Today we launch the first in a series of videos looking at Australia's defence and strategic policy. Entitled Defence in Depth, the videos feature interviews with defence and strategic experts on a range of issues, including the defence budget, strategic relationships, Australian Defence Force (ADF) capability, and Australia's military strategy. There is a remarkable degree of consensus among these defence experts as to where things stand with Australia's military capability and thinking.
In this first video we profile expert views on defence funding ahead of the 2013 federal budget. Though these interviews were conducted prior to the launch of the 2013 Defence White Paper, little has changed since. Both major political parties have committed to an aspirational defence budget of 2% of GDP, neither has a clear plan to achieve that goal, and both have agreed that further cuts to the defence budget are unwise. A modest increase in defence funding is expected to be announced tomorrow. But at current levels, are we spending enough on defence?
Former Chief of the Defence Force General Peter Cosgrove declares: 'categorically no, Australian does not spend enough money on defence'.
Cosgrove says that after a busy decade of operations overseas the ADF needs modernisation. Former Chief of the Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie similarly expresses concern about the impact of ongoing cuts to the capability of the ADF: 'if you keep cutting into the defence budget you will inevitably lead us down the path to a second rate defence force'.
Fairfax's International Editor Peter Hartcher concludes it is a 'serious national error' to reduce defence funding to the lowest levels since World War II, and The Australian's defence editor Brendan Nicholson concludes that 'if we are going to modernise the defence force then clearly the budget will need to be increased'. But Ian McPhedran points to waste and excess still to be found in the defence budget, noting a tendency for Defence to go for 'gold-plated' solutions.
My own view is that Australia pays too much for the military capability we have, and not nearly enough for the future military capability our government says it wants, and which we will in all likelihood need.
It's quite clear is that there is a strong consensus among defence and strategic experts about a widening gap between defence funding and defence aspirations. Two options emerge: lower government expectations about what the ADF can do in the Asian century, or increase the defence budget.
Between the bipartisan aspiration to fund defence at 2% of GDP and current levels stands a gap of approximately $7.5 billion. Neither major party is willing to invest the political capital to make up this shortfall, nor do I think there is sufficient domestic political pressure to force them to do so. But sooner or later government will have to own the consequences of what Peter Jennings calls a 'two-card trick' on defence funding.
The Defence in Depth video series has been produced by Lowy Institute interns Dougal Robinson and Nirupam Gupta.