Harnessing the power of geography

01 Dec 2020 | 5mins

On 1 July 2020 the Morrison Government launched the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU). The same day, here at UWA, a new defence entity was launched – the UWA Defence and Security Program. Funded through a Commonwealth Department of Defence Strategic Policy Grant of $1.3million over three years, this new investment will significantly enhance UWA’s ability to engage in defence issues, policy advocacy and research.

Both events reflect the significant changes underway in Australia’s regional security environment and highlight the growing importance of Western Australia to the nation’s defence efforts. The UWA Defence and Security Program (DSP) will contribute to the State’s defence ecosystem and position UWA as the Western Australian hub for defence research, engagement and policy engagement.

Never before in Australia’s history has the West been so enabled to take such a prominent role in shaping defence debates and national strategy.

In an era of rapidly evolving geopolitics, defence and security issues sit at the forefront of government and public debate. Australia, and particularly Western Australia, recognises the power of proximity to the centre of the world’s economic and strategic centres of gravity. Our geography places us at the crossroads of the vast Indo-Pacific system that forms the centre of strategic and economic competition in the modern age.

Australia’s new geostrategic position brings both enormous opportunities as well as new risks to manage. COVID-19 has only exacerbated existing regional tensions and highlighted the importance of health security and economic security.

The UWA DSP aims to capitalise on the relevance and importance of Western Australia to defence issues and address security issues of national and international importance from outside the Canberra bubble.

The program will build on the increasing relevance of Western Australia to Australia’s defence environment by leveraging previously untapped local expertise and perspectives related to the defence industry, maritime security and the Indian Ocean. A strong focus will be on investigating Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific through collaborations with the Commonwealth and state governments, industry and academia.

Our first public outreach program was delivered in September 2020 and our first roundtable discussion in October. Into 2021 and 2022, a program of public engagement, dialogues, and public policy publications is planned. Evidence-based policy-orientated research opportunities will engage UWA staff more deeply on strategic defence related issues.

UWA Defence and Security Program

L-R: Natalie Sambhi, Executive Director and Founder, Verve Research, The Honourable David Johnston, Former Defence Minister, Lieutenant Colonel Jasmin Diab, Co-founder, Defence Entrepreneurs Forum and Vice-President, Woman in Nuclear Australian and Professor Peter J. Dean, Chair, Defence Studies, Director, UWA Defence and Security Program

These activities will build on the contribution UWA already makes to defence research through areas such as optimising submarine working-life systems, antimicrobial resistance, sensor design and space and ocean research. The University has an established role in WA State defence leadership through the UWA Defence and Security Committee chaired by Professor Stephen Smith from the Law School, who served as Minister for Defence from 2010 to 2013. The committee includes The Hon David Johnston, current Commonwealth Defence Advocate and Minister for Defence from 2013 to 2014.

In 2020, Western Australia — and indeed UWA — can claim an unprecedented level of national, State and public sector defence leadership, with  two Western Australians leading the defence portfolio — a significant achievement for both the interests of the State and to contribute an Indian Ocean perspective at the national level.

While the Prime Minister officially launched the DSU, the work of crafting this document was led by the Defence Minister, Western Australian Senator Linda Reynolds. Prior to Senator Reynolds’ appointment she was Minister for Defence Industry. On promotion to the Defence Minister portfolio in April 2019, the Hon Melissa Price, Federal Member for Durack, was sworn in as the Minister for Defence Industry.

The Governor of Western Australia, His Excellency Kim Beazley AC, is a former defence minister and ambassador to the United States. The Premier is a formal naval officer, as is the Minister for Defence Issues, Paul Papalia, who was a Navy Clearance Diver, serving in the counter-terrorist squadron of the Special Air Service Regiment and deployed on operations to Iraq on two occasions.

In order to coordinate and promote WA defence interests the State Government established Defence West, which is led by Matt Moran, a former army officer and Afghanistan veteran who later served as an adviser to the Minister for Defence Industry and a senior adviser to the Minister for Defence.

The current Secretary of the Federal Department of Defence, Greg Moriarty, is a Bachelor of Arts graduate of UWA while the Chief of Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, is a Special Forces soldier who spent time in Perth as a member of the Special Air Services Regiment including as troop and squadron commander.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update

This outlined a significant change in the direction of Australia’s defence strategy. The Update emphasised the importance of the Indo-Pacific, thus joining this strategic concept, first outlined in the 2013 Defence White Paper, with the Australian Defence Force’s structure from 2020. It redefines Australia’s approach to deterrence and defence self-reliance. Significantly it includes a $270 billion investment program, with major funding for defence research, science and technology. This strategic realignment places a greater emphasis on the importance of the Indian Ocean and Australia’s north-western approaches, recognising the importance of significant assets including the North Carnarvon Basin, the Browse Basin and defence bases in Perth, Learmonth, Curtin and Port Hedland.

By Professor Peter Dean, Chair of Defence Studies, Director, UWA Defence and Security Program

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