Disarming Australia by stealth
“He who seeks peace should prepare for war” wrote Roman scholar Vegetius during the latter part of the Roman Empire.
Though most would argue the phrase alone is somewhat simplistic, it is nevertheless true that the number one priority of any democratically elected government is the protection and wellbeing of its citizens. This simple concept has been evident among communities across the globe throughout history, recorded in the most ancient of documents.
However, in the current global community, where the boundaries of nation states seem to blur as communication systems and faster modes of travel allow us to access the world at a whim, there seems to be a growing temptation for our leaders to lose focus on the practical on-ground defence of our nation and those who serve abroad in our name.
As the frozen Cold War era melted into actual theatres of combat - Somalia, Iraq, East Timor, Solomon Islands and currently Afghanistan, the mettle of our military equipment and logistics has been tested and although our military personnel are among the finest in the world, the tools at their disposal have generally proven to be lacking.
The last significant defence modelling occurred under the Howard Government in the form of the 2000 defence White Paper. Over the Coalition Government’s 11 budgets, defence spending increased by 48 per cent in real terms. During this period the ADF acquired new tanks, Javelin missiles, Super Hornet fighters, airborne early warning and control aircraft along with a range of other new equipment and logistics.
However, like any machinery, a lack of funding for through-life-maintenance and upgrade saw the benefit of the acquisitions wane. The M1A1 Abrams Tank seemed like a good buy, having served the US Army well in Iraq and Afghanistan, but high maintenance and operation costs have seen almost half of the 59 units mothballed.
Although our naval missile frigates are among the world’s best, our navy is still struggling with submarines which one British expert rated as the ‘worst submarine fleet in the world’.
Many commentators and Canberra insiders have blamed the problem on the apparent poor relationship between the Defence Department and the Minister for Defence. Perhaps this is a contributing factor, however where Defence really loses out is in the distribution of government revenue within the context of constant political pressure to maintain a budget surplus.
In the race to remain fiscally responsible in the minds of voters, governments tend to dispense with defence projects they believe provide scant political mileage, regardless of their potential value to our armed forces.
In the last Federal Budget the current government scrapped a project to outfit our forces serving in foreign theatres with self-propelled artillery technology – a mobile artillery vehicle that employs ‘shoot and scoot’ capability.
Current ‘towed’ Australian artillery carries a distinct disadvantage; having once fired on a target, stationary artillery units can be ‘zeroed’ by the enemy and bombarded with return fire.
To address this, the ADF was in negotiations to acquire an ‘Australianised’ version of the K9 Thunder self-propelled 155 mm howitzer. The K9 Thunder, manufactured and maintained by Samsung Techwin, allows for the vehicle to fire and move within seconds, significantly reducing the risk to the vehicle‘s crew from return fire. Even those not familiar with military tactics can see the value of this to our troops in war zones.
Despite the fact the venture had been in formal tender for over five years (with the Samsung vehicle being the selected solution for two years), the Government scrapped the project outright as it scrambled to keep its economic credentials in-tact, in the wake of a global slowdown and poor revenue projections from the new minerals tax.
The government has been silent on whether the project may be resurrected in the future.
Many defence commentators support the view that the Gillard Government is effectively ‘disarming Australia by stealth’ with its deep Defence budget cuts. However, currently, there seems to be little disquiet about this capability reduction in the wider electorate.
The last four years has also seen a shift away from our traditional bipartisan stand on defence policy. The legacy of our military past is often used by politicians while the ramifications of our current practices are not being outlined.
The Australian recently carried the front page story that the British Government plans to lobby the Australian Government to share the development cost of upgraded warships and submarines. Perhaps this is the first test in an election year; perhaps it’s time for both sides of politics to rise above the daily news cycle of ‘gotcha’ campaigning and prove they can fulfil the first requirement of any government; equipping our nation’s defenders to do the job we need them to do.
We know that border control issues in regard to immigration are already a polling factor in the context of the 2013 Federal Election. What is unknown is whether general military security issues, “securing Australia”, still resonate with the Australian electorate: does it know and does it care?
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