The Defence White Paper – More questions than answers

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Claytons: the drink you have when you are not having a drink

NOTES ON THE NEWS: The 2013 Defence White Paper, released at the weekend, continues the Gillard government technique of publishing documents that are aspirational rather than realistic. Part of the realism will come out this week, when the small print of the Budget papers reveal a proposed fall in defence spending to the lowest as a percentage of GDP since before World War II.

So the white paper is really a Claytons. (For the benefit of our overseas readers a ‘Claytons’ is a drink you have when you are not having a drink; it was the brand name of a non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverage coloured and packaged to resemble bottled whisky.) 

For all that, the white paper is well worth reading in full, rather than relying on the distorted, at times exaggerated, and occasionally balanced reports that have appeared in the press. To be fair, some of these reports have raised relevant questions. Here are some of them:

  • Why does the 2013 white paper view China as no longer a threat, when its 2009 predecessor regarded that country as the principal threat? Was Kevin Rudd wrong?
  • Has the white paper correctly identified the future hardware that Australia needs, or is the Navy side of this too skewed to shoring up jobs in South Australia?
  • Do the Australian defence industries have the skills, the technology and the knowledge base to deliver in the 21st Century?
  • Apart from its assessment of China as low-risk, does the white paper pay sufficient attention to the myriad of potential conflicts in the Indian and Pacific oceans closer to Australia?
  • Accepting that Australia’s future defence will be focused on the region we live in, and that the United States (and Australia) have lost the war in Afghanistan, what happens if the present or future US government decided to re-engage, for example in Syria or Iran?

These issues need to be debated, and they will be the focus of future discussions at the Glover Cottages in the remaining months of this year. Time is on our side. The white paper was rushed out ahead of the Budget for political reasons. Should the Coalition be elected in September, it will be rewritten. It is important is to get defence strategy right.

With that in mind, I’d just make the following observations:

The current budgeting issue is irrelevant. Calling the white paper “fantasy fiction”, Greg Sheridan in The Australian says we are going to get “12 new submarines, 12 new Super Hornets configured as electronic warfare Growlers, 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and keep the Army at its present size, all with no money”.

Well, not really Greg. For a start, there are doubts about the efficacy of the F35. Committing to these now would be about as sane as relying on an electric car to travel between Sydney and Canberra. The planes have yet to undertake full combat testing, and Lockheed Martin, the makers, are wildly over budget. And although the company made optimistic noises this week, the F 35 won’t be available until after 2020, by which time there may be alternatives.

The Australian economy is also in deficit, but there is plenty of room for cuts in the more bloated parts of the Canberra bureaucracy when money needs to be found for essential defence spending. Question: is it more important to have a defence industry in Adelaide, or a subsidised US car company?

As Tony Walker points out in the Australian Financial Review, a robust economy and a healthy budget are the best ways to pay for defence, and we need to get back to both.

I’ve already touched on hardware, but here there are hard choices to be made. Two issues stand out. First we probably need more drones, rather than manned aircraft, and we need to establish drone bases in strategic locations, such as the Cocos Islands. The second question evolves round the nuclear powered submarines. Britain has had them for years; why not Australia? Defence minister Stephen Smith made a plausible case for reviving the blighted Collins class submarines on Sky News Australian Agenda, but many will remain unconvinced.

Hardest to decipher is the China issue. Within hours of publishing a document saying China was not a threat, Julia Gillard was calling on China to be transparent – a euphemism for ‘come clean’ – about its military build up.

Meanwhile China has made no secret of the fact it believes Australia should become a neutral power – this coming from a ranking general in the Peoples’ Liberation Army this week. In other words, China wants Australia to give up the US alliance – a posture that has been so clear for some time that it probably represents more than a posture – and may come to haunt us.

But that policy switch will not happen. It is clear from the white paper Australia is more dependent on the United States than ever for its own security. The Americans, faced with their own defence cuts, are not a charity. They will exact a price – and that price will include more marines coming through the Northern Territory, greater access to Australian ports, and the lease of all or pat of the Cocos Islands as a base for drones.

Stephen Smith keeps quiet about this, but it may yet emerge as an interesting election issue, though we have yet to hear much more than negativity from the Coalition. It will rewrite the white paper, but let’s have the detail, please?

Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA in NSW, and a writer and broadcaster

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