Why Defence Will Not Be an Election Issue

Major-General Jim Molan wrote with controlled passion (“Why Our Defence Forces Face Terminal Decline”, Quadrant, March 2013) about what he saw as serious failings in the way Australian governments develop and implement national defence policy. He concluded by setting out a number of principles that should underpin the development of a new defence policy. General Molan’s article was generally based on the Rudd–Gillard government’s failure to finance the programs set out in the 2009 defence White Paper and implied that an incoming Coalition government should implement his suggestions as a matter of urgency.

But assuming that a Coalition government led by Tony Abbott takes office in September, any reference to Abbott’s own outlook can lead only to continued pessimism. In what is regarded as Abbott’s political philosophy as set out in his book Battlelines, national defence is not mentioned. Certainly Abbott does all those things that a conventional political leader does by visiting the troops in Afghanistan and making all the right noises in a certainly more persuasive manner than does the Prime Minister or her Minister for Defence, but it is none of it very convincing. Even in the case of the so-called border security issue, “stopping the boats” and the like, the Coalition is treating the matter as essentially one of law enforcement—which in fact it is—rather than national defence.

To be fair, it is now obvious that whoever wins in September—and it looks probable that will be the Coalition—the new government will have no money. In that sense, Abbott will face the same problem, possibly on a larger scale, than did John Howard in 1996. Faced with a substantial budget deficit, Howard’s priority was to get the fiscal deficit under control. General Molan’s prescription rightly emphasises this priority but also the need to develop a genuine defence strategy, to sort out the mess (my term rather than his) that bedevils the defence machine and to commit the new and future governments to a consistent implementation of defence policy. Such would not cost money, only intellectual commitment.

Meanwhile the government has announced that it will commit a warship, HMAS Sydney, to operate with the US Seventh Fleet in Japanese waters. This ship is now an almost geriatric thirty years old and will be the oldest surface combatant in the fleet. This deployment coupled with the hosting eventually of a 2500-strong US Marine task force in Darwin represents a low-cost but essentially token premium payment on our American insurance policy.

As Australia looks forward to and plans for the centenary of the Gallipoli landing that launched the Anzac legend, its annual commemoration is attracting ever-greater enthusiasm among the post-Baby Boomer generations. Politicians of all colours hasten to get on the bandwagon and be seen to be marking the sacrifice of those Australians that their predecessors sent off to war inadequately equipped and trained. A new generation of writers produce books that burrow around the histories for new insights without ever suggesting that there is something inherent in an Australian culture that rejects any notion that Australia should have an independent and adequate defence capability. That is surely a fundamental lesson to be drawn from our national story. 

Cuts to defence outlays always enjoy a degree of political and popular support. Politicians and journalists, themselves usually sympathetic to defence cuts, can always find a tame academic or commentator to inveigh against defence spending. All sorts of reasons are adduced to justify the cuts, but the principal argument is that there is no obvious threat to Australia.

Which is of course true. Likewise there is no obvious threat of flooding to my home, living as I do on top of a hill. But like most people I still insure my home and its contents against a range of unpredictable threats to its security because that security is fundamental to my livelihood. The difference between the government and me is that my domestic security is backed by well-organised and trained fire brigades and other emergency services operating under well-defined laws and financial provisions. At the national level, we have a defence force which by any measure, and as we found in East Timor, is too small and poorly equipped to deal with even a minor security threat in any sustained way. Highly touted commitments to coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan are token at best, albeit effective in a very limited way. The challenge to a national government is to decide what it needs a defence capability for, calculate what sort of force it needs and how to provide for it. In rational terms, it’s not difficult. In political terms it has proved almost impossible.

Calculating the premium for this national defence task is part of the process. As I write, the government has produced a new defence White Paper that is designed to define the defence strategy, to outline the make-up of a defence force that can implement the strategy and to set out a program for the acquisition of any new equipment required. Cynics, as I have become, will question the government’s sincerity. The announcements will not necessarily translate into actual contracts, the government will have no money in the foreseeable future and, in any case, it is unlikely to be occupying the government benches after September. On the other hand, Labor in opposition will be able to criticise the government when it defers the purchases, as its fiscal nightmare will demand.

In this context, the less said about the 2009 White Paper’s commitment to twelve new submarines, the better. Years after the project was flagged, no decision has been made on the type of submarine to be acquired, where they will be built, or how they will be crewed. Instead the existing Collins-class boats will have their service life extended.

This 2013 White Paper has not been well received by the very limited commentariat, primarily because it makes no attempt to fund its very limited program. In fact, most observers seem to have concluded that the document is primarily political, published by a government that is desperate to show that it is concerned about defence but is also expecting to be defeated at the September election. Moreover the government knows that the money required is simply not available because it is essentially insolvent. If it were a private company, it would be forced to cease trading. 

Defence White Papers have had a dismal history over the past four decades. I can recall five highly publicised White Papers (1976, 1987, 2000, 2009 and now 2013) plus a general review by Professor Paul Dibb in 1986 and a force structure review in 1991. Apart from the force structure review that was designed to reduce the size of the defence force and cut costs, not a single one has ever been implemented as intended because the necessary funding was not forthcoming.

Of course that sorry story is not complete. The Defence Department produces a plethora of less-publicised documents on a range of issues. Many are useful and have underpinned important but essentially low-cost initiatives to reshape the defence force. Not a few valuable reviews have been carried out by various inquiries, notably in the past by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. In the latter case, these came to an abrupt end when the government of the day prevented the committee from conducting inquiries that were not referred to it by the government. Own-motion inquiries that had produced valuable reports were stopped; they had become embarrassing. In fact it can be said that the department has produced many more studies, reviews and reports than it has new ships, aircraft or military units.

Public response to the publication of a White Paper tends to be limited—through a general lack of interest—and mixed, ranging from the naive calls for total disarmament, through special pleading by, for example, the shipbuilding lobby, to the evergreen demand for conscription by those manifestly ineligible for call-up. There exists a small group of independent commentators, mainly academics and retired senior military officers, but because as Kim Beazley once famously said there are no votes in defence, the government can safely ignore those commentators. Politically, defence does not have a constituency to match those of the health, education and welfare lobbies.

Defence planning often appears bizarre in its lack of coherence, continuity and commitment. Each White Paper devotes pages to Australia’s defence strategy. The latest document has been praised because it toned down the 2009 document’s apparent perception of China as a serious threat to Australia. This time, China is seen not as a threat but as a country with which we can co-operate. Such assessments are irrelevant to proper defence planning because they depend on an assessment of what China—or any other country—might do in the next few years when, very likely, those countries themselves don’t know. Such comments make for loud headlines and approving—or disapproving—comments from foreign capitals, but that’s all.

Australia’s defence strategy must be based on a sensible definition of Australia’s vital security interests. Moreover, that definition ought to arise from a public debate in the Australian community at large. The task is not too difficult. As Paul Dibb pointed out in the Australian on May 6, and indeed in his 1986 review of defence policy, Australia’s interests obviously include our territorial integrity and our economic security, especially our major resource projects. Dibb properly goes further to include the security of our region, which, he points out, covers some 10 per cent of the earth’s surface. I would go further. As a nation that depends economically on foreign trade and freedom of navigation, we have a vital interest in protecting our sea lines of communication, necessarily in conjunction with our trading partners and allies. And there is an immediate need (which the Australia Defence Association foreshadowed in 1991) to protect our electronic networks against cyber attack. Finally, we have an interest in supporting those formal or informal allies who share those interests.

These interests rather than speculative threats define the kind of defence capability we need. China may not threaten our territorial integrity this year but it does threaten our electronic security, although in this case the defence should not in my opinion be a matter for the defence force. Moreover, China is persisting in its claims to sovereignty over the South and East China Seas, which impacts upon the question of freedom of navigation. By their very nature security threats, large or small, can and do emerge with little warning. And we don’t always recognise the warning when it emerges.

By its nature, defence preparedness is an endless work in progress. Troops must be recruited and trained, then replaced when for whatever reason they move on. Ships, aircraft, weapons and systems of all kinds must be upgraded and eventually need replacement, all too often before the government is ready to do so. Regardless of technological improvements, some basics never change. Surface ships will always be surface ships; combat aircraft will always be combat aircraft and need pilots and other crew members. Long lead times of twenty years even when projects meet their usually idealistic timetables are not unusual, and financial programming limited to five years is useless. In practice, the armed forces will have a twenty-five-year program for re-equipment but they don’t dare tell the government or they might be told to shred the plans. But twenty-five years is not unrealistic. The Armidale-class patrol boats commissioned between 2005 and 2008 should have a service life of around fifteen years but many are now suffering from unforeseen wear and tear because of the heavy demand on their services. Planning has begun for their replacement but a necessary early retirement of several may call for greater urgency than appears likely at present, unless the force is reduced. 

Defence normally has a vision of what it needs, but the political and financial constraints demand not only a constant struggle for approval of projects but also compromises and endless arguments. Even approved programs are unstable and often depend on individual preferences as well as technological developments. The recent acquisition of Super Hornet aircraft to replace the F-111 strike aircraft was intended to be an interim measure until the preferred F-35 became available. Now because of financial constraints and delays to the F-35 program, the government talks of acquiring more Super Hornets configured as electronic warfare aircraft. There is a compelling case for electronic warfare aircraft in their own right but not as a substitute for the F-35.

In any case, questions ought to be asked of the government whether the planned three squadrons of F-35s, the ten or so surface combatant ships or the four brigades of regular soldiers are sufficient for our needs. Very likely, that is all that any government, Labor or Coalition, is prepared to finance. The questions are neither being asked nor answered. Of course, the government can point to the proposed stationing of a US Marine brigade in Darwin as a 25 per cent increase in combat power for no cost to the taxpayer.

Missing in most of the discussion is the division of the defence budget. New equipment acquisitions are good for headlines even if the delivery date is ten or more years away. What most observers ignore is that at least 40 per cent of the defence budget is consumed by personnel costs. The figure is kept to that level by the persistent failure of governments to pay service personnel a competitive wage. That parsimony lends itself in turn to lower recruitment and lower retention, adding substantially to recurrent costs. Budget cuts such as those endured by defence over recent years mean that either capital acquisitions or essential maintenance are deferred, a classic and all-too-common robbing of Peter to pay Paul.

The underlying problem is cultural and political rather than financial. The Anzac legend has much to answer for because it has engendered a widespread notion that Australians are natural soldiers and that long-term preparedness is not necessary for Australia’s defence. Coupled with the intellectual nonsense of “no threat” is the presumption that defence need not be funded until the threat becomes apparent. This was the populist view that took Australia into two world wars and later conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan with small and ill-equipped armed forces. The legend denies the reality that it took at least three years in the two world wars to build a well-trained army and that it would take longer in a more complex military environment today. Another sobering statistic is that the Royal Australian Navy in the Second World War did not reach its peak strength until June 30, 1945, less than two months before the end of a six-year war. One can dismiss the fantasies of the disarmers but the “wait for the bombs to fall” brigade are dangerous. That future conflicts are, one hopes, likely to be smaller and shorter means that any defence capability will be a “come as you are” challenge. A three-year build-up after the shooting starts will not be an option. 

The great political challenge is to establish an acceptable level of defence outlays and quarantine them from passing political fads. If governments assert that we need to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence annually, then that level of spending needs to be established and protected from the more fashionable and ever-escalating demands of health, education and welfare. The intrusion of the federal government into these areas of state responsibility, with the associated duplication and bureaucratic overload for vote-buying purposes, means that the federal government is acting more and more like a state entity, especially when it neglects its national responsibilities under the Constitution.

Most members of parliament, ministers even, have no interest in defence. Parliamentary debates on defence are rare; and when they do take place they fail to attract many interventions, for which, of course, governments remain grateful. It would be interesting to know how many private party room debates on defence there are.

My local candidates for next September’s election are pumping out statements of what goodies they will produce for the local electorate but nothing about what they will do for the nation. I am constantly reminded of the 1774 statement of Edmund Burke to his constituents: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” An elected member of parliament is supposed to commit his intellect to the nation rather than his electors. But don’t hold your breath.

Michael O’Connor is a former head of the Australia Defence Association.

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