26 April 2009

Defence white paper: plus ça change?

In what looks like a well informed piece in The Weekend Australian for 25-26 April national security editor Patrick Walters gives us a glimpse of what might be contained in the forthcoming Defence White Paper, which Walters says might be released as early as next week.

If Walters is correct, we are about to be presented with a vision splendid in which there will be 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, a doubling of the submarine fleet, a new class of eight 7000-tonne surface ships equipped with ballistic missile defence systems, a new class of 1500-tonne corvette-sized boats to replace the Armidale-class patrol boats from the mid-2020s, replacements for the AP-3 Orion fleet, 6 extra C130-J Hercules transport aircraft, two extra infantry battalions and many other items adding up to an investment program in excess of $100 billion. This comes about because, in Walters’s words in a companion comment piece, “Kevin Rudd wants Australia to be able to exercise more strategic weight in what promises to be a more dynamic Asia-Pacific region over the next generation”.

I have no problem with any of that, but unfortunately Walters goes on to say “Rudd has promised to maintain annual real increases in the defence budget of 3 per cent and Defence has been tasked with finding billions of dollars to fund future equipment needs”.

That is exactly where the Howard Government came in – we will guarantee 3 per cent real growth in the Defence budget, and we will fund future capital equipment needs with all of the savings we are going to make from our Defence Efficiency Review.

If Walters is correct about the Government’s intentions for funding the “huge military buildup”, then that is about the only line in the Defence White Paper that anyone will need to read because most of what is in the White Paper simply won’t happen – as happens now, key parts of the program will continually be “slipped to the right”, i.e., deferred.

First, 3% real growth is 0.5% per annum less than Australia’s 3.5% average rate of economic growth from 1997 to 2007. So assuming that we one day return to something like that “normal” growth rate, the Government will be promising a huge military buildup on the basis of a steady decline in the already modest share of GDP that we currently spend on Defence.

Second, the mullock heap of internal savings to fund capital equipment has already been dug over. There are some wasteful practices in Defence, a couple of which I will describe on another occasion, but I do not think that anyone would be prepared to tackle them and in any event they do not add up to the sort of money we are talking about here.

So it is dollars as usual, and dollars as usual means business as usual. We continue to publish splendid plans but we have forward funding arrangements that are plucked from the air, not derived from the plans. The consequence is that we purchase less capital than is in the program, but more capital than we can sustain, and we have too many hollow force elements that are under-maintained, under-manned, have insufficient self-protection to be put in harm’s way, and are permitted too little training in the form of the required flying hours or steaming time.

As the French would say, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

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