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The PM's defence speech

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COMMENTS

10 September 2008 14:00

Being a broadsheet, The Australian never carries headlines that 'scream', exactly, but today's 'PM flags major naval build-up', splashed across the breadth of the front page, is more than just a polite 'ahem, pardon me'.

Trouble is, there is little in the speech to substantiate the claim that the Prime Minister foreshadowed a 'dramatic expansion' of the navy. Rudd makes no specific statement about naval procurement; he refers only to the need for an 'enhanced naval capability that can protect our sea lies of communication and support our land forces'. That could be read as suggesting a substantial expansion of naval power, but Rudd never commits his Government to more than the annual 3% rise to defence spending to 2018, which is well established policy.

Nor does the PM use the term 'arms race', as he is quoted as saying in some reports. In fairness, though, he may have used that expression in the Q&A or in a doorstop interview. And he comes damn close in his speech to arguing that there is an Asia Pacific arms race, so we can give the press a pass on that one.

It is worrying, though, that the PM should be pushing this line. As Andrew Davies at ASPI has argued, defence spending patterns in the region don't really support the arms race theory. Yes, there have been capability improvements, but Davies calls this modernisation; for instance, a dozen old fighter planes replaced with a dozen new ones. The motives for such purchases often relate to prestige, and many regional countries don't support their blue ribbon weapons purchases with adequate training or maintenance.

Yet Rudd seems to argue we should match such purchases, saying Australia ought to remain 'at the forefront of military technology.' This seems like a pretty quixotic task, given the continued low levels of training and maintenance for these weapons, and the small numbers in which they are being purchased in the region.

Indeed, a modest cutback of our forces strikes me as a more sensible policy, particularly in air power. Australia can easily afford to 'fall behind' a little, especially if it means that we can purchase more modern weapons when they are actually needed. For instance, why buy 100 baseline JSF fighters now? Why not half that number, along with upgrading our Hornets. If, in a decade's time, we actually do feel threatened by improved Asian capabilities, we'll have money to spare for a more advanced fighter-bomber.

We'll see if the PM's concern about regional military capability translates into greater ADF procurement, but I hope not. It would be unnecessary and counterproductive, and would be contrary to the tenor of the Government's regional diplomacy. Then again, I'm getting used to the idea that the PM is perhaps not as systematic a thinker on these issues as I previously imagined, so perhaps contradictions are inevitable.

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