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Politics first as white paper fails on big issues

Date

Adam Lockyer

A Joint Strike Fighter.

A Joint Strike Fighter. Photo: Reuters

Australian Defence White Papers tend to tell us more about the state of domestic politics than anything else. They rarely reveal much about Australia's actual strategic challenges or how it intends to respond to them. The 2013 Defence White Paper is no different. The 2009 Defence White Paper was defined by two significant changes in Australia's defence posture. Both had the fingerprints of Kevin Rudd all over them.

First, the 2009 white paper employed surprisingly confronting language towards China. It warned that ''the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern''. This was, in part, placating the public's view that China had replaced Indonesia as the greatest threat to Australia's security. But this harsher tone also was meant to silence Rudd's critics, who suspected him of being too close to Beijing.

Second, Rudd's passion was foreign policy. He was first and foremost a diplomat. Rudd envisaged Australia playing a more assertive and active international role. Greater military muscle would help achieve this dream. Thus, the 2009 white paper included the ambitious aim of 3 per cent growth per year in Defence spending.

This white paper equally reflects the government of the day. It is small target and risk averse. Rudd's 2009 white paper had left Labor exposed. Its ambitious aims could not be matched by spending. Friday's release of the white paper has largely closed this gap. The threatening view of China's rise and the lofty ambitions of regional leadership have been removed. Instead a picture is painted of a safer region, where Australia can work co-operatively through multilateral frameworks to get its desired outcomes. This harmonises Australia's regional outlook, desired military capability and spending.

As such, it will succeed in blunting the opposition's attacks on that front.

The opposition was quick to criticise the white paper for a lack of policy detail. This is unfair. All white papers are broad and vague. However, Tony Abbott can now persist with the line that the Liberal Party will ''fix Defence'' and when asked for policy detail will accuse the government of not having details of its own. The defence debate in this year's election will be reduced to ''I'll show you mine, if you show me yours''.

This is a tragic state for the defence debate to have reached. There are serious strategic issues that urgently need to be addressed. Yet we are faced with a policy of blindly sailing along doing what we have always done.

One of the crucial issues that this white paper should have addressed is the spiralling cost of Defence. The procurement costs for each new generation of aircraft, ship or land vehicle far exceed those it replaces. For instance, it is estimated that Australia will pay around $134.5 million for each F-35 JSF. Allowing for inflation, this is roughly three times what we paid for each F-111C and 220 times the cost of each P-51 Mustang in 1945.

Historically, performance and technology advances have allowed nations to acquire fewer, more capable platforms than those they replace. More recently this has changed, causing a huge strain on governments all around the world. These days, countries tend to require roughly the same number of replacement planes, ships and land vehicles to do the job. Once again the F-35 JSF is a case in point. Defence believes it needs 100 JSFs to replace roughly that number of F-18 Hornets and F-111s.

Australia is far from alone in this regard. Even the United States is struggling with the spiralling costs of Defence procurement. What is the solution? In the longer term, the costs of new technology might become the solution instead of the problem. Drones, for instance, can already perform many of the functions of manned aircraft for a fraction of the cost. In the short term, however, allies will have to rely increasingly more on one another. The United States and Australia must face up to the harsh reality that they cannot afford to prepare to respond to the full spectrum of threats as they once did. As a result, they may have to increasingly rely on a division of labour and specialisation.

There is thus a strong strategic rationale for the US and Australia to partner more closely. The US and Australia could co-ordinate efforts and specialise in different areas, while relying on the other to respond to those contingencies outside their individual specialities. Australia could move to specialise in low- and mid-level contingencies. The conventional threat to Australia's territorial integrity, sovereignty, or vital strategic interests is low. Even if a 21st century version of the ''Great Game'' is played out in Asia, Australia is not Belgium. Australia is not on the way to, or from, anywhere. In contrast, the US is best placed to continue to prepare for large-scale operations against regional powers, while leaving lower-level operations to its regional allies, such as Australia.

These are the big issues the 2013 white paper should have grappled with. Instead, it does little to improve Australia's defence posture and contains no original thinking. Good politics in an election year.

  • Dr Adam Lockyer is a lecturer in US politics and foreign policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Dr Lockyer previously served in the Australian Army.
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