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Dust settles on promising, yet unfulfilled Indo Pacific 2023

Acting Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, the Hon Richard Marles MP, at the Indo-Pacific Sea Power Conference, Sydney, 2023. Photo: LSIS Susan Mossop

Defence trade shows are always a mad scramble – there are deals to be done, back-to-back briefings to sprint to, an ever-present threat of politicians sweeping through the showroom floor at breakneck speed, and more plastic models than an opening day hobby store.

Defence trade shows are always a mad scramble – there are deals to be done, back-to-back briefings to sprint to, an ever-present threat of politicians sweeping through the showroom floor at breakneck speed, and more plastic models than an opening day hobby store.

This year’s Indo Pacific 2023 International Maritime Exposition will go down as a top tier example of all the above but tinged with a generous handful of industry anxiety.

The three-day event, organised by Australian not-for-profit corporation AMDA Foundation, reportedly garnered more than 27,000 attendances (up from 25,000 in 2022) for the commercial maritime and naval defence exposition at International Convention Centre Sydney from 7 to 9 November.

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Entering the ICC main hall, you’re neck deep in the hustle and bustle of 832 participating exhibitor companies and organisations from 21 nations. Commercial representatives are packed shoulder to shoulder, talking business between hasty sips of coffee in the crowded alleys flanked by defence company stands.

Snippets from a hundred different conversations drift and combine into a throng of audible overload: “‘Have you seen the new warship?’, ‘Have you heard about this new technology being developed?’, ‘What great merchandise the Australian Submarine Agency has this year’.”

Missile mock-ups and greyscale ship models are on proud display at every turn as members from across the Australian Defence Force, but mainly Royal Australian Navy personnel, and occasionally, even Australian Army service members move in small clusters from stand to stand. They wonder if they’ll be posted to a life-size version in the near future out on the open ocean somewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

The plastic prototype garnering the most attention this year is clearly an up-armed version of the Hunter Class frigate for the Royal Australian Navy, which adds eight additional anti-ship missiles and another 64 VLS cells to the design.

By coincidence or design, BAE Systems Australia has been lashed by recent public scrutiny of the Hunter Class frigate program, around speed and capability, before unveiling the new model and issuing a public statement from maritime managing director Craig Lockhart.

Navantia put forward its own designs for a Tasman Class corvette, Alpha 5000 combatant, F110 Class frigate and Flight III destroyer surface ships, while TKMS showcased the MEKO-A210 frigate which can support directed energy weapons, and Gibbs & Cox unveiled an Australian Light Frigate.

The most obvious void on the showroom floor this year is a lack of representation from Australian political leadership, who, coincidentally, are also the exact group which industry representatives are so desperately keen to hear from.

The defence industry has been promised one of the greatest shifts in Australia’s military since WWII after the release of the Defence Strategic Review earlier this year, and anxiety is palpable about the upcoming “Surface Fleet Review” scheduled to be released early next year and the continuing wait for defence contracts.

Shadow minister for defence Andrew Hastie, on 10 November, justifiably called out the lack of appearance of the federal government’s Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy.

“The Indo Pacific 2023 International Maritime Exposition was held in Sydney this week. The biggest defence industry gathering in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said.

“Despite an abundance of cutting-edge intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance providers, no one could find Labor Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy.

“Where is the Defence Industry Minister? Does he care about Australia’s industrial base? Does he care about the hardworking small and medium businesses innovating to protect our country?

“Based on his frequent absences and inaccessibility, we think he has other priorities than building our sovereign defence industry.”

Conroy’s marked absence from Indo Pacific 2023 leaves many wondering if the Minister for Defence Industry is tied up with too many portfolios as Minister for International Development and the Pacific and the Federal Member for Shortland. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for businesses knowing that Australia’s largest maritime defence expo is a must attend for around 171 defence, industry, government, and academic delegations from 46 nations including 25 international chiefs of navy but doesn’t cut the mustard in the Minister for Defence Industry’s well laid out annual schedule.

“You would never get a concentration in Australia of navies as well as maritime users in one place – Indo Pacific brings all them together,” according to Sentinel Boats chief executive officer George McGuire, an Indo Pacific 2023 exhibitor.

“The benefit of being at Indo Pacific for us is the engagement with clients and other businesses.”

Atop the main hall there are more than 90 conferences, symposia, and presentations held in the ICC across the three days of the event.

There’s an unmistakable hum of upbeat conversation in the air as the briefing rooms are packed to the gills with attendees keen to educate themselves on the latest defence innovations and geopolitics.

There’s so much interest that some briefings are closed off entirely due to the overpopulated conditions and those unable to find standing room along the walls. Windows or doors are spilled outside of hearing distance into the level two corridors.

Royal Australian Navy Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, AO, said the success of Indo Pacific 2023 is these meetings with industry and RAN.

“What I really like about Indo Pacific 2023 is the opportunity to talk to our industry partners, to introduce them to the men and women of the Royal Australian Navy, and to find opportunities to strengthen and enhance our Navy’s capability which ultimately means we’ve got a much stronger Navy and a much stronger nation,” he said.

After the mid-week rush, the last day of the conference is decidedly sombre, many travelling commercial representatives and international officials have already left by the previous afternoon on 9 November and there is no expectation left for a last-minute surprise contract, funding or findings announcement from the federal government.

Models are boxed up, stands are packed down, and the dust settles on a promising but perhaps ultimately unfulfilled Indo Pacific 2023.

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