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Coalition defence policy avoids tough spending and strategy calls

Coalition defence policy avoids tough spending and strategy calls

The most important line in the Coalition's defence policy document, released this morning, comes on p.4: 'the bottom line is that our military forces should always be at least as capable as they were when the Howard government left office'.

Amid a blizzard of aspirational statements on defence policy from both sides, this is the most important for a Coalition government. Almost everything Tony Abbott knows about defence he learned from John Howard. Howard's successful management of the East Timor crisis, military strategy for a muscular expeditionary force, and rebuilding of a hollow army resonate in current coalition defence policy. Likewise, the possibility of being caught out by a strategic shock in the international system is engraved in the minds of both Abbott and his presumptive defence minister David Johnston.

But a number of things have changed since the Howard era, and defence will be a tougher portfolio in the years ahead than this document envisages.

For a start, the strong defence funding of the Howard years is unlikely to be realistic for Australia's next government. Tony Abbott has committed the Coalition to spend 2% of GDP on defence within a decade – effectively a meaningless commitment for the forward budget estimates, though a nice sounding target nonetheless. Achieving that level of funding, at the expense of other areas of the Commonwealth budget, would require the investment of serious political capital. The Grattan Institute projects that health costs alone will account for an additional 2% of GDP within the decade, and mining revenue this decade will look a lot different to that of the last.[fold]

Despite aspiring to increase defence spending, the Coalition's policy walks back on a commitment made last April to spend an additional $1.5 billion on maritime surveillance (see Global Hawk drone above).

The likelihood is that a Coalition government would spend little more on defence in the first year than Labor. The few new defence initiatives announced in this policy, such as the $113 million restoration of the well-regarded ADF gap year, will be absorbed into the existing budget.

The Coalition has also committed to find further waste within defence which it can redirect towards military capability. But this is the second thing that has changed since the Howard era of defence. Increased civilianisation, the strategic reform program and the 40 years of efficiency reviews, have found all the quick wins on defence efficiency. There will always be a degree of waste and inefficiency in a Department that employs 100,000 people and most years isn't required to prove its level of capability by fighting in a conflict. Another efficiency review will find some small savings, but saving any serious amount of money from the defence budget now requires foreclosing on military capabilities or fundamentally altering force posture and structure.

Yes, the Defence Department has become more bureaucratic and the news that the Coalition will appoint a high profile team to undertake a first-principles review is welcome. But for the last 20 years Australian voters have heard promises to make the Defence Department more efficient, and it remains to be seen what unique ingredient will allow the Coalition's reform team to be successful.

The major difference from the Howard era is Australia's defence and strategic environment. During the Howard era, Australia assumed a defence edge over other militaries in the region by virtue of access to advanced defence technology and the 13th largest global defence budget. But growing access to disruptive defence technology, and growing economic power in Asia, is causing relative decline in Australia's military capability. As a 2008 Treasury note made clear, 'If both we and other countries were to maintain military spending as a constant share of GDP, other countries' higher growth rates would lead their military capability to grow more rapidly than our own'.  For things to say the same, Australia must increase the amount of money government outlays on the Australian Defence Force. Additionally, after a decade of operations overseas, much of Australia's military equipment is more run down than it was when the Howard government left office.

Most security experts believe Australia's strategic environment is growing more complex and less favourable, although nowhere in this document is there a judgement on that, or indeed why Australia needs a modernised defence force. The Coalition has promised to publish 'an objective replacement Defence White Paper' within 18 months if elected. As has been suggested, this should include an independent component, in a similar process to the US Quadrennial Defense Review. But to resolve all the tensions in Australia's defence policy, this plan will need to be more radical and expensive than this morning's announcement.

A new feature in this Coalition document is the mention of concern about 'growing American perceptions that Labor is freeloading on the United States for Australia's defence'. This is standard fare for defence policy in Australian elections; conservative parties often claim natural ownership of the Anzus alliance. But an open-ended commitment to deepen the alliance without a clear view of either the path or the possible implications of such a decision, is bad policy.

Rather than looking to the US to be told what part we will play in the alliance, there has never been a better time for an active ally to chart a course for its own contributions to the alliance as well as the trajectory for the US rebalance to Asia.

Finally, whereas the military of the Howard era was tactical, Australia's future military needs to be strategic. The problems unearthed by the East Timor deployment were largely tactical ones and were resolved within relatively short space of time. Deployments over the last decade have effectively been tactical in nature, small contributions to wars in which our ally set the strategy. But the systems required for future warfare are strategic, and the defence choices we must make are strategic too. A reliance on tactical fixes and thinking will no longer suffice.

There are four central questions for Australia's future national security which this policy should have answered. Besides a judgement on Australia's strategic environment and how much a Coalition government is realistically able to spend on defence in the next parliamentary term, two deeper questions remain: what sort of military options would a future prime minister Abbott want from the Australian Defence Force? And what is the Coalition's military strategy to insure Australia against a less than rosy Asian century?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official US Navy Imagery.

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