29 February 2016
by Geoffrey Barker

The views in this article are not necessarily those of the publisher

Australia's a lethal military force in Asia with planned big defence spend

The defence white paper includes funding for 12 new submarines and for defence spending to rise significantly

Australia will unquestionably be a much more lethal military force in the Indo-Pacific region if the federal government and its successors fully implement and fund the ambitious capability plans for the navy, air force and army, laid out in this week's defence white paper.

The paper laid out a strategy designed for an age of rising strategic anxiety and financial uncertainty.

Driven primarily by aggressive Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, and by the threat from Islamist terrorism, the Turnbull government will spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next four decades to create "a more capable, agile and potent defence force".

There are, of course, dangers in this course. The spending announced on Thursday unambiguously marks Australia's entry into an accelerating and increasingly dangerous regional arms race in the region.

But there may be greater dangers in not spending enough on defence and in doing insufficient to boost military capability as the strategic environment becomes tenser and more contested with sea lines of communication and trade routes possibly coming under challenge.

The raw facts are that China is occupying and militarising contested South China Sea atolls and is thereby challenging freedom of navigation and what the government calls the "rules-based global order". Moreover, there is, as yet, no sign that the Islamist terror threat has been curbed. Australia is also beset by cyber terrorism and other regional threats and uncertainties, notably from rogue powers such as North Korea.

Confronting threats
It would be irresponsible if the government did not now boost Australia's capability to confront these threats unilaterally or in coalitions with regional allies such as the United States and Japan. The new white paper has done much to restore the Coalition's national security credentials – at least on paper.

What remains uncertain is whether the government will stay fully financially committed to the white paper and whether the proposed funding will be sufficient. Big defence budgets are tempting and easy targets for governments seeking to save money in difficult economic times.

The paper drew an almost immediate rebuke from Beijing that it was dissatisfied with the paper. But Australia should speak the truth on rising Chinese power more than it does. Beijing does not respect polite and diffident language as it increasingly throws its weight around in the region.

Perhaps the toughest remark in the new white paper is that Australia opposes any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea. It's a direct declaration of Australia's opposition to Chinese actions.

What you say about defence policy, matters less than what you do about them. Defence Minister Marise Payne has persuaded cabinet to do plenty. Defence spending will rise from $32.3 billion now to $42.4 billion or to 2 per cent of GDP by 2020-21. There will be $195 billion for new and enhanced capability to 2025-26 and $29.9 billion more than previously planned for defence. Full-time Australian Defence force numbers will rise from 58,000 to more than 62,400.

Among other things, the increased funding will provide 12 new submarines and 12 major surface ships – three air warfare destroyers and nine future frigates as well as replenishment vessels. There will be more and more lethal combat and strike fighter aircraft based on the F35A joint strike fighter fleet, more air-to-air refuellers and eight Globemaster heavy-lift aircraft. The army will acquire armed battlefield drones, long-range rockets and new armoured vehicles.

Space telescope
A new American space surveillance telescope will be installed at the Harold E. Holt naval communications station at North-West Cape as part of a major upgrade of Australia's regional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. In addition, there will be major upgrades of northern Australian defence bases in a long overdue boost to defence infrastructure in the Northern Territory and Queensland.

These are qualitative shifts in Australia's sometimes diffident defence posture. They signal that Australia is reinforcing its reputation as a nation willing to fight if necessary to defend its national and regional interests including its vital trade routes.

The planned maritime acquisitions, particularly the 12 submarines, indicate Canberra's willingness to play a wider role in south-east Asia beyond its primary and proper focus on the defence of Australia. An island continent needs a formidable navy and the planned submarine acquisition will be Australia's largest defence equipment acquisition.

A testing question now facing the government is if it will agree to join United States freedom of navigation naval patrols past the contested atolls occupied by China. That would be a logical extension of the rhetoric of the white paper and of the maritime capability announcements.

A major achievement of the white paper was its carefully crafted chapter on funding. Past white papers have been woefully inadequate in this regard. But Ms Payne has produced a detailed funding model including an overview of planned spending on capital investment, sustainment and personnel.

Capital investment is set to increase from 29 per cent to 39 per cent of the budget; sustainment from 25 per to 28 per cent of the budget; and personnel costs, despite a rise from $12 billion to $15.3 billion, will decline from 37 per cent to 26 per cent of the bigger budget.

Funding markers
It remains to be seen if Ms Payne will in fact get the money but at least she has had the courage to lay down some markers against which she can be judged. Especially when read in conjunction with the detailed Integrated Investment Plan released with the white paper, it is clear this is a deeply considered and thoughtful document that squarely faces the hard realities of defending Australia into the 21st century.

The white paper has had a longer gestation than an elephant and cynics might say it was rushed out to distract public attention from the government's dithering over tax policy reform. We still do not know where the 12 new submarines will be built and who will build them.

But, like an elephant, this white paper is weighty and more so than other recent white papers.

It deserves to be more durable too.