Defence White Paper A Strategic Mismatch

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Australia has a new defence blueprint. The 2013 Defence White Paper, released late last week, purports to be the master document describing Australia's plans to safeguard our national security from armed threats.

The new paper is the successor to the Rudd-Gillard government's last such effort, in 2009. It's an evolution, not a revolution. The 2009 White Paper strongly emphasised the threat of a rising China to Asia-Pacific security, and mapped out a huge arms build up to prepare Australia for what it thought would be a far more contentious strategic environment. Expensive new acquisitions were canvassed, including 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 12 new submarines, new destroyers and frigates, and a hardened and more mechanised army.

Four years on, the China rhetoric has been dramatically toned down. The bellicose predictions of possible conflict in North Asia have been muted, and a new phrase, “Indo-Pacific”, has been introduced to describe Australia's regional posture.

But the expensive toys are still in the official plans. Most controversially, the Government still plans to design and construct 12 new submarines in South Australia, eschewing much cheaper off-the-shelf options from submarine builders in Japan and Europe. Illustrating the length and complexity of modern weapons acquisition, the future submarines, which are planed to replace Australia's current fleet of rickety Collins class boats, are expected to sink silently below the waves sometime after 2028. The Armidale class patrol boats, which have started to crack under the strain of constant sea patrols, are also going to be replaced.

Australia also remains committed to the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an increasingly beleaguered jet fighter program that is years behind schedule and tens of billions over budget. However, the Government has slashed its order by a squadron of planes, reducing our final purchase to 72 F-35s. However total RAAF fighter strength will remain at around 100, taking into account the 24 FA-18F Super Hornets purchased by the Howard government in 2006.

In fact, the RAAF is arguably beefing up; to augment our air warfare capabilities, the Government is purchasing 12 EA-18 Growlers from the US. These flying jammers have sophisticated anti-radar and electronic warfare capabilities, and will act as a force multiplier for strike missions. The RAAF now has a small but advanced air combat fleet, featuring airborne refuelling, airborne radar and control, fourth generation fighter jets, and the Growlers.

What is all this heavy iron for, exactly? The Defence White Paper redefines Australia's defence plans in an elegant fashion. There are four key goals set out for the ADF: defence of Australia, stability in the oceans and archipelagos of our near north, stability in the wider Indo-Pacific, and a “stable, rules-based global order.”

The new formulation is a far more realistic and intelligent description of Australia's strategic priorities that the 2009 White Paper. It explicitly commits the ADF to stabilisation and disaster relief operations in the south Pacific, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. It also places foreign entanglements farther down the list of priorities than the defence of Australia's sea-air gap to the immediate north. Of course, whether future governments will be able to resist the siren call of US-led intervention in a future conflict somewhere far away is another matter entirely.

In keeping with the 2009 White Paper, however, a mismatch remains between the capabilities we're acquiring and the defence responsibilities we foresee. Australia's navy and air force look overweight for the key task of defending the northern approaches, while our army is arguably under strength. A future force focussed on regional stability, disaster relief and low intensity combat would be much more numerous in light infantry, and would probably ignore high-end weapons like Joint Strike Fighters and subs altogether. Alternatively, we could buy cheaper subs and cheaper fighter jets and use the money to improve our capability in areas we are clearly going to rely heavily on, such as special forces.

There is a further mismatch: between defence ambitions and money in the bank. As Griffith University's Andrew O'Neill observes, “the most striking feature of the 2013 Defence White Paper is the growing gap between Australia's strategic policy aspirations and the crunch in defence spending.” O'Neill points out that the grandiose rhetoric about the “Indo-Pacific” is belied by the relatively modest naval capabilities Australia can deploy to the region. For the foreseeable future, Australia and the world will rely on the US Navy to protect the world's sea lanes. Nor has anyone seriously asked what India thinks about Australia's newfound interest in the ocean named after it.

In any case, can Australia afford even the more modest vision articulated by the 2013 White Paper? Australia's defence spending is currently at its lowest levels since 1938. This is fine if, like me, you foresee little in the way of kinetic threats to our national security. The defence establishment, on the other hand, is extremely worried. As the White Paper itself points out, “the historical annual average defence spending since the end of the Vietnam War is approximately 2.2 per cent of Australia’s GDP. Since 2000, the annual average has been around 1.8 per cent of GDP”. Last year, it was below 1.6 per cent.

Defence experts are now seriously questioning whether Australia can continue to skimp on defence spending. On the one hand, there is the risk key allies like the US will see us as riding for free. On the other hand, there is the clear mismatch between our defence ambitions – most notably a far more capable conventional military force – and our willingness to pay for it.

The problem for the generals moving their figurines around is that the fiscal and political environment has turned against defence spending. The Howard government spent up big on defence, particularly in the wake of the East Timor intervention. So did Kevin Rudd in his government's first two years.

But now the money spigots have been turned off, with the federal Treasury discovering new revenue write-downs seemingly every week. Just today, the Australian Financial Review is reporting that the shortfall in budget revenue between now and 2016 could reach $80 billion. That's a poor outlook for those pushing for ruinously expensive submarines and jet fighters that Australia may not even need, or use, in the most likely spectrum of future military engagements.

This dire fiscal outlook explains the reticence of the Opposition to commit to genuine increases in defence funding, should it win government. Coalition Defence spokesman David Johnston has been vocal about the Gillard government's defence cuts, but will only commit the Opposition to increasing defence spending when the budget returns to health.

Johnston, who has wide respect in the defence community, is an increasingly influential figure in the defence debate, if only because he is expected to inherit the portfolio if the Gillard government falls. He has an idiosyncratic view about the big weapons purchases: he hates the subs, but loves the Joint Strike Fighters.

Even so, the differences between Labor and the Coalition on defence policy are outweighed by the similarities. As Graeme Dobell points out in a perceptive post at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's blog, there is a “tacit consensus” across the major parties on all the key aspects. Both major parties are committed to increasing defence spending – but only when they can afford it. Both are committed to a broadly similar suite of advanced weapons capabilities. Both are rock solid in their support of the US alliance.

The sum of it all is that, whoever wins government in September, Australia's defence strategy is likely to evolve along current trajectories. Unfortunately, that trajectory continues to emphasise traditional perspectives of military force and balance of power politics, rather than the true threats to Australia's security, which are mostly to do with a rapidly warming world.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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