By Robbin Laird
Recently, I had a chance to discuss with Air Vice-Marshal (Retired) John Blackburn the work he been engaged in since last I was in Australia in March 2020. The team has recently released a final report on the challenges facing Australia to become a more resilient society as well as their report on challenges facing Australia in the energy sector as well to build out resilient capabilities.
Prior to the pandemic, John was pursuing several issues affecting resilience, initially from a largely defense point of view, but then broadened his lens to a wider set of issues. Now with the nearly two-year pandemic impact, the issue is clearly not a niche issue.
Question: Your work on resilience preceded the pandemic, but obviously has now been informed as well by the impact of the pandemic on supply chains, medical manufacturing and fuel and energy issues as well. How would you describe your journey?
Blackburn: “In 2019, I was asked to present at the Australian Navy Institute in 2019 on maritime trade and the risks to that trade. I had previously worked on resilience issues in the energy, economy, and environment arenas. However, in preparing for the Navy Institute seminar I came to realise that we were in a similar situation with respect to maritime trade, i.e. little resilience to deal with potential trade interruptions.
“When we looked at the total system, the lack of resilience was clearly obvious. When SLD brought attention to the work of Rosemary Gibson on the dependence of the West on the supply of medicine by China, we started to focus on a medicine supply chains in Australia as well.”
Question: To be clear: prior to the pandemic you were focusing on the resilience issue. The impact of the pandemic was to bring in highlight the strategic significance of the issue. But there seems to be a desire to get “back to normal” without realizing that the pre-pandemic world is not coming back, notably with regard to how globalization with China at the epicenter was playing out prior to 2020. How do you see this shift?
Blackburn: “Politicians try to boost to the voter’s confidence in a crisis “Hey, we’ll get back to normal soon.” Unfortunately, that pre COVID “normal” is gone. That was business as was. We’re not going back there. You can’t. We’ve really got to say, “We’re uncertain of where we’re headed, but we know it’s not where we were before,” and here’s an opportunity. Do a reset, taking account of our resilience issues and vulnerabilities. We have to design the future that we’re heading towards very rapidly, because we can’t just go back.”
Question: But certainly, in the United States, the capacity to grasp reality through the vortex of current political rhetoric and debate is probably at an all-time low. How do we get back on track?
Blackburn: “You are right. I think the United Kingdom, at present, is probably one of the best examples of what you are pointing out. Because of the concerns that were raised about Brexit and where they have ending up, they seem to be in a state of denial and distraction. In Australia, it is an unusual situation because we essentially drew up the drawbridge and said, “Well, fine. We’re just going to isolate ourselves,” and then we pumped up debt at an incredible rate.
“But why did we do that? Because we didn’t have the hospital capacities, the medicine supply capabilities, the production capabilities to deal with widespread spread COVID-19. We had no choice, but to draw up the drawbridge and isolate ourselves. But we’re still not facing the reality because, faced with the risk of voter’s losing hope, the politicians are still not facing the full reality of the situation we are in and are not preparing adequately for the risks we are likely to face in the next few years. Specifically, COVID variants and supply chain failures.
“There’s a lot of positive spin about the end of the pandemic coming up shortly. ‘We’ll all be back to normal. Things will be great.’ So, we’re not able to have a very honest, apolitical conversation, which is the first point that we highlighted in our national resilience project. If you can’t have an honest conversation about where we are, what the assumptions are, what the risks are without blaming somebody else for being in that situation that we’re in together, then there’s no way you can work out where we need to go in terms of a more resilient and secure society.”
Question: Australia has been engaged in serious conflict with the epicenter for generating the pandemic, namely China. There has clearly been enhanced realization that China is not Australia’s friend in term of the survive of a liberal democratic society. How do you see the Chinese threat feeding into a resilience perspective within Australia itself?
Blackburn: “It clearly does but we have a compounding challenge to face, namely, the short-term perspective of politics here, driven by the three-year election cycle. The Chinese Government has implemented trade sanctions against us as they attempt to bully us into being subservient. That will not happen. However, the Chinese actions have been anticipated but we have lacked a long-term strategy to address this threat and so we are constrained to just reacting and pleading for help from the USA.
“We don’t have a coherent view of where we need to be in 10, 15 or 20 years. It’s all about the next election. It is very hard to develop a resiliency strategy and a strategy for dealing with China if your political focus is short term.
Question: How might we get to a place whereby we can take a longer view?
Blackburn: “As we conclude in our report, we don’t prepare for crises. That’s just not in our culture. We react. Unfortunately, a lot of our reactions, particularly at the political level, are too little too late and too shortsighted. We get caught in this reaction loop and you don’t get people with the brain space to step outside of that process.
“The military concept of preparedness doesn’t really exist in civil society in Australia. In our resilience project we highlighted that we could learn from the military. In my work on Plan Jericho, there were two things we focused on . First, was the need for vastly improved, shared situation awareness, and second, the ability to operate as an integrated team, because Plan Jericho wasn’t really about air force, it was about how do we trigger a joint force.
“So, what we did in the project was to take those two themes and add preparedness and mobilization. In the project report we suggest that there are three characteristics or attributes critical for a society to be resilient. One is shared awareness, by having an honest conversation about what the issues are, as well as the threats, the assumptions, and problems.
“The second characteristic is the need to work as a team. In our country, particularly with our federation structure, that has been a bit of a challenge. Thirdly, if you’ve got the first two, is the ability to prepare for a range of risks /scenarios.”
“In the military, we trained, simulated, and exercised; it’s not that you assume you’re going to exactly see what you have trained for but rather that you are building the skill sets and experience to be able to deal with a wide range of crises.
“For each of the nine areas we looked at in the project, the same challenges or blockages came up. We have individuals with incredibly deep expertise, but we don’t have shared knowledge in the society because it’s blocked either for political reasons, by bureaucracy or by IP issues in industry.
Blackburn then described an example of a strategic opportunity for Australia, given its robust ability to generate electric power from solar sources, or if the country faces reality, nuclear power. “If we’re going to be able to have control over our transport, our logistics, our basic systems that support our way of life, then we’re going to have to get off imported fuels as fast as we can, in terms of transport and logistics. Everything from trucks to vehicles, to trains, to ships, so that we can have control over the energy necessary to run the logistics of our society. We need to electrify our transport and logistics systems as much as possible.”
“From a wider perspective, electric cars are more about our security as a nation than just about emissions; BEVs , Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles and renewable ammonia powered ships can result in a significant reduction of our imported fuel dependency. We can have control over these parts of our national systems by having control over the energy used to power them. But the current electricity grid system in this country is very fragile. We’re going to need to grow it to two to three times its current size as we transform our energy systems through electrification.
“Most everything is connected. What I find is that the domain experts largely stay in their lane way. There are not enough whole of systems experts in this country. The result is that we don’t get that broader shared awareness we need to think strategically.”
For the recently released final report on Australia and resilience, see the following:
For the recently released final report on Australian energy resilience, see the following: