FEATURE INTERVIEW

Adaption Through Innovation: Chief Of Army Symposium 2023

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First, it is great to be in WA; not just because I am a West Australian, but because you get a completely different perspective on the challenges in our region and beyond, simply because we are in Western Australia.

The Chief of Army Symposium (CAS) 2023 was held at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre, 29-30 August. Credit: Department of Defence. Photographer: CPL Cameron Pegg.

Given that the Symposium is being held in Perth for the first time and that, since you are coincidentally also a West Australian, could you give us some context to your upbringing as a ‘Sandgroper’?

I remember as a kid always wondering what was beyond the Nullarbor, and I did not travel there until I was an adult. There was always a sense of isolation, I suppose, but what I quickly learned is that we genuinely have a different view of the world. My background was pretty humble. My parents had always had a very strong focus on education and the power of education, and I think that is a key aspect of Australian society, in that education offers you the opportunity for social mobility, if I can use that term. I have very fond memories of growing up here – I love the beach and the bush and the perspective that provided in terms of shaping my future.

Tell us more about the latest Symposium and why it is important. What message and outcome are you seeking from the initiative?

Great question. First, it is great to be in WA; not just because I am a West Australian, but because you get a completely different perspective on the challenges in our region and beyond, simply because we are in Western Australia.

WA contributes 20% of Australia’s GDP, which means there is a focus on the Indian Ocean region, namely the ‘Indo part’ of the Indo-Pacific, and the north-west of our country is particularly strategically important, not just for the contribution of its resources sector to our economy but also in terms of its fairly sparse population and its connection with the archipelago to our north, what we like the call ‘the land bridge’ between Australia and India.

There is a very focussed academic sector in WA that looks at the challenges and problems of 21st century geo-politics in the Indo-Pacific through a different lens. We are here because this is where we get an incredible insight and a different perspective, and the innovation in the defence industry sector here is, in my view, second to none. There is a whole range of many good reasons as to why we are here, and bringing international partners and other partners in academia and industry from other parts of Australia to Perth to connect to that ecosystem, is why we are here in Perth today.

The purpose of the Symposium is really very simple. It is about bringing soldiers together with academics and innovators in industry, and figuring out how we can work as a team to solve the operational problems of the day. And, as you will see from the Robotics Exposition, Quantum Tech Challenge, and Army Innovation Day, there is a phenomenal and rich vein of pure innovation out there. We need to work together as a team: industry, academia, government and soldiers. That is what a national approach to our nation’s defence and security looks like in practical, applied terms.

Our approach to the changing strategic circumstances means that we need to adapt. We adapt through innovation, and the key constituents of innovation are people and partnerships. People are our soldiers, and the partnerships are the other people who we need to bring together: academics, industry, international partners, our partners across the ADF.

The question is, how do we solve these problems collaboratively, because no one can do it alone. So that is what it is all about. It is about bringing those groups together, but particularly the Innovation Day, the Quantum Tech Challenge, the Robotics Exposition, are all part of what we call the Army Futures Forum, and it is supported by that contest of ideas that you just saw on the stage. It is a genuine contest of ideas where we are seeking to learn from one another and really test ideas. It is a narrative that we are trying to progress here, and a genuine contest of ideas in what we call a campaign of learning.

This is the incubator of the thinking and bringing people together to solve problems, which then sparks innovation and action every day in terms of what our people, and those new teams that we form, are doing. And industry is a key component to that. The great thing about army for industry is our partners are mainly SMEs, some of them very small enterprises. It might be a couple of people with a laptop and some really big ideas.

The purpose of the Symposium is really very simple. It is about bringing soldiers together with academics and innovators in industry, and figuring out how we can work as a team to solve the operational problems of the day. We need to work together as a team: industry, academia, government and soldiers. That is what a national approach to our nation’s defence and security looks like in practical, applied terms.

How would you describe the Symposium’s relevance to Indian Ocean region engagement, especially since the event is being held in Perth, Australia’s Indian Ocean gateway?

It is about equal weighting for the ‘Indo’ in ‘Indo-Pacific’ because, while we talk about the Indian Ocean, we are not just talking about the waterways and the linkages and the importance of those for Australia’s trade, economy and security, but it is also all of those countries – whether they are small island states or large continental states – that are part of that international system of trade and economy, and therefore how we work together in a way that is going to secure prosperity and work every day to deter conflict. So it is looking at it as part of the system – it is a really important part of the system, especially when you consider all the other countries and continents that are on the shores of the Indian Ocean and its marginal seas.

I will just point to some of the colleagues we have here from around the region, from places like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia. So, it is a very broad church where we all have the same purpose, which is to maintain stability, security and prosperity, and it is a very inclusive approach. Common purpose leads to common will and, therefore, common experience. Most of what we do with international partners is not one-on-one, or bilateral, as it traditionally has been. Everything we do today has a multilateral face, and more partners are welcome because we are more together.

The phenomenal representation we have here from around the region and around the globe, I think, speaks to that common purpose and the development of common capability and capacity. We are much better at working together today than we have ever been, and we want to include more partners in that endeavour, and we also want to step up the capacity and the sophistication of what we are doing. But we are always very cognisant that each of our partners has a different perspective and has different requirements and interests, so, as we meet together, we need to understand how we can achieve our common purpose in a way that respects each other’s differences.

As South-East Asia is critically important to Australia, and adjoins the eastern Indian Ocean, can you update us on how the Australian Army is engaging with its army counterparts in Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state?

We have a very long-standing relationship with Indonesia and, from an Australian Army perspective, with the Indonesian Army (TNI-AD: Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Darat). Today, as we sit here, we have Australian soldiers, including a combined-arms fighting system up on Java participating at the TNI’s invitation – at Indonesia’s invitation – in Exercise Super Guruda Shield. Last year, that was 14 different nations participating and observing in what used to be a bilateral Indonesia-US activity, and it has grown again this year.

We have a deep relationship with the TNI. They have recently been here working with our teams in terms of how to operate and maintain Bushmasters which they have purchased, and we have people in each other’s schools and colleges. They were with us during Exercise Talisman Sabre, and they contribute to a whole range of other regional multilateral activities in which we participate.

There is actually a huge amount going on with all of our regional partners, and Indonesia is one of the key countries in the region, particularly as a core member of ASEAN, and the diplomatic, political and economic architecture of the region that ASEAN presents.

Thank you, Sir, for a fascinating interview and for granting us some time out of your busy schedule. We trust that the Symposium is a major success!

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