and mitigate our impact on the environment; and the collective challenge of delivering and sustaining Space Capabilities, where the importance of effective partnerships across multiple sectors is so vital.

It is easy to become seduced by technology; to do so would be to forget that national security is a human endeavour. The impediments to boosting capability delivery are often policy related, procedural or cultural. While advanced platforms teamed with cutting edge and disruptive technologies can be game-changers, we won’t realise their advantage without evolving our thinking.

As Air and Space power professionals from around the world, we must identify, unlock and leverage these opportunities. 5th Generation technologies alone will not be enough. We must enable these technologies through a creative, innovative and collaborative mindset within a Joint and Integrated framework, that encompasses Defence industry, academia and of course, our allies and partners.                                         

So in closing I would challenge you to place a contemporary frame around the Nimitz mantra of doing the best we can with what we have. This mantra places technical and organisational challenges before us, to ensure we generate ready, resilient and resourceful air and space power, but it also presents a world of opportunity.

I am very grateful for the time and effort all of our panellists have committed to be with us here today to share their perspectives – it promises to be a valuable discussion.

It is also my pleasure now to welcome The Honourable Richard Marles, Deputy Prime Minister and invite him to the stage to officially open the symposium.