Defence of the realm found wanting in Labor’s strategy
When the curtain is finally drawn on the Rudd / Gillard / (perhaps again Rudd) Government the eulogy concerning the Defence of the Realm will not be flattering. To think that this eulogy had all the hallmarks of a great beginning and yet ended so soon is nothing short of a Grecian tragedy.
Alas Pericles will offer no stirring funeral oration nor talk of monuments written in stone or in the hearts of men. This period of Defence policy will be relegated to history, remembered as a time of political expediency at the price of military capability, something Spartan King Leonidas knew a thing or two about at the battle of Thermopylae.
The Eulogy will tell the story of a Government that began with such promise, committed to a 3 per cent annual real increase in the Defence budget to 2017-18 (a commitment they made publicly 38 times) and to a Defence White Paper that continued the course towards the Asia/Pacific century.
A focus on Force 2030 with serious hitting power: new submarines with land attack weapons, fifth generation fighter squadrons, complete replacement of all surface combatant vessels and an amphibious capability able to deploy a hardened Brigade of soldiers with full enablers to literally anywhere on the planet. It was a plan that continued the alignment with the US towards our region and contained a force capable of doing a greater amount of alliance heavy lifting.
Unfortunately the 2009 White Paper sowed the seeds of its own destruction with its paucity of financial detail and lack of Government commitment. This was exacerbated with a complete lack of annual acquisition approvals, a failure of the National Security Committee (NSC) of Cabinet to at times even meet, and since 2008, $22 billion of Defence capability cuts, deferrals or absorptions with only a 0.9 per cent pa real increase in the Defence budget. Defence spending as a percentage of GDP is now only 1.59 per cent, the lowest since 1938 when it was 1.55 per cent.
The seed of Defence’s demise was then trampled underfoot by a revolving door of Ministers, 15 reshuffles in the portfolio, on average a change every four months. This includes three Ministers for Defence and all but one current Minister now holds other onerous portfolio responsibilities on top of Defence. It is widely acknowledged that it takes a minimum of 18 months to read into the portfolio if you have no background in Defence to begin to grasp its scope.
This is not surprising considering its complexity with 103,000 serving members, reservists, contractors and bureaucrats, 3,200 combat troops on multiple overseas operations, a budget over $24 billion, multiple agencies and intelligence functions and a substantial foreign affairs function by virtue of Defence’s global influence and links. This means that each of the preceding Defence Ministers have never had the time to fully understand the portfolio. Unfortunately, their history of decision making highlights this reality.
The Defence Capability Plan, the industry’s bible on acquisition, remains a loose collection of excel spreadsheets with no electronic modelling tool to link it to the White Paper, to the classified Australian Military Strategy document, to the NSC approval process or to the capability of industry.
There is no single defence industry portal to allow industry to clearly see what and when projects will be approved and Government has no capacity to understand the impact of its decisions on industry.
The Government has absolutely no idea what the impact will be on industry from the two year deferral of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Numerous Australian companies, encouraged by Government to sign up to the JSF supply chain will now be fundamentally impacted; some may go to the wall. How does the Coalition know this?
We have just finished our defence industry roundtable consultations in every State and Territory connecting with primes and hundreds of small to medium defence companies. Their comments reflecting the above have been universally consistent, as has the comment of “why hasn’t the Government engaged with industry in the same open round table manner?”
To be fair to the Minister for Defence Procurement, he is both a decent man and a hard working Minister, but he’s also the Minister for Home Affairs and with over 300 boats and 17,000 irregular maritime arrivals, his attention is elsewhere.
The greatest disappointment is not that Labor’s Defence legacy will be held in such contempt, but that the defence of the realm, the most fundamental responsibility of federal government has been found wanting.
The line of “we won’t cut front line capability” whilst simultaneously cutting, deferring and absorbing a total of $22 billion from the portfolio over the term can’t be believed. It is pure fantasy.
Decades from now, students of history will read Labor’s Defence eulogy, written by others no doubt using different words. It will be sombre reading. There will be no vainglorious victory over the Persian Army after Thermopylae, just the realisation that it took the next Government over a decade to repair the mistakes of the last four years of Labor.
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