The Government isn't fair dinkum about defence


Peter Reith

Defence spending is being slashed at a time when Australia's capability to defend itself is in decline, writes Peter Reith.

When Labor was elected in 2007, their pitch to the electorate was that they would do a better job managing the Australian Defence Force than the Coalition.

They then issued a white paper (PDF) that argued, inter alia, for a new fleet of 12 submarines to be built in Australia to replace the six lack lustre Collins class submarines commissioned by Labor last time they were in office. The Collins fleet has been a lesson in how not to procure a new fleet of submarines.

The promises made have been abandoned. In The Australian, Andrew Davies from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) described (PDF) the 2009 white paper funding as follows:

Earlier this year, the 2009 defence white paper was quietly put out of its misery. Fatally starved of resources from the day it first saw the light of day, it really didn't have a chance.

The evidence is that Labor is starting to reveal its real attitude towards defence. Defence spending has been slashed and the submarine project is now virtually dead in the water. Relations between Stephen Smith and the ADF are at a low ebb and the Minister is out of favour with the Prime Minister because of his leadership ambitions.

Labor's priorities are to pander to groups like the Greens and Labor's left wing of which Julia Gillard was/is a member. Defence spending under Labor is being slashed at a time when Australia's capability to defend itself is in decline. There is some dispute as to whether the Americans attending this week's AUSMIN talks believe Australia is not pulling its weight in the Australia-US alliance, but there is no doubt that the US must be privately wondering about the Australian Government's commitment to Australia's defence.

The Age summed up a warning from ASPI in April:

Australia could be left without a single submarine for crucial years of the Asia-pacific century – an era of naval tensions between global powers to be played out in Australia's back yard – according to a new study.

Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson were quoted in the same article as saying,

If current plans are adhered to, a capability gap is inevitable sometime in the late 2020s and a period (in the early 2030s) of no submarine capability at all is possible.

There are three big decisions ahead for military equipment; planes, subs and transport for the Army. The subs represent the biggest one-off cost.

When Labor announced that Australia would build 12 new submarines in Adelaide, it also made a political decision to not even consider nuclear powered submarines. The reason for this decision was because the Greens and Labor's left wing are totally opposed to any use of nuclear power.

This was the same reason why Labor opposed John Howard's earlier commitment to sell uranium to India. In Government, Labor overturned the Howard decision and only recently finally admitted that it had been wrong in doing so. Labor's original decision made no sense. It was driven by political dogma not common sense, let alone Australia's interests. Only this month Prime Minister Gillard was in India to trigger the discussions that will lead to agreement on the protocols for the sale of uranium to India; at best a loss of six years.

It was a mistake not to be prepared to consider every option for the subs. Until last weekend, any signs of another back flip (a la India) have been muted. At last someone within Labor has now recognised the folly of Labor's decision on submarines. Former Labor defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon said:

I now believe it was a mistake to rule out a nuclear option and we should have a discussion about every option which might deliver the capability we need in a timely and affordable manner.

In response, Sky News reported US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich saying "it's unlikely Australia has the capacity to equip its navy with nuclear submarines". Obviously he was playing down the issue of Australia acquiring nuclear powered submarines because it is politically awkward for the US to publicly pressure our Labor Government on the eve of this week's AUSMIN talks in Perth. But Bleich was the one who said yesterday and in February this year that the US was open for dialogue on submarines.

Bleich made two obvious points. Firstly, that it was up to Australia to initiate discussions and secondly, "Politically, there hasn't been a real momentum for development of a nuclear energy program at all, let alone nuclear submarines, in Australia."

Both comments are a statement of fact, given Labor's attitude, but also a reiteration of his February invitation for Australia to consider the prospects of an Australian submarine capability that could work closely with our most important ally.

One of the reasons why nuclear powered submarines are of interest is because they can travel very long distances without being detected. Some of the European submarines are of a high standard and we could buy one off the shelf, but they don't have the range that Australia needs.

A fleet of conventional diesel submarines also has the advantage of less complicated and therefore less expensive maintenance costs. Given that Australia does not have expertise in the generation of nuclear power, the costs of setting up the infrastructure to maintain a nuclear powered fleet would be significant.

In my view, all options should be explored.

The Coalition's policy is not to consider nuclear powered submarines. I can understand that because as soon as the Coalition puts nuclear subs on the list for consideration, the Treasury will cost it as if it were a done deal. And then the question will be; where is the money coming from, even though it might never be recommended or adopted. Labor is not going to address this issue between now and the next election so there is no point in the Coalition forming a view on the issue until it is in government and it can then have more meaningful discussions internally and with our allies.

I have no doubt that the attitude of our US allies would change when they can see that an incoming government in Australia is fair dinkum about defence and is prepared to fund its own security rather than bludge on its mates.

The Honourable Peter Reith was a senior cabinet minister in the Australian government from 1996 to 2001, and then a director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 2003 to 2009. View his full profile here.

comments:Ture Sjolander :

  • 13 Nov 2012 11:12:38am

    Who are you talking about, Peter?
    Australia "defending it self" against what enemy.
    Are you pointing at Papua New Guinea, China, Nauru
    or Indonesia?
    You are diffuse!
    Who is you enemy?

      • a guy :

        13 Nov 2012 1:09:38pm

        Some examples for you to consider

        Growing tensions in the South China Sea between PRC and various SE Asian nations.

        Growing tensions between PRC and Japan over certain islands.

        The continued threat of terrorism in SE Asia, including but not limited to Jemaah Islamiyah.

        The potential for failed states in a number of Asian and Pacific nations.

        These are just some examples of potential flashpoints that will have an effect on Australia including on trade, shipping and diplomatic/security relations in the region and further afield.

          • Dove :

            14 Nov 2012 9:47:00am

            Some of these might impact on private commericial interests, which is not really the same as threats to australian security. The option of sendning in gunboats to secure the cash is the last refuge of the tyrants and the imperialists.

        • Anthony :

          13 Nov 2012 1:46:17pm

          The issue is not who the enemy is now. It is who could be our in 20 years time.
          Our current defence program should be aimed for long term eventualities.
          In 1999 Australian troops were required to enter East Timor. In 1996 nobody would have forseen this occurring. It was bipartisan policy in Australian to recognise East Timor as a province of Indonesia.

            • Ture Sjolander :

              13 Nov 2012 10:10:33pm

              And after repeated begging of support from America Clinton finally offer logistical support, only.

          • gunner :

            13 Nov 2012 2:38:40pm

            TS, and when at some later date our military personnel have to go to war against an as yet unknown adversary and are forced to do so equipped with second rate weaponry, you and the rest of the arm chair brigade will be deafening in your silence. On behalf of those who will die because of people like you and all the other know nothings who have posted on this discussion I just hope its not you or your children who have to die because of this stupidity.

              • Ture Sjolander :

                13 Nov 2012 8:28:30pm

                "like you"
                1987 I saved the Collins Submarine business convincing Sweden to give up the idea to have the submarines build at Kockums in Sweden, and instead move the expertise or even the whole factory to Australia to be built here. After lunch they presented my proposal on board the Swedish warship HMS Carlscrona at Woolloomooloo.

                Now 25 year later I would use billions of dollars
                to spend on information/intelligence and diplomacy instead, and on a big "army" of intelligent peace makers.
                Killing tools heavy machinery is obsolete!
                It is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger until it explode. Every nation have the "stupid" view. That's where the self generating stupidity lays.

                  • Gunner :

                    14 Nov 2012 7:19:09am

                    If it is true that it was you who was responsible for bringing the construction of the Collins class boats to Australia and the ensuing fiasco that resulted I certainly would not be crowing about that if I was you. The correct name and title of the swedish warship you say you were on was the HswMS Carlskrona.
                    Unfortunately, while our potential enemies in this region continue to spend heavily on "Killing tools heavy machinery" as you put it , the necessity for us to do the same will remain.

            • _robert :

              13 Nov 2012 5:05:22pm

              Too hard to say. Besides, no respectable commentator would put that explicitly on the public record.