Australian Defence policy is a shambles and an election issue

Feb 16, 2022

For nearly a decade Coalition governments have overseen defence policy. Now Defence policy is in need of serious reform.

The capability acquisition process is strangely disconnected from the government’s strategic ambitions, and it is not clear if ADF is being developed to defend Australia, deter threats, or fight a war over Taiwan? Greater public scrutiny of defence policy is needed.

In an unguarded moment, the current Defence Minster Peter Dutton summed up this period saying the ADF “is not adequately equipped to deter attacks against Australia or its interests in a much tougher strategic environment”. Plain enough.

Even Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) notables accept this. Malcolm Davis has pointed out “there’s a mismatch between the capabilities we acquire and the likely nature of operations in which they’ll be employed”. Michael Shoebridge observes that “Defence’s investment plan is a rubber band stretched, and now broken, by compounding delays in the mega projects and the rapid and continuing deterioration in Australia’s strategic environment”. In Peter Jennings’ words “The mismatch between Australia’s immediate strategic needs and the bulk of investment in developing future military capabilities is becoming glaringly obvious”.

Marcus Hellyer recently described the naval shipbuilding program as being in disarray as Defence continues in the pursuit of bespoke platforms and capabilities. Neither the $45 billion Hobart class or the, probably $100 billion plus, AUKUS nuclear powered submarines are likely to provide any capability before 2040, Hellyer’s dire conclusion is that “The RAN’s entire war-fighting capability is at risk”.

It’s an open secret that defence policy is a shambles.

Competence in the management of defence policy should be an election issue. The government’s defence policy should be evaluated on the adequacy and relevance of the investment in the ADF to meet the perceived threats.

Policy should rise above Dutton’s pub-talk analysis. He recently said, when discussing tanks, “What would be the requirements on the ADF if we were to join, in 30 years’ time, some strike back against ISIL or al-Qaeda? It would likely involve tanks”. Really! No it wouldn’t! The Minister believes $3.5 billion of taxpayers’ money should be spent on an absurd hypothetical.

The Chief of Army claimed tanks had the “ability to contribute to a credible land combat capability integrated with joint and coalition forces”. He said “tanks can be used in a wide range of scenarios, environments and levels of conflict in the region” without identifying any of the scenarios that justified any priority. It looks more like sating some maudlin nostalgia for past glory.

Cost-effective, precise, remotely-targeted, long-range weapons are increasingly making tanks redundant, if they aren’t already. Even Dutton recognises that “Long-range strike capabilities, precision weapons, and hypersonic missiles are transforming the nature of warfare as significantly as the first rifles or the Maxim gun”. In any conflict with a militarily advanced adversary tanks are likely to prove easy targets.

The government’s fixation on Taiwan and the South China Sea, supported in ASPI publications, might be valid, or just an excuse for abandoning sovereignty and strategic autonomy to the US. But governments are elected to make those judgements.

The issue for voters is how effectively the government has aligned ADF capabilities with the strategic situation as it sees it? Dutton, taking the Prime Minister’s leadasserts “the times in which we live have echoes of the 1930s”, and that “any repeat of the mistakes of the 1930s would again exact a great cost on our country and many more.” This is a frightening strategic equivalence, which makes defence policy failures all the more critical.

Should the ADF be primarily developed to defeat any possible invasion of Australia, including threats to Australian population centres or vital infrastructure on the east and west coasts? That would be a very different force from one designed to operate as a subordinate element of a great power-led coalition in maritime North Asia.

The second order questions of where operations against an adversary might occur and what level of force might an adversary bring then need to be considered. The answers to these questions will affect further issues related to force structure and investment, readiness, force posture, and sustainment.

Misjudging defence policy could have catastrophic consequences and the public is entitled to be more involved in its formulation.

There is a case for separating the annual Defence budget from the general budget and presenting it to Parliament individually. This would allow greater transparency and parliamentary oversight over defence management and spending, and of the government’s strategic judgements and priorities. Governments would be required to explain more fully the nexus between investment levels and the strategic threats before gaining authority to expend the funds.

Additionally, the the Defence Minister should be required to bring individual projects exceeding some figure, say a $1 billion, to Parliament for information, scrutiny, and debate. Currently, the defence policy is a fiefdom where the minister can hide incompetence and poorly justified decisions.

While the Minister is talking up the threats, behind the facade of national security, codewords, and secrecy classifications, a group of unelected military and civilian officials are bungling the force development process. While  simultaneously they are apparently planning for Australia to rush into a disastrous Asian war to prop up declining US hegemony.

Australians might be happy with this once the costs and risks of current defence policy are explained. It’s doubtful, but they might be. But they should be given a greater say through their elected representatives. The current defence policy process, however, is likely to see surprised Australian citizens waking to a blizzard of missiles from an adversary that even the Minister doesn’t believe Australian currently can be defended against.

That governments are elected to formulate strategic policy doesn’t relieve them of the obligations to explain their decisions fully or to demonstrate competence in delivering the policies they endorse. Neither is happening at present. It’s a mess. Voters should judge them on this.

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