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Kim Beazley on the Gates budget

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30 April 2009 12:32

A good column from former defence minister and Labor leader Kim Beazley yesterday that offers a slightly different interpretation to US Defense Secretary Gates recent budget announcement.

My argument was that, by cutting several big weapons projects, US Defense Secretary Gates was signaling to China that the US is less interested in maintaining overwhelming military superiority in the Asia Pacific. But Beazley says the proposed Gates cuts are intended in part to maintain that advantage, though in a more sensible way:

...there is a definite focus on improving technologies in proven platforms that could be categorised as capability hedging against more serious potential enemies than those the US engages in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through this process, Gates sends a powerful message to Pentagon planners that the salad days of experimentation, free of dollar constraints with endlessly extended missions to be covered by new platforms which now drive dollars exponentially, are over.

For those who think he dismisses the sorts of concerns over emerging Chinese capabilities that trouble Australian defence planners, Gates' argument on the F22 programme and the Joint Strike Fighter (F35) in which Australia is interested, are cautionary. He describes the F22 as a "niche, silver bullet solution required for a limited number of scenarios". Instead he accelerates the F35 programme. He says: "I considered the fact that Russia is probably six years away from Initial Operating Capability of a fifth generation fighter like the F35, and the Chinese are 10 to 12 years away." By then the US will have 1000 F35s on their way to 2400 under Gates' plan. Quite clearly, burgeoning Chinese capabilities are firmly in mind and realistically assessed.

That's a useful corrective to my posts. But note also the way Beazley describes the tone of Gates' budget as it relates to China:

...there is no pressure here to drive exponential increases in Chinese capabilities, particularly nuclear capabilities. There is a fine balance between prudent hedging and provoking arms races which slip out of the arcane military sphere into a defining element of regional diplomacy.

The idea that Gates wants to focus entirely on counter-insurgency and has lost all concern with longer-term conventional challenges is clearly false. But equally, he has refused to up the ante with China by asking for massive additional investments in high-end capabilities. He has produced a budget that does not demand a perpetual state of overwhelming military dominance over Beijing.

As I said in my earlier post, that may worry US friends in the region, but it is also better than the alternative, which could lead to the kind of future Beazley hints at. Beazley rightly applauds the balance between hedging and provoking that Gates has struck in his budget; my concern is that Australia's White Paper will not strike that balance quite as well.

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