The Government's new defence
update 2003 paper is a frustrating mixture of good sense, unrealistic
ambitions and bad judgement.
There is good sense in the recognition of significant strategic change
since the publication of the defence
white paper in late 2000.
The unrealistic ambitions flow from an unwillingness to accept that
needed changes are in the nature of "instead of" rather than
"as well as". This imposes heavy new burdens on the
long-suffering taxpayer, who is already picking up the tab for some
low-grade management of important projects (like the Collins submarines,
the Seasprite helicopter, etc, etc).
The bad judgement lies in the servile acceptance of US positions on
issues like Iraq - particularly the pre-emption doctrine - and the Bush
administration's relentless, dangerous (and probably futile) push for a
defence against ballistic missile attack.
Certainly, as the new paper says, we live in a changed strategic
environment. There is even less risk today of Australia's being attacked
by an aggressive foreign state than there has been for years. Instead we
face different security issues: terrorism, possibly at the strategic or
catastrophic level; some regional instability; border protection; weapons
of mass destruction.
But a revealing supporting paper for the new strategic document says
that "the [2000 White Paper] description of our strategic interests
and objectives, military strategy, capability priorities and so on are
still a robust framework for our defence. Within this framework, we need
to rebalance capability priorities and expenditure to reflect the new
This is not acceptance of the real implications of change; it is an
attempt to suppress them.
In truth the old framework, focused on conventional conflict with
foreign military forces, is past its use-by date. "Rebalancing"
within it only rearranges deck chairs on the Titanic. Today's framework
requires focus on counter-terrorism, maritime surveillance and
interdiction and regional peace-support.
The Government, however, wants to do both: maintain the large
conventional war-fighting establishment and address the new issues too,
whereas it should be de-emphasising traditional capabilities and expanding
others with the resources this releases.
Hence we are confronted with unrealistic ambitions and the threat of
yet more dollars going down the Defence black hole.
To take one example: there is a real need to upgrade maritime and air
surveillance of the approaches to Australia. This requires adequate
numbers of suitable ships and aircraft. These can be funded by taking a
few major warships out of the Navy inventory and scaling down the RAAF's
love-affair with the highest of high-technology. But the government wants
to have its cake and eat it too, at the taxpayer's expense.
The natural conservatism of defence establishments (both uniform and
civilian) accounts for some of this, and the rest is explained by the
government's attitude to the United States, which wants our conventional
forces to lend legitimacy to its pre-emptive wars.
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