Defense Media Network

Interview With Australian Defence Attaché Air Vice-Marshal Kym Osley, AM, CSC

Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Kym Osley, AM, CSC, is the head of Australian Defence Staff (Washington), and is located at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C. He leads a team of more than 420 Australian Defence Staff in the United States who are involved in military exchanges, intelligence liaison, delivery of major projects, support to operations, and science and technology collaboration. Osley provides oversight of all the Australian defense organization activities in the United States on behalf of the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Huston, and Secretary of the Department of Defence, Dr. Ian Watt.


The Year in Defense: Can you please explain briefly to our American readers, given Australia being in another hemisphere and fully on the other side of our planet, something of its world view and place in it?

Air Vice-Marshal Kym Osley: Australia is really a middle power; one that considers itself as a part of the broader world community, and who certainly see itself as very relevant on the world stage. While we are separated by several thousand miles from our traditional allies and from the European nations where most Australians can trace their origins to, we are very much a multicultural society that is an active participant in most critical issues of today. Australians are very comfortable travelers and world citizens. Most Australians have passports and we certainly use them – at a rate about 10 times higher, pro rata, than the citizens of the United States. We are proud to call ourselves Australians and very proud to call Australia home, but we also believe that in order to advance Australia’s interests at home, we increasingly need to engage with other nations. Therefore you will find that Australia is a relatively keen and certainly vocal participant in international forums, and engaging in the key issues that challenge us all today, such as how best to deal with the uncertain global financial outlook, or negotiating on problems such as climate change – our presence in Copenhagen illustrates that – and also, and very importantly, in countering terrorism.


Residents wave flags as sailors assigned the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) march in the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Day March through downtown Perth, Australia, April 25, 2012. ANZAC Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand to honor those who died and served in military operations for their countries. Carl Vinson is anchored in Perth, Australia for a port visit. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans

It surprises some people when they find that Australia, despite having only a very small population of 21 million, that we have a relatively large gross domestic product [GDP]. We’re around something like the 15th largest [GDP] in the world. This, combined with the fact that we have weathered the economic downturn reasonably well, makes us regionally very important, and certainly important for the future economic recovery in our region of interest. And as a member of the G20, we have a key voice in the global economic community. Also, we see it as very important that we invest in security, and as a consequence, we have maintained a relatively high rate of investment, by world standards, in our military forces. We have about the 13th largest per annum expenditure on our military, which certainly makes us a significant military force in our region. Finally, Australia’s relationship with America remains vitally important to us and is very central to our new [Defence] White Paper that has just been issued.


Talking about that document, this past year (2009), the Australian Department of Defence issued the major strategic White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, which has been given high marks for both its depth and detail. Can you talk a bit about it, and the points that you believe are the most significant in the long term?

That 2009 White Paper has involved a very comprehensive review of defense covering the complete defense enterprise and looking at capability requirements out to about 2030, including addressing the funding aspects – it is a fully resourced plan. It was conducted over a period of a little more than a year, and obviously we went into great detail in many areas. The 2009 White Paper task force drew in officers from across our Department of Defence and it was supported by a panel of three external ministerial advisors. In preparing the 2009 White Paper, the task force considered many things including a series of intelligence assessments. It was informed in part by information and views obtained through consultation with the community. It also included a complete force structure review; looking at the capabilities that we really needed to meet the overall strategic objectives, and it had an independent defense budget audit, which was known as the Pappas Review, that looked at ways of making us more efficient.

The strategy in this White Paper was built on some very fundamental judgments. First, while the threat of conflict between nations has diminished, it hasn’t been eliminated. For that reason, the main role of the ADF, the Australian Defence Force, must remain conventional combat. Secondly, intrastate warfare will be an enduring and more common form of war for the foreseeable future. And thirdly, we cannot know the future, so we need to hedge against the different types of risk. From our perspective, a balanced suite of capabilities will allow us to do this. We will focus on developing our capabilities to keep pace with military capabilities as they appear in the region. We have very good relations with all the nations in the region, but it’s prudent to plan against emerging regional military capabilities when one cannot predict what a particular nation’s intent might be decades in the future.

Air Vice-Marshal Kym Osley, AM, CSC

Australian Defence Staff Washington Head Air Vice-Marshal Kym Osley says farewell to Secretary of Defense Dr. Robert Gates after the Australian-United States Ministerial Consultations, known as AUSMIN, Nov. 10, 2010. Australian Department of Defence photo

So, why the need for a new Defence White Paper in 2009? Well, it’s been nine years since the last Defence White Paper and we have not only had a change of government in that time, but the strategic environment continues to evolve. In 2000 when the last Defence White Paper was written, the events of Sept.11, 2001, had not yet unfolded. The 2000 Defence White Paper saw globalization and U.S. supremacy as the two key driving forces in that strategic environment. In updates to the 2000 White Paper over the next seven years, they introduced global terrorism into that strategic mix. Now there’s a complicated convergence of trends, which includes shifts in the distribution of economic, political, and military power within the regions, global demographic change, population movements, environmental and resource pressures, among others. These combine to make the future strategic environment very uncertain from our perspective. They’re cognizant of these trends and the White Paper makes a number of judgments about the global strategic outlook. The first point to make is that unless there is some unprecedented strategic shock, Australia feels very confident that the U.S. will remain the single most powerful and influential strategic actor over the period out to 2030. However, regional powers are acquiring capabilities that could limit U.S. freedom of action and movement more than in the past.

The second point I’d like to make is that the world of the future will be increasingly multipolar and more focused on the Asia Pacific region. If the last few centuries are characterized by European and American domination of world affairs – what I call an Atlantic-centric view of the world – I think we’re now seeing that the power is shifting to the Pacific and the Indian oceans, and will continue to do so in the next two decades. By way of example, in 1982, Asia accounted for 21 percent of the world gross domestic product. By 2006, this had risen to 35 percent, and a recent Australian Treasury report indicates that by 2030, which is the planned horizon for this current Defence White Paper, Asian economies will account for approximately 44 percent of the world gross domestic product. Hence, this Defence White Paper is most [appropriate], given its title, of Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century. The 2009 White Paper also notes, that in the period up to 2030, the Indian Ocean will become more important in terms of its centrality to our maritime strategy and our defense planning.

The 2009 White Paper also notes that the continued economic development that has allowed countries in the wider Asian-Pacific region to buy increasingly sophisticated weapons and systems will probably continue. A number of nations in the region now field modern submarines. They also have advanced fighter aircraft, upgraded missiles, improved air-defense systems, airborne early-warning systems, and unmanned air vehicles. Now, these are all major leaps in capability for these countries. Some are already in place; others are planned over the next decade or two. In general, Australia is not too worried about these capabilities in themselves. They certainly don’t need to be feared. In fact, some of these capabilities may be a boon for us in the region, as the more capable partners we have, they make for more effective coalitions when we work together – for example, if we work together in counter-piracy, counter-smuggling, or other maritime security roles. But in setting this strategic direction for the Australian Defence Force, we need to be mindful of the capabilities in the region.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...