WA’s defence industry is set to gain a key ally with the creation of UWA’s latest think tank.
The shift in Australia’s force posture posited, among other things, a greater focus on Australia’s proximity to the Indian Ocean and countries throughout Asia and the Middle East, and the strategic prominence of Western Australia on matters of sovereign defence manufacturing.
Ultimately, this policy helped drive expansion of HMAS Stirling on Garden Island, as well as the opening of the Australian Marine Complex in Henderson in the early 2000s.
Still, it wasn’t until tensions with China began to stir last June that figures in the federal government started openly contemplating Australia’s adequacy to respond to regional threats.
Now, with an additional $75 billion committed to the defence budget over the coming decade, Australia is set to prioritise its maritime border in the Asia-Pacific region while shifting focus away from the US-led coalitions in the Middle East that became dominant over the past 20 years.
WA is caught up in much of this given its maritime border faces the Indian Ocean, something that has prompted academics and researchers to consider the breadth of influence the state has over policy direction.
“WA is now on the frontline of Australia’s defence, so to speak,” Peter Dean, chair of defence studies at the University of Western Australia, said.
“The Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific strategy is becoming more and more important; South-East Asia is one of those pinnacle points in terms of greater power competition in our region and Australia’s diplomatic defence and regional engagement.
“That puts us in a unique position.”
That unique position is the basis for UWA’s newly minted Defence and Security Institute, which aims to expand the university’s breadth of defence studies as well as its connections with industry and figures within the federal government and armed forces.
Chaired by former defence and foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith, the institute has already assembled strong support, including from former defence ministers, key UWA academics, and Perth USAsia Centre alum Fiona Considine.
While it will not supplant or replace any existing schools or departments, the institute will provide defence expertise across curricula in a way that is formally structured and accessible for anyone looking for that expertise.
Professor Dean, who will lead the new institute, told Business News the facility would provide students and other researchers with a WA perspective on defence matters.
“To use the prime minister’s phrase, we’re outside of the Canberra bubble,” Professor Dean said.
“We’re engaged in, geographically, a different viewpoint and outlook from those in the Canberra security establishment.
“How do we ensure that the views of this side of the country and the focus of the Indian Ocean are expressed and engaged?”
Initial concepts for the institute go as far back as 2013, when Professor Smith retired from federal politics.
Returning to UWA as a professor of international law in 2014, he had sounded out Dawn Freshwater, who would become the university’s vice-chancellor in 2017, among others, about the possibility of increasing the university’s capability, research, and engagement on security and defence matters.
And while Professor Smith had organised an impressive ensemble of supporters, including Perth USAsia Centre chief executive Gordon Flake and now-Governor Kim Beazley, the idea quickly ran up against harsh economic realities.
Grant funding was sought from the federal government, which handed the university $1.4 million over three years to support the development of a defence and security program (launched in July 2020).
By that time, however, Amit Chakma had replaced Professor Freshwater atop the university’s administration, and he envisaged the program as something bigger than what was originally proposed.
“His first day at the university was the day that Linda Reynolds launched the program,” Professor Smith said.
“Amit said, ‘Look, part of the attraction of me coming to the university was the existence of the Perth USAsia Centre. I like centres and institutes, so why don’t you think about becoming one?’”
The concept for a standalone institute began to formally take shape thereafter.
In practice, the institute’s operations won’t be fully finalised until the middle of the decade, given Professor Smith said the university was likely to seek federal funding again after the original three-year grant lapsed.
By that stage, though, the aim is to have deepened relationships with industry and other research organisations to secure sufficient funding to make ongoing operations sustainable.
Effectively, the institute should act as a centralised location for defence expertise upon which other faculties and departments can draw.
Eventually, however, Professor Smith said the board envisaged the institute supporting the creation of a standalone curriculum in defence studies that could support the geostrategic concerns of Australia’s west coast.
“One of the challenges for WA is that, if you go off to Canberra as one university, company or researcher, it’s hard to create an impression; you’ve got to grow critical mass,” he said.
“We want to make sure that where we’ve got expertise that is complementary with other universities or organisations [and] that we grow that and add that together.”
For its part, the state government has made growing WA’s defence industry a cornerstone of its economic agenda, promising ahead of the 2017 state election to create a defence issues portfolio to lobby for works.
Former RAN lieutenant commander Paul Papalia will continue to hold that portfolio in Premier Mark McGowan’s second ministry and will be charged with overseeing $88 million pledged for redeveloping AMC’s infrastructure.
That’s alongside a broader promise to improve manufacturing capabilities in and around the precinct, continue lobbying for new works through Defence West, and press for the relocation of full-cycle docking of the Collins class submarines to be undertaken in WA.
UWA’s Defence & Security Institute should help foster the long-term growth of the state’s industry, not to mention its intellectual perspective within Australia’s defence establishment.
And while the likes of former Lockheed Martin chief executive Raydon Gates and Department of Defence secretary Greg Moriarty can boast of their ties to the states, ensuring WA is properly represented within industry and academia remains an ongoing challenge.
“There are still too many Commonwealth officials who come to WA who talk [about] the Indo-Pacific in name only, rather than in outcomes and policy applications,” Professor Smith said.
“That’s the value we can bring to the Commonwealth; we live it, breathe it and feel it every day.
“The state government has done a very good job of trying to raise defence as a WA issue.
“That’s a very good piece of work, but … there’s a long way to go.”