JAMES O’NEILL: When Better than at an Election to Have a Serious and Overdue Debate About Defence and Foreign Policy Objectives?

Apr 24, 2019

 The current election cycle presents a golden opportunity to have a serious discussion about Australia’s defence and foreign policies. These have been notably lacking from both major parties.

In a recent article in The Australian newspaper (3 April 2019) their foreign editor Greg Sheridan in an article entitled “Feeble Defence is Still our Nation’s Shame,” Mr Sheridan remarks that “once again we have embarked on a federal budget and an election campaign without the single most important issue – the defence of Australia – playing the slightest role”.

With that, I respectfully agree, although the reason why that debate is lacking would take a book in itself. In fact, such a book has been written. It is the excellent Island off the Coast of Australia by Professor Clinton Fernandes (2018).

Mr Sheridan correctly points out that Australia has committed $50 billion for 12 new submarines, $38 billion for nine new frigates, and $17 billion for 72 joint strike fighters (the F-35).

The submarines will not be fully deployable until the mid-2030s. The first of the nine new frigates will not arrive before 2030 and all nine not before the mid 2040s.

Perhaps the most significant point in Mr Sheridan’s article is when he states that (Australian forces) “are not designed to generate war fighting capability or any independent strategic effect. They are designed to slide into the US order of battle in the hope that in return the Americans will always look after us.”

Mr Sheridan never examines the validity or wisdom of that assumption. Taken together with the opening quotation about the invisibility of serious debate on defence and foreign affairs in both the budget and the current election campaign, it is a serious deficiency in the national discourse.

In common with the overwhelming majority of strategic commentators in Australia, Mr Sheridan confuses the “hope” the Americans “will always look after us” with the reality of the modern geopolitical world. In that world one would have to ask whether the United States is in fact really ready, willing and most importantly, able to fulfill the role Australian planners devoutly hope for.

The F 35 that Mr Sheridan notes as one of the big three ticket items in the defence procurement budget is a good illustration of the flaws in that thinking. Mr Sheridan’s faith in the F 35 is unqualified. He says that “despite the nonsense you’ll read here and there, these are superb planes and it will be regionally superior.”

To call that assessment heroic would be an understatement. That is not my opinon. It is the assessment of the Pentagon’s own annual operational testing report. That report in its most recent form concludes that the F 35 is beset with manifold problems and that it continues to dramatically underperform in crucial areas, including availability, reliability, vulnerability to cyber attack and longevity. A comprehensive analysis of the Pentagon reports can be found on the Project on Government Oversight website (www.pogo.org) 10 March 2019 where Dan Grazier sets out a devastating chronology of the planes troubled history and many flaws.

Originally sold to the United States’ customers in 2001 at a promised US$38 million per plane it is now at an average cost of US$158.4 million each. That is a more than 400% escalation in cost. That is only the current purchase price. According to the Pentagon report solving the literary hundreds of problems the plane still has will add many millions more to the final cost. On top of the purchase price planes of course do have to be maintained and that also is proving to be extraordinarily expensive.

Australia’s initial capital cost quoted by Mr Sheridan is $17 billion, but according to at least one estimate disclosed last year more likely to be in the order of $100 billion over the lifetime of the planes. That sort of expenditure demands full and informed debate about whether it represents value for money; whether the money might be better spent on other projects; and whether it truly fits into Australia’s strategic defence requirements.

The evidence at present suggests that the F 35 is no more than a very expensive flying lemon.

The deeper question is what is the role envisaged for the submarines, frigates and the 35 joint strike fighters?

The submarines, as noted, will not be delivered for at least another 15+ years at which time the geopolitical landscape in Australia’s region is likely to be even more radically different than it was at a comparable time in the past, at the turn of the century.

The Russians and the Chinese already possess the technology to defeat submarine-based threats to their territorial integrity. As Mr Sheridan acknowledges, Australia has no effective means of individual force projection.

Were Australia in fact to act in the way Mr Sheridan envisages, to “slide into the US order of battle” against either of those two opponents, then Australia can expect a devastating response. It is this element of “defence strategy” that is completely missing from the scant debate that does exist.

Australia is already targeted because of its “joined at the hip” relationship with the US. Those targets, such as Pine Gap, US military bases around the country, and probably Canberra, would be devastated by Russian and Chinese missile technology against which Australia has no defence other than the frankly forlorn hope that “the Americans will always look after us.”

If we in fact join in yet another US led war, only the terminally naïve would believe that the US itself would not be devastated by a retaliatory attack by Russia and/or China.

This is a military and geostrategic reality that an increasing number of nations have recognised. It is why they are buying Russian missile defence systems (eg. India and Turkey) notwithstanding heavy American pressure and threats. The S- 400 is just one example and clearly a leader of its kind. Other nations are purchasing the Russian S 35 and S 55 fighter jets, either of which is clearly superior to the F-35 that Australia is contracted to buy. Those countries include our near neighbour Indonesia.

Other “defensive” measures taken by nations in our region include an emphasis on good relations with powerful neighbours, and joining a range of regional and infrastructure development projects, of which the China led B R I is only one of many examples.

Rather than expending tens of billions of dollars on military projects that are at best of limited strategic and defence use, Australia would be better to turn its attention to examining and discussing the range of alternatives that are available. That debate is long overdue.

Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst.  He may be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au

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