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article imageOp-Ed: Australian Defence White Paper gets flak from all sides

By Paul Wallis     Feb 24, 2016 in World
Sydney - A White Paper has thrown a few explosives in to the long-running debate/ cursing competition about Australia’s defence budget. An annual budget of over $50 billion per year in future and $150 billion for 12 submarines hasn’t gone down well.
The White Paper contains a strategic assessment which might seem strange to outsiders. It includes a range of issues which deal with our increasingly heavily armed region, terrorism, cyberterrorism, and what could be called a few polite statements of the obvious.
Australia’s military operates in a multiplicity of environments, from disaster relief to hot wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, bombing missions in Syria, and past commitments in Cambodia and East Timor. These missions are neither simple nor cheap, for a military which suffers from the typical issues of funding, acquisitions, and scales of “mission creep” which are a serious demand on a relatively small force.
The current situation:
1. Australia is buying the F35 Joint Strike fighter to replace the F18 Hornets, with considerable debate over costs, air superiority capabilities, and the time factor.
2. Australia needs to replace the home-made Collins Class submarines with new subs. The current sub force can’t crew several of the existing subs, which have been in regular controversy over things like leaks, for years. Australia is looking to buy subs from either Japan or Europe. An offer to lease seven American Virginia Class subs got nowhere, but would have cost only $20 billion including support services, as opposed to the proposed $150 billion for building the new subs.
3. Army upgrades are very much necessary parts of the mix, including ordnance and hardware upgrades, as well as systems and emerging tech.
4. While the operational performance of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been exemplary, the moving target of future requirements has added a range of issues and tough calls to defence policy.
5. Maintaining commitments is also a necessary part of evaluating ADF future needs.
6. Demands on military intelligence have spread exponentially as the complex war environment lives up to its name. This means that intelligence capacity has had to expand and diversify, with the obvious issues of practical operational performance in conflict zones.
7. Cyberwarfare and ongoing threats including cyber-attacks on Australian targets is an emerging cost centre, with any degree of possible risks involved.
8. China’s moves in the South China Sea have created a wild card, and a very unappealing element, in current Australian defence thinking.
9. Progressive increases to the defence budget are proposed despite Australia’s large budget deficit, an obvious sticking point with future governments and Parliament.
The major grounds for bitching about defence budgets, explained
The financial side is the main ground for the anger, which is quite genuine. Australia’s version of “austerity” is no kinder than anywhere else. In an environment where open-ended contracts for unspecified amounts for the F35 are greeted with not particularly good-humoured ridicule, adding $150 billion for subs is seen as asking for another price blowout.
In fairness — there’s some solid basis for this chronic lack of enthusiasm. Australia is a rich country, but the credit card approach to defence acquisitions has been out of favour since the F111 back in the 60s. Governments shouldn’t be writing blank checks for anything and everything. The $150 billion is therefore expected to blow out to some other, quite possibly unimaginable figure.
Other spending options also have a reasonable claim to attention — education, health and housing could use that money, too. Big spending at a time when deficits are causing politicians to speak of “the end of the age of entitlement” and higher retirement ages aren’t exactly popular, or credible.
The response to the defence budget projections, therefore, has been very sour, very skeptical, and almost entirely negative. Parliament is likely to nitpick, with some reason, about numbers.
Real military needs vs budgets
Having said which — there’s also absolutely no doubt that the ADF does need to upgrade, to re-equip, and to be ready for whatever new horror show the future has in store. Australia’s military history of good people with “whatever” vintage equipment is an object lesson in the need to be up to speed. Air, sea and land have genuine and quite legitimate claims to quick, and preferably top quality, upgrades across the board. South East Asia is a tough neighborhood, and it’s not getting any softer.
The real problem is finding the best and most sustainable way to achieve these defence goals. Leasing the American subs, for example, is a good cost-effective option. Why this proposal got nowhere is anyone’s guess, but it looks like advanced myopia to me, in both budgetary and operational terms. The remaining $130 billion could basically re-equip the entire ADF from top to bottom with everything it needs, and the Virginia Class are considered good subs.
The F35, rather sadly, is looking like an almost scripted-for-the-purpose argument against spending. This 5th generation fighter includes a lot of fly by wire tech. It’s likely to be the ancestor of the inevitable next generation of air superiority platforms. The F35 acquisition process, however, has been messy, time-consuming, expensive and tends to raise doubts where doubts are bottom line issues for budgets. (You’ll never convince me that Lockheed need help designing a fighter. The fixes for fixes for fixes do include some necessary measures, but in this vast, endless time frame…?)
Redefining the problem and the solution
Australia’s worst habit, since Federation, has been to see defence acquisition programs as solutions, when they’re really ongoing processes that need to be structured sustainably. The military market isn’t a great place for “impulse buying.” Splurging, rather than structured spending, tends to be a staccato process of outlays.
Nor are the operational benefits of acquisitions necessarily safe bets. We got 50 American Abrams tanks to replace our aging Leopards, but we also wound up with a much smaller armoured capability than would be viable in a hot war environment.
We tend to dither about basics when dithering is a particularly bad option. We’ve been babbling for ages about replacing our conventional 1970s-era artillery with new guns, and not much has happened, at the expense of Army organic fire support capabilities. Infantry mortars are another case in point. Organic support allows effective responses without calling on air support for every damn situation, particularly when that air support is likely to be stretched.
We don’t want to be guessing about air superiority, either. It’s axiomatic, it’s essential, and we’re trundling along with some vague idea about how to achieve it? Not good enough by any measure.
Ironically, all of this is happening in the face of a military organization which is well and truly up to speed on modern weapons and systems, knows its deficiencies all too well, and has spent decades trying to maintain its capabilities. Imagine giving the modern U.S. Marines 1776-era weapons or sharpened sticks, and telling them to re-fight Fallujah. Not a great scenario, is it?
As usual, the message is “Stop bitching and start thinking”. We need to put some solid ground under the entire process of military acquisitions. We need fewer theorists and more practical ongoing operational solutions for equipping the ADF, preferably from the people required to put those solutions in to practice, not outsiders. We need to give the uniforms the respect their opinions deserve, and ensure capabilities, not guess and hope.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Australian defence white paper 2016, Australian defence force, military budgets, South East Asia military issues, cyber warfare
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