Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 01:17 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 01:17 | SYDNEY

What the Gates budget means for Australia


Sam Roggeveen


8 April 2009 11:36

US Secretary of Defense Gates' budget statement has been interpreted as a budget cut, and as a strong move away from a 'big war' force and toward an improved counter-insurgency and nation-building capability. The first claim is false — Gates is proposing a bigger defence budget — while the second needs to be taken with some caution — Gates' proposals may not be that radical.

For Australia, the key test of Gates' proposals (and that's all they are — Congress could yet take an axe to them) is what it means for the regional strategic balance with China. And in that regard, I agree with James Fallows that this was a significant statement:

It is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to over-insure against a remote or diminishing risk - or, in effect, to "run up the score" in a capability where the United States is already dominant - is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in, and improve capabilities in areas where we are underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk I will not take.

As I've said before, this is perfectly reasonable when it comes to a potential adversaries like Iran and North Korea — the US has a huge margin of superiority against them, which could be sustained for decades with only modest modernisation.

But the US is not in such an overwhelming position when it comes to China. So to the extent that Gates has decided to cap America's 'big war' capabilities — by cutting programs like the F-22 and the Zumwalt-class destroyers  and slowly reducing the number of aircraft carriers — he is signaling that the US is not intending to increase America's margin of superiority against China. Indeed, given the leaps China is making, he is effectively choosing to reduce that margin.

It's really not that surprising or radical — the US simply does not have the capacity to maintain the margin of superiority it had over China, say, a decade ago. But it does bring Australia's defence dilemma into sharper relief. Bring on the White Paper.