Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has released her first Ministerial Statement on the Defence portfolio just six months into her tenure in the position.
As part of the minister's first statement, Minister Reynolds discussed a range of operational milestones, exercises and the changing dynamics of the region and broader "multi-polar" world Australia is a part of.
Minister Reynolds said, "Today, Defence is in more places, doing more things, at the same time. The ADF deploys integrated capability to support operations globally, regionally and domestically, with some 4,000 ADF service members deployed at any one time.
"Army now participates in 90 international engagements and exercises a year. Navy has on average 20 ships at sea per day, conducting in excess of 200 foreign port visits across 32 foreign nations and participating in up to 30 naval exercises a year. Air Force conducts 53 international exchanges, exercises and dialogues each year."
The changing dynamics of both the Indo-Pacific and the broader global environment has seen greater operational tempo and Australian presence throughout the region, the Middle East and in a number of new battlespaces, each with unique challenges to Australia's national interests.
"This year the ADF training team in Iraq reached a milestone in training over 47,000 Iraqi security forces in counter terrorism. In Afghanistan we have around 300 personnel providing security, training Afghan forces and also supporting NATO," Minister Reynolds articulated.
"We have had record numbers of defence engagements with our regional neighbours – India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan, just to name a few. In the Philippines we have trained over 10,600 members of their armed forces to counter the rising threat of terrorism.
"We still deploy personnel to UN peacekeeping missions and have assisted Fiji and Vietnam with their peacekeeping deployments this year as well as maintaining multinational force observers in the Middle East. This level of activity reflects the government’s commitment to pursue our national interests.
"An additional 18 ADF and civilian positions have been established in our overseas posts since 2016 – bringing the total number of diplomatically accredited positions to 119 worldwide."
Australia's Middle East responsibilities
As part of the nation's ongoing mission in Iraq and the broader Middle East, the ADF has trained Iraqi security forces and deployed combat, refuelling and transport aircraft to support counter-terrorism operations against Daesh, the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
To date, around 14,000 ADF personnel have deployed to Operation OKRA, including Air Task Group, since 2014.
Task Group Taji, a joint Australia/New Zealand initiative, has to date trained over 47,000 Iraqi security force personnel to build their capability to defend Iraq against terrorist and violent extremist organisations, including Daesh.
The Reserve forces continue to make a significant contribution, with 40 Reserve members deployed on operations in Iraq with Task Group Taji IX.
The ADF has made significant progress in enhancing the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces to defeat Daesh. The ADF’s local partner, the Iraqi School of Infantry Non-Commissioned Officer II, is ready to deliver most of its training without the assistance of coalition partners.
This progress means Australia has been able to reduce our contribution to the training mission from around 250 to around 120 ADF personnel.
Minister Reynolds said, "The ADF maintains its strong support for maritime security in the Middle East region. Since 1990, 67 Royal Australian Navy ships have worked as part of an international coalition to support counter-piracy, counter-terrorism and Gulf security operations under Operation MANITOU.
"This year alone, Australian ships assigned to Operation MANITOU have intercepted, seized and disposed of drugs with an estimated combined street value in Australia in excess of $1.1 billion."
Returning focus to the Indo-Pacific
Australia's renewed engagement with the region, namely as part of the 'Pacific Step-up', reinforces the nation's commitment to the region it increasingly relies heavily upon for economic and strategic stability.
"In south-east Asia, the ADF continues its broad and long-standing programs of engagement with our many partners in the region, with a particular focus on collaborative activities, exercises and training, and capacity building," Minister Reynolds said.
"ADF maritime patrol aircraft and naval frigates have continued to conduct transits of the region in keeping with long-established deployment patterns. In the Philippines, surveillance aircraft, naval frigates and specialist advisers have provided assistance to the Armed Forces of the Philippines in their counter-terrorism operations.
"Our counter-terrorism cooperation program with the Philippines commenced in October 2017, with support from each of the three services. In the last two years, our personnel have been involved in training over 10,600 members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines."
In north Asia, Defence continued to contribute to international efforts to enforce UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea’s proliferation-related activities.
Since May 2018, the ADF has contributed Maritime Patrol Aircraft and surface vessels to help prevent North Korean efforts to evade UN Security Council sanctions. Intelligence collected by the ADF has been used to illuminate the networks involved in sanctions evasion activities, and to support diplomatic representations to the flag states of vessels suspected of illicit activities.
Defence is contributing to whole-of-government efforts to further deepen Australia’s engagement in the south Pacific – the Pacific Step-up.
Defence-related activities being progressed as part of the Pacific Step-Up include infrastructure projects, an increased ADF presence in the region, and deepening people-to-people links with our Pacific neighbours.
Current areas of focus for Defence include:
- significant infrastructure projects in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu;
- an increased Navy presence in the region, with options to be considered for a dedicated vessel to support increased ADF engagement with our partners in the Pacific;
- a dedicated ADF team to provide training in priority areas for Pacific island military and security forces;
- medical diagnostic training to partnered security forces;
- a regular program of senior leadership dialogues;
- reinforcing security alumni networks; and
- expanding ADF sporting engagements with Pacific island security organisations.
Defence is working closely with other Australian government agencies and partners in the Pacific to identify further opportunities to deepen its engagement in the region as strategic circumstances may require.
"The ADF has also contributed personnel to support United Nations Command led operations. In July 2019, Vice Admiral Stuart Mayer assumed the role of Deputy Commander United Nations Command, only the second foreign officer to be appointed to the position," Minister Reynolds explained.
"In May 2019, Defence established Operation LINESMEN and deployed a small contingent to the Republic of Korea to assist United Nations Command with Armistice compliance monitoring in the Demilitarised Zone."
In each of the last three years, the ADF has embarked on large-scale task group deployments through the Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise across the Indo-Pacific.
This year between March and May, the ADF deployed a joint task force of around 1,000 Navy, Army and Air Force personnel into the Indo-Pacific region, focusing on south and south-east Asia.
Such deployments are highly supported and demonstrate Australia’s enduring commitment to strengthening our relationships with our regional partners.
Enhancing Australia's international partnerships
Minister Reynolds has remained a strong advocate of expanding and building the nation's critical international partnerships in the nation's immediate region and globally.
"We derive significant strategic and soft power benefits from our broad network of Defence-related bilateral and multilateral arrangements, in particular the long-established relationships that we enjoy with our partners in south-east Asia and the south Pacific," Minister Reynolds said.
"Last month, I also visited Japan for bilateral defence discussions with my counterpart, the Minister of Defense of Japan, Mr Taro Kono. As a result of these discussions, Australia and Japan committed to accelerate defence co-operation in the coming years, including in the fields of military exercises, personnel exchanges, space and cyber policy, defence science and technology.
"Minister Kono and I also reiterated our determination to enhance defence and security co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region, both bilaterally and in co-operation with other key partners."
Building on this, Minister Reynolds expanded on the importance of the Australia-US alliance and the role it plays in underwriting the nation's strategic position in a changing world.
"At the core of Australia’s international partnerships is our alliance with the United States. We have deepened the Australia-US Alliance with the US Force Posture Initiatives, including the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin," she added.
"We are committed to working with the United States to bolster our alliance architecture, with a particular focus on how we can work together to strengthen our collaboration with other partners in the Indo-Pacific.
"The United States has played a key role in contributing to security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. We believe that deep, broad-based and enduring engagement by the United States in the region will be critical in the decades ahead."
Minister Reynolds added, "In closing, the more competitive and more highly contested strategic environment in which we now live has significant implications for Australia, and for the role that Defence plays in contributing to our national security.
"I want to put on the record my thanks for the efforts of all those in Defence – our men and women in uniform and their public service colleagues – for the magnificent work they do to plan and carry out operations.
"The government will continue to invest in building a capable, agile and potent joint force of highly-skilled Australians that is enabled by advanced technology, fit for purpose enablers and modern business systems."
I look forward to continuing to work closely with the men and women of the Defence organisation to meet the challenges ahead.