China has no interest in attacking Australia. But once America ensconces its B52 strike aircraft at Tindal, Australia perforce becomes a hot target for missile attack. Protection for Tindal will be an imperative, requiring Iron Dome technology, at vast cost without certainty. No financial provision exists for ballistic missile defence at Tindal.
As Defence spending projection now stands, an already bloated budget of $48 billion will be grown at a few percent annually, and taxpayers will be asked for another $170 billion for nuclear submarines. Neither PM Morrison nor Albanese offers a strategic rationale for the nuclear submarines; simply saying that Australians will be advised of the brand of boat next year. In this obdurate obmutescence, the two Prime Ministers are joined at the hip. Disdain for public accountability is bipartisan on Defence.
Even worse contempt is shown by Minister Marles’ “Strategic Defence Review”. The deadline for public submissions was end-October. Yet at this very same time the government was handed a draft report by the Review. So public submissions were of no account, by design. Perhaps the Prime Minister could recover some credibility for the Review by instructing that the draft be released for public comment.
Wisdom suggests we look first for the stuff-up. Maybe beneath this culture of concealment lies incompetence. Could it be that Defence is just not capable of understanding why it is asking for so much money? Well yes, the chance of uncovering ineptitude in Defence administration is strong.
There was a time when Defence governance led the way in methods for creating and explaining large financial programs. In 1973 Arthur Tange fashioned a Department known for creative policy and effective financial management. At its centre were intellectual Divisions of strategic policy and systems analysis. After a few decades, the Department had reshaped much of the military around Australia’s peculiar needs. Then political influences descended, seeking more control. Politicians had become aware of the large and growing discretionary funds for capital investment which Defence had patiently engineered. Entitled industry lobbied hard for patronage and access to the riches.
Experienced officials in Defence leadership were moved out. ”Safe” hands were brought in from outside, at the top. The hard-edged analytical Division was disbanded. Former Secretary Tony Ayers is said to have described that loss as the “price of peace with the military”. Thereafter, no Secretary of Defence has had the means to discharge his responsibility. And none seem to have realised it.
To illustrate what’s been lost, let’s look at an example output we could hope for from the current Strategic Review, indicative of what competent cost-effectiveness analysis would enable.
The Review’s task is to advise government on our defence needs over the next ten years. Below are three options, each with a ten-year cost (current dollars) and effectiveness in defending Australia, expressed probabilistically (anything is risky).
Each option comes in two parts, first without the implications of B52 basing at Tindal. Because China will see existential threat from that northern airbase it will become a hot target. And because Tindal houses much of Australia’s air combat assets it will need dedicated defences against strike by China, including by ballistic missiles. Only inordinate expenditure, probably rivalling the cost of our constructing nuclear submarines, will provide Tindal a measure of security.
The first option is to retire our submarines. That is, to get right out of the submarine business. Government should assess this as a baseline. Scrapping submarines would matter little to our current capability, which would be solidly effective at 90%. This estimate derives from extensive modelling by Defence. The next two options show that adding submarines, of any kind, offers little in overall effectiveness- because what submarines offer is already done well by aircraft and surface ships. And submarines are slow, face long distances and unfavourable waters, in ridiculously small numbers. Yet costs balloon because of them. Thereby precluding the most cost-effective enhancement to our effectiveness: which is more of the same in land- based aircraft, aerial devices and various maritime platforms, all scaleable with comparatively short lead times.
A significant part of the cost of a nuclear submarine project will be protection against missile attack by China at whichever east coast city is chosen as its base. Just as with Tindal that city will be targeted because of hosting an American nuclear threat. This extraordinary cost is not included in the $170 billion commonly bandied.
Planning for basing American nuclear submarines in Australia is already underway within AUKUS circles. The Under Secretary of the U.S. Navy Erik Raven recently noted that the US National Defence Strategy focuses on China and that AUKUS is a prime example of how to approach that.. “it launches a discussion about basing and forward presence that could help U.S. naval forces spend more time forward in the Pacific”, he explained. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has called the arrangement “a strategic stroke of brilliance … for all three countries. That puts all three countries working in lockstep with advanced capabilities to put us in a position where we’re not just interoperable, but we’re interchangeable” .
The table above also holds a serious message on effectiveness – B52 basing brings greater downside in our security. Risk of attack by China rises in all cases. Remember that the ANZUS treaty places no obligation on the US to respond in kind with armed force if Australia is attacked.
The option at top-left would be embraced by an Australian government which is confident of our nation making its way in the world, spending astutely to retain a sound level of confidence in our security. It would be a foolhardy government which adopts the bottom right option, the course set in train by Australia’s defence lobby.
Treasury’s financial projections will not include the extraordinary cost of defending against missile attack, at Tindal and say Newcastle, which are the direct result of basing American forces there. And still the costs in the table do not include the shopping list that the Defence Review will commend. Taxpayers are being lined up for a bill of more than a trillion dollars by Defence over the next decade. Ruinous financially.
But the coming government consideration of security will not be framed in this way. Defence administration is no longer able to offer pointed high-level advice to government. Ministers who should be involved, such as Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Penny Wong, will flounder without decision material vital to their role. If reform of the nation’s Public Service were really a priority of this government its funding could be found from Defence spillage, without a ripple.