14 May 2009

Defence: Did the Minister really say that?

It is hard to believe that the Minister for Defence really uttered the remarks attributed to him by John Kerin in today’s Australian Financial Review (“Minister ties arms splurge to $20bn in savings”, AFR p. 23).

The remarks attributed to the Minister are:

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said last night the defence establishment would deliver on a $20 billion budget savings drive or it would not get the $146 million in weaponry promised in the defence white paper.

“I know we can do it and we will do it,” he said, warning that shortfalls would not be supplemented from general revenue.

“If we can’t achieve the savings program then the [RAAF] won’t get its Joint Strike Fighters [for example] ... so there’s a pretty big incentive to work together,” he added.

I have no problem with an effort to achieve major savings from within the Defence portfolio – I think every Department should be seeking smarter ways to do business year in and year out.

What I do have a problem with is what these remarks tell us about the contingent nature of the defence capability plans laid out in the Defence White Paper. The Defence White Paper presents a convincing picture of the nation’s defence capability requirements, based upon an enormous amount of analytical work over the last eighteen months, and the unchanging geopolitical fact that we need to exercise decisive military control over about ten per cent of the earth’s surface.

Yet the Minister (like many in the Howard Government before him) speaks as though the defence acquisition program is some sort of benefit a generous government bestows upon the Defence Department, rather than being an inventory of capabilities that a wise government has determined is essential for the defence of the realm.

The bottom line is that the Defence Capability Plan (to be derived from the Defence White Paper) and the defence budget are not independent variables. We either set our sights on a suite of defence capabilities and fund what that costs, or we have an arbitrarily selected budget projection and allow our level of defence capability and preparedness to be determined by what can be purchased, sustained and crewed by that. If we are serious about defence, we will do the former.

And if we are prepared to contemplate sacrificing the front line capability of the Air Force, why would we bother to have a Navy and an Army? Fighting without air cover went out of fashion a long, long time ago.

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