Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:29 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:29 | SYDNEY

Defence decisions defy dodging


Rory Medcalf


19 August 2010 14:12

The 2010 Australian federal election has been silent on the nation's big defence and security challenges. Yet whoever is in office for the next three years will face tough choices, about which voters have been told little.

Australia's defence budget this year is $26.8 billion, or about 1.9 percent  of GDP. It is the 13th largest in the world, so we cannot pretend we are a small strategic player. And we have a $100 billion-plus military shopping list over the next 20 years, though whether this nation proves willing to pay for it is another question.

We are at war in Afghanistan. Tensions are rising in Asia. The Korean situation could be the start of something big and bad. China's rise is changing the strategic equation and the US is pushing back, albeit with a probably unsustainable defence budget. Other Western countries are struggling, post-GFC, to afford their military modernisation programs, which will complicate our own.

Labor's defence policy is based on last year's Defence White Paper, proposing an ambitious new maritime force by 2030.

The Coalition derides the unrealistic costings behind this, but its disgracefully thin defence policy document is silent on the solution. Would a Coalition government grow the defence budget by the three or more percent a year in real terms needed to fund Force 2030' If not, where would they cut' Some of the 12 proposed submarines' Smaller, imported subs rather than the custom-made, Australian-made giants the White Paper envisions' Fewer than 100 Joint Strike Fighters' 

Whoever wins on Saturday, there will be some defence decisions that defy dodging. Here are some possibilities. None will be popular:

  • Can we sustain our defence spending' Shouldn't we reallocate some defence dollars to other elements of the notional national security budget, like aid, intelligence or – most deficient of all – diplomacy' 
  • What should we do in Afghanistan' The outcome may hinge on the willingness of governments like Australia's to take on greater risk while domestic discontent is growing. The next Prime Minister may well attend a military funeral in week one. We all need to brace for more revelations that will erode public support, whether further reckless Wikileaks or ugly truths of war unveiled by our own democratic transparency. 
  • Are we serious about deploying large numbers of civilians in dangerous places, notably Afghanistan, and how far or how openly should we rely on contractors to protect them'
  • How should we prepare for or respond to the strategic surprises that will come' These could be confrontation over Korea, the South China Sea or Iran. There could be a major terrorist strike in the US or at the Commonwealth Games in India. New pressures for Australian armed intervention in the South Pacific are conceivable.
  • Should we contribute more to the US alliance, and if so, how' If we truly think nuclear weapons are a priority threat, why not finally become properly involved in missile defence by fitting our new air warfare destroyers with SM-3 missiles' Should we be open to greater training and presence of US – and perhaps other (Japanese') – friendly forces in our vast territory' Should we use our defence diplomacy more strategically to support the US and other partners – Japan, South Korea — to limit Chinese influence, including in the South Pacific' Alternately, or additionally, should we take a lead in trying to work with the Chinese military in providing security 'public goods''  
  • Should we become more open-minded about chancing technological leaps in defence capabilities: unmanned, robotic surveillance and combat systems, national space assets (and, heaven forbid, a space policy), and nuclear propulsion for submarines'
  • Can we remake our defence and wider security establishment to truly reflect Australia in the Asian century' Currently, Asian-born Australians are many times less likely than others to serve in the armed forces or security services (see page 47 of this). Speaking of people, how does population size relate to national security'

Wherever you stand on these and other pressing security issues – cyber defence, domestic terrorism, the disconnect of parliament and media from our war effort — the last thing we will need after Saturday is a decision-dodging, self-paralysed polity.

Photo by Flickr user rich_w, used under a Creative Commons license.