Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 02:13 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 02:13 | SYDNEY

Defence investment should mirror risk

23 June 2011 09:20

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

I agree with what I take as Peter Layton's basic contention that there are often more important things to spend money on than defence. What I contend is that there is a 'right' amount of investment in defence, and that such investment should be in direct proportion to the cost of current wars and sophisticated judgments about our willingness to accept risk in the future strategic environment.

If risk looks like being high, invest more in defence. If the risk is low, reduce investment in defence. Not quite Marxist, as Peter suggests — perhaps more market orientated!

Governments, in setting their priorities, claim to do strategic analysis of the need for investment in defence and then apply priorities. The strategic analysis is put out in a White Paper and the comparative investment priorities (against other societal needs) are given, with great fanfare, in a Defence Capability Plan. We did this last in 2009. The priorities were applied at that time.

After such a public process, the voters gain a trust that defence is being looked after. 'Yes, these might be troubling times', the voters might say, 'but are we not getting 12 subs, a bunch of ships, and some 100 fighters to look after all that? Isn't the Government spending billions of dollars on defence to address this problem?'

With admirable confidence in the word of the Government, and with less ability to judge the long-term effectiveness of defence than other government responsibilities such as health, welfare or infrastructure, the average voter quite rightly returns to the more pressing issues of the day, comfortable that 'defence is being looked after'.

There is a moral issue here that will never be admitted by those that admire, above all else, a 'clever' political policy. Governments get political benefit from announcing strong defence investment, but then withdraw the investment with little fanfare. Governments then re-spend the money on other items of short-term need for the community, and so double dip on political benefit. This is such a clever scam that the only losers are, first, the ADF, which may one day have to make up for the lack of quality materiel with blood, and the Australian people, who may not have the defences they assume they have and may one day need.

I have no objections to a re-prioritisation of national needs with defence being the loser. But if that re-prioritisation is done by removing investment in a 2011 budget, it should be based on some analysis that says the risk is less than was publicly assessed in 2009. Governments are paid to take risks, but in our society, the risk should be obvious to the voters, who are required to judge governments.

There is further good analysis of this and similar issues on the ADA website.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.