The process is broken, the strategic thinking is confused, the denial of the world and regional situation is dangerous, the management of our allies and others has been confusing, the leadership team is dislocated, the delivery of anything except the most simple capability or those purchased directly from the USA is bumbling, the constant policy disruption is grossly wasteful, and the explanations to the Australian people about ADF capability and risk are duplicitous. The result is a defence force in terminal decline and a people blissfully unaware. — Major General (retired) Jim Molan
This passage is from an article in Quadrant in March 2013, which is probably the most devastating critique ever written by a recently serving soldier about the state of our defence forces. Major General Molan served in the Australian Defence Force for more than forty years, a career that included high command in East Timor and Iraq, where he was Chief of Operations of the Multinational Force, so he knew what he was talking about. He wrote in response to the savage cuts to the defence budget by the Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and their gulling of the Australian public about the consequences of their actions.
The government of Tony Abbott was elected on a promise to restore the defence budget to the levels it enjoyed under John Howard, when it grew from $15 billion per year in 1996 to $22.3 billion in 2007 (in 2011-12 dollars), but this is going to be much easier to say than do. It is obvious that the May budget will be faced with the need to recover from such extraordinary levels of debt run up by its predecessors that there will be little opportunity to increase spending anywhere.
Yet unless this happens, Australia will face not only a continued deterioration in its own defence capability but also in our ultimate defence through our alliance with the United States. There are now so many reports of dissatisfaction with Australia’s performance from within US political and defence circles that a slow or minimalist recovery of the situation should not be an option.
The rot set in with Rudd. At the same time as he was telling the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that he was a “brutal realist” about the possibility of conflict between the USA and China, he was undermining his own ambitious 2009 White Paper on Defence by removing billions from its funding. “Notwithstanding the polite, diplomatic rhetoric coming out of Washington,” Molan observed, “it was not missed by the USA.”
In 2011 Gillard announced a $5.4 billion cut to defence spending between then and 2015. In 2012 she made a further 10.5 per cent reduction. She did this while giving vocal support to the Obama administration’s “pivot” towards the Pacific region by publicly welcoming regular visits from a US Marine Air Ground Task Force to Darwin. The strategic thinking behind this move was targeted primarily at Australian voters, aiming to convince them that, despite the demolition of the defence budget, the USA would still remain the ultimate guarantor of Australia’s security. However, the polite support the Darwin offer again received from US officials barely concealed their growing unease that Australia was becoming the worst kind of ally, one unwilling to pay its own way.
To cap it all, in September 2012, the Defence Minister in the Gillard government, Stephen Smith, announced he was “re-base-lining” (that is, deferring) completion of the construction in Adelaide of three Air Warfare Destroyers until 2019. (This was at a doorstop interview at the construction site where the Chief of the Navy, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, was present but not invited to speak.) Not long after, the Gillard government proudly announced it would commit the guided missile frigate HMAS Sydney to operate with the US Seventh Fleet in Japanese waters. But as another Quadrant defence correspondent, Michael O’Connor, observed: “This ship is now an almost geriatric thirty years old and will be the oldest surface combatant in the fleet … a low-cost but essentially token premium payment on our American insurance policy.” Jim Molan concurred:
In an alliance, Australia should be an effective partner, not a freeloader. The USA has many allies in the world who are freeloaders and it would be a strategic failure for Australia to put itself in that class. Yet the Rudd–Gillard governments have put us well on the way to doing exactly that.
As long as Australia appears to be avoiding the financial responsibility for its own security, and as long as it continues to talk but not act on assuming its share of the security burden in Asia, it will not maintain credibility in the eyes of the United States. Moreover, as a recent paper from the Lowy Institute by James Brown and Rory Medcalf emphasises, if we continue down the same path we will not only lose credibility in the eyes of a great and powerful friend, but will miss out on many of the military benefits the alliance can bring to Australia. These include high-level access to strategic deliberations, exceptional intelligence sharing, access to advanced military technology as well as a set of explicit and implicit security guarantees. They argue the Abbott government now has the opportunity to not only take advantage of these benefits but to help shape the relationship more to our national interest:
Transformative strategic change in Asia will reshape the alliance, whether we like it or not. So in tandem with reinvigorating Australia’s own defence strategy, and increasing funding, the new government needs to take the initiative to shape the alliance. It is better to ensure the alliance is adaptable and politically robust now, when it is not under strain, than to test its resilience in the thick of some future crisis.
In particular, the government could foster the deepening military integration that has been emerging, without much fanfare, for more than a decade. Besides the much publicised US Marine task force in Darwin, Brown and Medcalf list other promising initiatives. Serving Australian officers and civilians have been appointed to senior positions within US Pacific Command and US Central Command. US combat aircraft may soon be operating from Australia’s northern airfields. A US space tracking radar is due to be positioned in Western Australia. Other possible initiatives are enhanced US naval access to Australian ports as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance co-operation from Australia’s Indian Ocean territories.
However, Brown and Medcalf stress that simply serving as a location for American military assets will not be enough for Australia to strengthen the alliance. These and other examples of a greater US forward presence in Australia are predicated on much more than real estate. They require a credible Australian Defence Force, able to protect and fund defence facilities on its sovereign territory. In an age of constrained American military budgets, funds for the infrastructure required for, say, airfields in northern Australia or on the Cocos Islands cannot be automatically assumed to come from the wealthier ally. The authors observe:
It is hard to imagine the US Congress releasing major funds to make up for an ally’s unwillingness to provide infrastructure for the enhanced US military presence that same ally wants.
As an article in this current edition by a former Australian Ambassador to America, Michael Cook, reminds us, nothing in a military alliance is absolutely guaranteed. In 1985, Australia severely tested its relationship with the USA when, after a left-wing revolt in the Labor Party, the Hawke government almost cost us the American alliance after it broke an agreement to assist the USA in test-firing missiles in the Tasman Sea. At the same time, New Zealand paid the ultimate price when leftist Prime Minister David Lange banned the visits of US nuclear-powered warships to its ports and, in retaliation, the Americans declared it no longer party to the ANZUS alliance.
The result today is that New Zealand remains on its own, without any formal ally, but able to reduce defence spending to just 1 per cent of GDP. Despite being in office for almost two whole terms, conservative Prime Minister John Key has still not lifted the absurd ban on nuclear warships nor rectified his country’s place in ANZUS. In essence, New Zealand is a de facto freeloader on Australia, knowing that we could not afford to allow it to fall into enemy hands—although hiding from the other reality that it is thereby vulnerable to Australia and that, should we ever want to, we could annex both islands without firing a shot. Hal Colebatch (Quadrant, July-August 2013) also points out that New Zealand today would be unable to put down a well-organised Maori uprising.
Thanks to ultra-leftist Prime Minister Helen Clark, New Zealand does not even have a combat air force any more. When I visited the South Island for a conference at Punga Cove in 2006, I drove past a former base of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and saw it occupied by a local food and wine festival, which invited travellers to stop for a drink and look around. In the abandoned hangar, the ghosts of all those brave New Zealand airmen who died over Europe in the Second World War could be distinctly heard, groaning at their country’s humiliation.