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‘Embarrassed’ former high commissioner warns of Australia’s naval preparedness, capability

HMA Ships Toowoomba, Stalwart and Brisbane conducting a vertical and standard at-sea replenishment operation as part of a regional presence deployment. (Source: Defence)

Former attorney-general and Australian high commissioner to the United Kingdom George Brandis KC has issued a stark warning to Australians and our policymakers over the state of our naval capability, just days after industry representatives were warned Australia would effectively “have no Navy” in a matter of years.

Former attorney-general and Australian high commissioner to the United Kingdom George Brandis KC has issued a stark warning to Australians and our policymakers over the state of our naval capability, just days after industry representatives were warned Australia would effectively “have no Navy” in a matter of years.

As the world’s largest island continent, utterly dependent on our unencumbered and unmolested access to the global maritime commons, it goes without saying that Australia is inescapably a maritime nation.

This reality only becomes more apparent when one considers “the numbers”, when one considers that two-thirds of the nation’s maritime exports and 40 per cent of our imports traverse through sea lines of communication through Indonesia and maritime Southeast Asia.


These sea lines of communication expand beyond the maritime choke points in archipelagic Indonesia and Southeast Asia, into the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean, over to the Horn of Africa and the increasingly contested waterways of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and, of course, the contested waterways of the South China Sea and Western Pacific.

For example, the importance of these sea lines of communication is reinforced by the figures behind Australia’s dependence on maritime trade for critical economic and security issues like fuel security when one considers the reality that Australia’s remaining two refineries provide just 15 per cent of the nation’s refined fuel products, with the remainder imported.

All of this, in a roundabout way, brings us to the state of Australia’s naval capability and the plans outlined by the government as part of their signature Defence Strategic Review, released in April 2023, the follow on Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet released in early-2024 and, of course, the National Defence Strategy and Integrated Investment Program, respectively.

While the Albanese government has committed to effectively doubling (and then some) the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant fleet from 11 to 26 major surface combatants, set to begin in 2030, according to Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy, with the acceptance of Australia’s first new general purpose patrol frigates, there remains some issues.

Bringing us to the comments made by former Australian high commissioner to the United Kingdom and former Australian attorney-general George Brandis KC who recently attended the UK Sea Power Conference, coming away with an overwhelming feeling of embarrassment, stating, “I attended the Sea Power Conference. On behalf of Australia, I was embarrassed.”

Brandis said, “A great deal of the discussion focused on AUKUS. However, Australia was barely in the room. Inexcusably, not a single officer of our Navy had bothered to travel from Canberra to attend our AUKUS partner’s principal naval strategic forum. The only Australian naval representation was the relatively junior officer who is the naval attaché in London. The high commissioner, Stephen Smith, attended the opening session.”

Truly an embarrassing reality, but it reflects more broadly on the nation’s approach to and the importance of growing Australia’s naval capability.


Despite the repeated rhetoric from government emphasising the importance of Australia’s naval capability, we are still waiting for the “rubber to hit the road”, particularly following the retirement of HMAS Anzac (III), the lead-ship of the venerable but ageing Anzac Class frigates over the weekend.

Brandis stated, “So, while the chiefs of the British Navy discussed AUKUS with senior admirals from the United States (including Admiral James Kilby, the vice chief of naval operations), the chief of staff of the Japanese Navy (Admiral Sakai Ryo), and admirals of other navies, not a single Australian voice was heard. It was embarrassing that, as our key strategic partners were discussing Australia’s most important naval initiative, we were not part of the conversation.

“Our absence reflected what is becoming increasingly apparent not just in London, but in other European capitals as well: that Australia’s attention has shifted entirely away from Europe – despite the fact Europe’s largest military power is also one of our two most important defence partners and the ultimate supplier of most of the AUKUS submarine fleet,” he added.

Now I will buck the trend here and say that Australia’s pivot away from Europe, towards the Indo-Pacific is an entirely reasonable course of action given the rapid deterioration of the Indo-Pacific, our home region, and any European characterisation of that as an abandonment of the region is arrogant and absurd.

This is only more important when one considers the power imbalance between Australia and many European countries, particularly the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy et al and the reluctance of those powers to take their own security seriously.

Simply put, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t cast stones.

However, where Brandis’ statement about being “embarrassed” makes sense and is an entirely fair criticism is in relation to the nation’s response to ongoing security threats in the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean more broadly, this is only exacerbated following the recent antagonism by the People’s Liberation Army against a Royal Australian Navy Romeo helicopter and Australia’s relatively weak response.

“Australia’s decision to decline to contribute a naval vessel to the democracies’ efforts to protect shipping in the Red Sea from Iran-directed Houthi missile and drone attacks, can only be interpreted – and has been interpreted by our partners – as a message that Australia does not regard this as an important priority for us. Yet about a third of world shipping – including all of our trade with Europe – depends upon it,” Brandis said.

This brings me to a rather concerning and confronting statement made by Dr Marcus Hellyer, head of Research at Strategic Analysis Australia at the 2024 Defence Connect Budget Summit, where he stressed that Australia was at serious risk of effectively “having no Navy” in coming years.

All of this is food for thought as we head towards an increasingly troubled, contested, and dangerous point in history and this time, very close to home.

Final thoughts

The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment that is transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis and assessment by Australia’s policymakers.

While taking shortcuts to end up with 50 per cent of something, as opposed to 100 per cent of nothing, as proposed by the government is an admirable goal; however, ultimately, it will only prove more costly in the long run as we scramble to rapidly develop high-end warfighting capability.

Equally, both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending in our national defence and do so over the long term, rather than short-term sugar hits or sleight of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for “increases” in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.

Ultimately, all of this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “Balanced Force” towards “Focused Force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review and the foundational problem that is our lack of clearly defined role and objectives for our own defence capabilities and the nation more broadly.

This reality equally fails to account for the planned increase in ADF personnel by 2040 and places ultimate hope in a series of as yet to be developed “wunderwaffe” or wonder weapons, like autonomous systems, cyber or tactical weapons like HIMARs and others that are being shoehorned into fulfilling “strategic” roles to provide both “impactful projection” and deterrence against “any potential adversary”.

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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