Ukraine highlights our defence procurement shambles

Mar 11, 2022
US soldier fires Javelin anti tank missile
In 2020 the US gave approval to sell us a very small number (200) of Javelin missiles compared to the thousands of Javelins and similar missiles being delivered and used now by the Ukrainians. Image: Wikimedia Commons

With the Russian invasion in full swing and the collateral havoc of civilian casualties and mass evacuations before our eyes on TV it is premature to try to draw many firm conclusions about the longer term global implications of the Ukraine situation – let alone for Australia. But there are immediate lessons which should not be buried by the increasingly blatant khaki election campaign by the Coalition already descending on Australia.

Foremost, of course, Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine has destabilised the old global order on which successive Australian governments have based our strategic defence planning. Not that there had not been a growing realisation prior to Putin’s move that Australian defence thinking had not kept pace with the significant changes occurring in our part of the world – namely the rise of China and its inevitable challenge to US influence in the Indo Pacific. The Coalition’s response to the erratic and damaging approach former President Trump took to the region locked us in even more tightly to the hip with the US. A trend which has continued under the Biden administration’s emerging policy towards China.

The Ukraine invasion has served to demonstrate the very real limits of US military support and influence in the contemporary world which, in turn, should force Australia to review urgently our own defence capability. This is far too important to be gazumped by the phony debate which Morrison and Dutton confected some time back for the khaki election campaign they are so desperate to impose on the Australian public. The questionable reasons for our entry into the Iraq war does little to support the Coalition claim to be “safe hands” for the emerging international crisis .

Even more telling, the Ukraine invasion has thrown into sharp focus the massive failure of the Coalition’s defence procurement program to strengthen our military capability. The facts cannot be regarded as anything less than shocking as the following list reveals :

. the whole Collins class submarine replacement drama, which apart from the $2 billion already sunk into it, also has seen deals first with Japan, then Germany and finally France being rejected

. scrapping of $ 3.8 billion French Taipan helicopters program because of potential maintenance problems and replaced with at least $7 billion for US helicopters

. $16.6 billion Joint Strike Fighters continues to be plagued by serious problems – 36% reduction in flying time last year

. $1.5 billion C-27 airlifters reclassified to humanitarian aircraft

. $3 billion Battle Management System suspended

. $4 billion Offshore Patrol Vessel program delayed

. $435million Cape Class Patrol boats delayed – imported aluminium from China sub-standard

. $1.3 billion Landrover replacement (Hawkei) stalled on technical issue only weeks after production line starting following 6 years of troubles

. $1.1 billion in major upgrade of Jindalee Operational Radar Network radar with long delays

As Greg Sheridan commented recently in The Australian : “Every one of our major defence programs is in disarray or scheduled to deliver capability so far into the future that it’s in the realm of science fiction, or delivers assets that have no weapons on them ……. or is completely irrelevant to the maritime military challenge we face”. This lack of military preparedness at a time when the Coalition is ramping up fears about the international scene amounts to a national disgrace. It should be a key national security issue in the coming election campaign and not be blurred by the frantic spin of Morrison and Dutton. Dutton has even been quoted by the AFR as claiming that “China has essentially encouraged Russia to invade the Ukraine!  Right now Australia deserves much better than the tired old ping pong of claims and promises tagged with huge dollar signs and hidden conditions and delivery times.

Another key lesson is the vital importance of holding a sufficient inventory of fuel, weapons, materiel and the like supported by reliable and rapid supply chains – all the more for Australia which produces so little of its military needs and is so remote from the US and European manufacturers. The urgency of a realistic level of fuel supply has rightly been a concern for some time – the current arrangement of 1 and ½ days supply stored thousands of kms away in the US is farcical. It should be much larger and stored in multiple locations throughout Australia. This will be a complicated and budget draining process but it has to be of the highest national security priority.

The Javelin anti-tank missile which appears to have performed well in the Ukraine is another case in point. We have been using this weapon for some years but it does not come cheaply – US$ 120,000 for each missile ( firing unit is extra). In 2020 the US gave approval to sell us a very small number (200) of Javelin missiles compared to the thousands of Javelins and similar missiles being delivered and used now by the Ukrainians. ASPI has reported the sad history of manufacture of the Spike anti tank missile in Australia : despite the government’s statements of urgency and intent, Defence has still not started production of a mature, state-of-the-art weapon that the government announced it would acquire years ago and whose producer is willing to make here.” Dutton has announced $1 billion for the development of an Australian independent missile capability but there appears to have been little sign of actual progress towards that objective.

In all this, we need to ensure that the current holy grail of interoperability with the US defence machine does not unduly influence our choices of weapons and systems. History will likely show that part of the sad saga with the replacement of the Collins Class submarines stems from the US initiated concept of the so called “submarine gap” in the encirclement of China. Likewise the well publicised comments by a US general supporting the Australian acquisition of a new US tank. The accompanying trends towards embedment of Australian military and civilians across much of the US defence and security system increased military to military communications (featured in the current US IndoPacific strategy) will all add US influence to weapon selection.

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