24 September 2009

Defence: off-the-shelf is not just about jobs

One of the key elements of the Government’s cost saving program for Defence is the hardy perennial that we should do more off the shelf purchasing – instead of having materiel that is especially designed for our needs, we should as far as possible purchase items that are already in production and available off the shelf – ready-to-wear rather than bespoke tailoring, so to speak.

This sounds fine in theory and where possible it should be the practice. There are, however, one or two catches. The first is the one identified by the Australian Industry Group’s Defence Council, as reported by defence writer John Kerin in today’s Australian Financial Review:

[The Council] warned that Rudd government moves to buy more overseas sourced and off-the-shelf equipment in a bid to slash costs on the program, if overdone, could cost jobs in the 29,000 strong defence sector.

That is true, and is an important issue. Perhaps more important is the related issue of maintaining the industrial capacity to sustain our defence equipment in times of conflict, and in peacetime to modify and upgrade it, both to improve its performance and to ensure that it remains capable of dealing with emerging counter-measures. To do that we need a diversified and profitable domestic defence industry – not necessarily Australian owned, but certainly located here.

Perhaps most important of all is ensuring that the materiel we buy is genuinely fit for purpose, and in this regard overseas equipment will not always make the cut. Submarines are a classic case – diesel electric submarines are normally designed for short patrols in deep cold water, we want ours to do very long range patrols in warm shallow water.

Another example would be the Infantry Mobility Vehicle (IMV), for which Australia uses the Australian designed Bendigo manufactured Bushmaster vehicle. Perhaps it would have been cheaper to buy US Humvees off the shelf? It depends what you mean by cheap. The Bushmaster was designed for high levels of crew and passenger protection. It has a shaped, armoured hull, which deflects the blast from the equivalent of a 9.5kg high-explosive land mine detonated under any wheel or under the centre section of the vehicle. As a consequence, Australian forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered very low numbers of casualties resulting from land-mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDS). Because this level of protection was designed into the vehicle from the outset, they are taken into account in designing the vehicle for its acceleration, braking and rollover characteristics. They have proved themselves so well that we have sold them to our Dutch allies in for use in Oruzgan Province.

Humvees on the other hand were initially designed as thin-skinned vehicles to provide mobility behind the front lines. In urban and counter-insurgency situations they proved something of a disaster. After the “Blackhawk Down” incident at Mogadishu the M114 version was developed to provide protection against small arms fire, but it remained thin skinned underneath. “Up-armour” kits were provided for the older M998 version, but not in great numbers. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 US troops began use scrap materials to improvise additional protection (“hillbilly armour” or “farmer armour”), but the extra weight compromised the handling characteristics and service life of the vehicle. The Americans are now in the process of a full-scale program to produce Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, but meanwhile they have suffered very high rates of casualties from mines and IEDs – over 60% of casualties in Iraq and 75% of casualties in Afghanistan. Many a grieving US parent would derive little comfort from knowing that the outcome might have been very different if their son or daughter had been in a Bushmaster.

I remember a US Congressional Committee in the early 1970s agonising about the fact that the last 50% of the cost of major military development projects went on the last 5% of performance. The trick is that the people who take that equipment into harm’s way tend to place a very high value on that last 5% of performance. My supervisor at the time had been a bomber pilot in New Guinea. He used to say to me, “I’ve been to war in the second best aircraft in the sky. It is not a lot of fun”.

The decision to buy “off-the-shelf” is not a simple one, and I do not think we will see it used nearly as extensively as the Government might hope.

Game, set and match to Mr Netanyahu

Winners are grinners they say and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must be laughing all the way home at the outcome of the meetings on Middle East Peace sponsored by President Obama. On West Bank settlements he has been utterly intransigent, and all of the Americans’ tough talk from last May about how the President “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” (see West Bank Settlements: full marks to Mrs Clinton) has collapsed to the usual posture in the face of Israeli intransigence – hand-wringing and bleating from the sidelines. As The Age’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Jason Koutsoukis, put it in today’s edition (Everyone a loser in Mid-East stalemate, but some more than others - available here):

... the much-talked-about freeze on building Jewish settlements on the West Bank has been downgraded to a meek plea that Israel ought to “restrain” itself from further construction.

So Mr Netanyahu can now cheerfully press on with the great project of “changing the facts on the ground” in the West Bank, with its dual purposes of enlarging the Israeli population of the West Bank and steadily erasing the physical signs of centuries of Arab habitation and culture in the region.

That is not the end of the story of course. Mr Netanyahu’s licence to continue what he was always going to do means that Mahmoud Abbas returns to Ramallah a dead man walking, so Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh must be having a quiet chuckle about this turn of events.

Another person who must be having a quiet chuckle is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Holding itself out as the protector of the interests of the Palestinian people has been a key plank of Iranian foreign policy that goes right back to the early days of the Shah. This is what Iranian support for Hezbollah is all about. In its alignment with the sentiments of the Arab “street”, this stance is a kind of insurance policy against any assault from the US-aligned Sunni Arab autocracies in the region. The last thing in the world Mr Ahmadinejad would have wanted to see would be progress towards a Palestinian settlement taking place without his involvement. He can always rely on Mr Netanyahu in that regard.

It is one of the paradoxes of the Middle East situation that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Ahmadinejad need each other. Mr Netanyahu needs “existential threats” in order to keep the Americans in line, and Iran under Mr Ahamdinejad fills that role very nicely. Given the existential threat, Mr Netanyahu has the ultimate trump card to ensure that the Americans never even think about going soft on their security guarantees to Israel: a nuclear strike force which the Israelis have put on full alert on various occasions in the past, and which the Americans know some Israeli leaders might just be mad enough to use. So a peaceful transition to an Iranian Government led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi would not have suited Mr Netanyahu at all.

One of the big losers out of all of this is President Obama. This is a strategic defeat for him, not a tactical withdrawal. He talked tough to the Israelis, they didn’t budge, and he blinked. So forget about all the brave talk of moving to “final status” negotiations. Mr Netanyahu will turn up for the talks in the second half of October, but he knows that he simply has to insist on unacceptable parameters for the final status and the talks will go nowhere. The Israelis are quite comfortable with the status quo; it is the Palestinians who are desperate for change.

Forget also the American spin to the effect that “the US President would issue a stern reprimand to both sides”. Mr Netanyahu has broad enough shoulders to cope with all the reprimands in the world, as long as he gets what he wants.

This is a big loss for President Obama in another respect. This little circus has had many audiences, and a lot of very unpleasant people around the world will have drawn their own conclusions about the Obama Administration.

The conclusions I draw from this turn of events are:

(1) The two-state solution is dead. Netanyahu never wanted it, he can barely bring himself to utter the words, and he now knows that the Administration lacks the will to impose it on him – and he knows that everyone else knows.

(2) This means that Israel will remain in control of all the territory of Mandate Palestine for as far ahead as one can see.

(3) Fatah is a spent force – it demonstrably cannot deliver anything to the Palestinian people. The West has made its usual mistake of dealing with the people it likes rather than the people that represent the mindset and aspirations of the local population, and as always, the realities overtake us sooner or later.

(4) For anyone wanting to engage seriously with the aspirations of the Palestinian people Hamas is now the only game in town, and knows it is. The West would have been better to treat Hamas with due respect when it won a free and fair election in 2006, instead of trying to starve them into submission while dabbling in the internal workings of Palestinian politics and trying to create a situation in which Fatah would come out on top.

(5) There will be no peaceful solution to the plight of the Palestinians, which takes me back to President Obama’s Cairo speech in which he counselled the Palestinians that:

Resistance through violence is wrong and does not succeed.

The Likud (formerly Irgun) boys must have had a giggle when they heard that one – it was through violence that they succeeded, and one of the guests of honour at the 60th anniversary of their bombing of the King David Hotel was none other than Binyamin Netanyahu, to the fury of the British.

The irony is that in the same speech President Obama was the first President to come right out and acknowledge that the Palestinians were living under “occupation”, i.e., military occupation. What he did not acknowledge was that military occupation is itself an act of violence. It is a declaration that the occupying power makes the rules, and that if any of the locals violates those rules then the occupying power can, at its own discretion, kill, incarcerate and/or torture anyone who may or may not be involved in the violation, and/or confiscate their property, without due process and without redress.

It is for this reason that it is quite normal for military occupations to end violently if they end at all. President Obama apparently saw no irony in saying “violence gets you nowhere” in Cairo and then proceeding directly from Cairo to the D-Day commemoration on the Normandy beaches. As I recall, the German occupation of Europe ended quite violently.

Of course the long term outlook is not so rosy for Israel. As the Eretz Israel project, an avowedly Jewish State with an emerging Arab majority population, continues on its merry way, it will have to look more and more like an apartheid state in which the indigenous people are confined to reservations and have grossly inferior political, legal and economic rights. That of course is not a durable solution – it can last only until the first time the dominant minority loses its grip, after which it will see irreversible change.

23 September 2009

Politicians’ promises: “We’ll never forget you”

When politicians say “We’ll never forget you”, it is time to start counting the silver. Politicians have intoned words to this effect about those who have served in all the wars since the 1885 campaign in the Sudan.

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra is intended to be the national public expression of that remembrance, not only of those killed in war but of all of those who have served the nation in time of peril. But as the current controversy about the need to find commercial sponsorship of the playing of the Last Post indicates, the eternal gratitude of our political leaders does not extend to actually paying for the remembrance of our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women.

It is not just the Last Post; that is just the latest example. Many of the exhibitions in the Museum also have commercial sponsors, and this has been going on for a long time.

One would have thought that the kind of remembrance that the national war memorial represents would be considered a small but important part of the core business of the national government of any self-respecting nation. Regrettably our political leaders have far more important things to spend our money on, like bribing voters in marginal electorates and spending money in ways they think will make them popular. The Howard Government was able to find $8 million for the Western Bulldogs AFL club and the Rudd Government was able to find $4.5 million for the redevelopment of the Carlton Football Club’s facilities (see Commonwealth Grant for Carlton Football Club).

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to give that sort of money to the national war memorial and leave it to the football clubs to find the commercial sponsorships. Let’s get the corporate logos out of the War Memorial.

This scrounging for commercial sponsorship is a sad contrast to the faithfulness of the evening ceremony which takes place at the Menin Gate in Ypres, the gateway to the Ypres Salient battlefields, at 8.00 pm every day. Every evening the Gate, a busy thoroughfare, is closed to traffic while buglers of the local volunteer fire brigade play the Last Post in a moving ceremony which is an expression of the Belgian nation’s gratitude to the British and Commonwealth troops who fought for their freedom and independence in World War I.

This ceremony began with the inauguration of the Menin Gate Memorial in 1928 and continued for about four months. From 11 November 1929 it has taken place every day, in all weathers, with the exception of the period of the German Occupation, from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town.

Somehow after ninety years the good citizens of Ypres still manage to remember our brave lads without the need for commercial sponsorship.

21 September 2009

Harry Pidgeon’s opening at Cooks Hill

In Harry Pidgeon at Cooks Hill I introduced Australian landscape and nature artist Harry Pidgeon, and referred to a forthcoming exhibition at Mark Widdup’s Cooks Hill Gallery. In Harry Pidgeon exhibition: Naturally touched I notified that images of the exhibition were now available on the gallery website.

I am now able to show some pictures from the opening of the exhibition by Newcastle’s NBN News presenter Ray Dinneen, a long time admirer of Harry’s work.

Ray Dinneen and Mark Widdup

Ray Dinneen’s opening remarks

Ray Dinneen and Mark Widdup

Harry responds, watched by Mark and a third party

Closing remarks