Australia Misfires Defence Cash


On the weekend, the Rudd Government released the nation’s military blueprint for the defence of Australia. The new White Paper is the first formal statement of Australian defence strategy since 2000 and its title, Defending Australia in the 21st Century: Force 2030, reflects its main message.

The White Paper contains few surprises. The headline items had all been carefully leaked, mainly to The Australian, in the months leading up to the paper’s release: 12 new submarines to replace the Collins-class subs; 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters; 8 new frigates and 20 new helicopter-capable patrol boats. No extra infantry but 1000-plus armoured personnel carriers to protect them. Cruise missiles. A cyber-war centre to protect us from botnet attacks.

The initial reaction to the White Paper has been equally predictable. The paper was the product of Australia’s tight-knit defence establishment — the small network of top brass, Defence Department bureaucrats, ex-generals and admirals, and policy groups like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Lowy Institute that dominates the Australian defence debate. Among this group, the reaction has been largely technical in nature — should we buy even more fighters and subs, as Hugh White suggested in his own "alternative White Paper"? Do we need more troops and tanks, as the Centre for International Security Studies’ Alan Dupont and the Australian Defence Association’s Neil James think we do?

Kim Beazley thinks the new paper "looks big and risky, but it is not" while Richard Brabin-Smith believes the paper "sets out in clear language that Australia’s most basic strategic interest remains the defence of Australia against direct armed attack".

And this is precisely the problem. Australia’s most basic strategic interest is not defence against direct armed attack. Australia’s most basic strategic interest is a planet habitable to human life. The Defence White Paper has essentially nothing to say about this — which is a shame, considering that the environmental threats that face our nation in the immediate future dwarf any remote chance of military threat to our sovereignty.

As I argued when the plan to build new subs first emerged, the whole way we think about national security is deeply flawed. Lethal submarines and next-generation fighter jets won’t stop the Greenland ice shelf from sliding into the Atlantic, and they won’t stop much of southern Australia turning into a dust bowl. After all, the invasion of Australia is only a contingency. The radical and irreversible warming of our continent is already a reality, as I wrote in Februrary.

The White Paper does indeed identify climate change as a potential risk. "Changing climate patterns," it states on page 31, "combined with booming population growth, will sharpen competition for scarce food, water and energy resources in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, and are likely to exacerbate existing population and infrastructure problems in developing countries in those regions, straining their capacity to adapt and cope." However, in a shockingly offhand conclusion, the White Paper then goes on to state that "large-scale strategic consequences of climate change are … not likely to be felt before 2030."

Oh really? The long-term food security of the world is already a massive problem. If anthropogenic global warming is left unchecked and the world warms by 4, 6 and even 8 degrees, then even rich nations like Australia will struggle to maintain an adequate food supply. Once this happens, all bets are off. Bread riots were the immediate precursors to the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the February Revolution in 1917 in Moscow. Resource scarcity fuelled the civil war in Darfur.

Let’s turn this problem over and examine it from another perspective. The security threat that the White Paper clearly envisages, and the force structure it thinks Australia should build to protect against, is a militarily aggressive China. It doesn’t matter that neither the United States’ nor Australia’s intelligence agencies think this is what China is doing. Apparently this is the strategic future Australia is preparing for, and the price of that insurance policy is more than upwards of $100 billion in new hardware.

Well, it turns out China is already doing something very harmful to Australia. It is building new coal-fired power stations at a rapid pace. If China keeps doing this until 2030, the race to prevent dangerous global warming will be over — and we will have lost it. Australia may have a brand new fleet of fancy submarines, but no agriculture in the Murray Darling, no snow in the Snowy Mountains, no reef tourism industry in North Queensland and no water in Adelaide. How will aggressive re-armament help Australia convince China not to build those coal-fired power plants? It won’t, of course.

When a threat as clear and present as climate change is blithely dismissed as "not likely to be felt before 2030", it’s very hard to take the rest of the White Paper seriously. After all, the entire point of this document is to prepare Australia for the strategic contingencies it is likely to face in the future. A resurgent China leading to an arms race in Asia (a theory, by the way, which has surprisingly little evidence going for it) apparently requires a massive military modernisation. But climate change? Not even a problem until 2030. She’ll be right, mate.

Nor is climate change the only real and imminent threat facing our nation that this White Paper ignores. What about peak oil? Of course, many think new solutions will be found to the looming shortage of petroleum long before the oil actually runs out — but a growing group of geoscientists and petroleum analysts think that oil production has already peaked, and is about to start declining precipitously. If this is so, Australia, as a net oil importer, faces some very tough challenges.

But despite recommending an ambitious new suite of diesel powered submarines and fighters that run on jet fuel, the White Paper doesn’t even mention the phrase "peak oil". In fact, it only mentions the word "oil" once, in the context of protecting Australia’s oil and gas platforms off the coast of Western Australia.

Australia’s complacency about peak oil is staggering. Living as we do on a vast continent, we depend on transport more than nearly any other nation. Ninety-five percent or more of this transport is powered by fossil fuels. Yet we already import around half of our petroleum, and this will increase to two-thirds by 2015.

In 2006, the Australian Senate launched an inquiry into Australia’s preparedness for peak oil. It recommended that the Government should take peak oil into account "in considering a less oil-dependent policy scenario". Yet by late 2008 the Rudd Government hadn’t even responded to the Senate report, let alone begun to seriously plan for an oil-constrained future. As the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil pointed out to the inquiry, Australia doesn’t even maintain a strategic petroleum reserve.

The most thoughtful initial comments about the White Paper have come from an unexpected candidate: Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull has had a tough time of it lately, but he got it absolutely right when he said: "It makes no sense for Australia to base its long-term strategic policy on the highly contentious proposition that we are on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China."

The White Paper sets out a thoughtful, well-reasoned and logical plan for the defence of Australia against threats which don’t exist, while completely ignoring the threats that do. In doing so, it reflects a larger failure of Australia’s political classes, which as a whole have comprehensively failed to understand the scale and nature of the looming climate change disaster.

The new White Paper builds a force which is nothing less than a new Maginot line that will elaborately prepare for a war that even the White Paper itself says is unlikely.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.