The Treasurer and Prime Ministerial hopeful Peter
Costello tells us that we need to spend lots of extra
money on defence, to bring ourselves up to speed with
the modern technologies of warfare. The upcoming Budget
will allocate billions more to defence spending to address
this need: it will be a "khaki" budget.
There is, however, little real evidence to support
the view that such a need exists. Before anyone points
in outrage to the 11 September and Bali atrocities,
let me say that I do not deny the need for responses
to the threat of terrorism, and especially large-scale
or strategic terrorism. Nor do I deny that Australia
is a target for such terrorism.
What I query is the need to spend vast sums gearing
our Defence Forces for so-called coalition operations
- that is, for operations using the advanced technologies
needed for "interoperability" with the United
States' armed forces. I do not see how the ability to
fill "niches" in coalitions assembled by the
US, with or (more likely) without UN approval, helps
protect Australia against terrorism.
It is all very well to say that states can sponsor
terrorism and that the US will go after such states.
But state sponsorship is not a necessary condition for
terrorism, and eliminating sponsoring states will not
eliminate the terrorist threat. Besides, unless the
US is prepared to go after an awful lot of states which
(willingly or otherwise) harbour terrorists, even state
sponsorship is going to remain an issue. If anyone thinks
that Australia is safer from terrorist threats as a
result of its participation in the recent Iraq war,
then they are naïve in the extreme. In fact, as
I have argued here previously, the reverse is undoubtedly
No-one can show that spending billions on the highest
of military high-tech protects against terrorists. There
are indeed things we should be doing: beefing up surveillance
and patrolling of the continental approaches; improving
our capacity to assist weak regional states like Papua
New Guinea and East Timor with ongoing internal or external
security issues; and, on terrorism, looking to prevention
as well as consequence management by improving intelligence
cooperation with neighbours and putting some decent
domestic infrastructure into place.
If we learned nothing else from September 11 it was
surely that military force - armies, navies, and air
forces brandishing an imposing array of the latest and
costliest high-tech weaponry - is a blunt instrument
against terrorism. The Americans discovered to their
cost that all the electronic intelligence gathering
and sifting capabilities in which they placed so much
faith were worthless in the face of the simple, cheap
and (one is forced to say) brilliant plan hatched by
bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
Military force was able, after the event, to displace
the Taliban in Afghanistan. It has now displaced the
Saddam regime in Iraq. Neither regime ought be mourned,
but the fact remains that terrorism is still a threat.
Terrorism is not hatched in Cabinet rooms in Kabul,
Baghdad, Damascus, Pyongyang or any other capital. It
is born in squalid camps, in streets and fields populated
by hopeless dispossessed or oppressed people so desperate
that becoming a suicide bomber (or pilot) appears to
be a great and positive act. It can be aided by governments
for their own reasons but the grudging and purely verbal
support recently given to Iraq by Al Qaeda shows that
terrorists use regimes rather than vice-versa. Al Qaeda,
for its own reasons, despised Saddam's regime as much
as did the US. To the likes of bin Laden, Saddam was
a hypocritical secularist who invoked Islam for purely
So building up a vastly expensive high-tech Australian
military capable of helping the US overthrow foreign
governments will not remove terrorism, especially religiously
based terrorism, as a threat to Australia. The trial
of the accused Bali bomber Amrozi has begun and there
are some on Indonesia's radical Islamic fringe who see
him as a hero; if executed, they will make him a religious
martyr. These people, and those like them around the
world, cannot be stopped by the US 82nd Airborne Division
or even the Australian Special Forces.
The Howard government suffers from an ideological
weakness. It thinks the United States is a "good
guy" that can help Australia improve national security.
But in fact the US is no "better" than other
governments: it uses power because it can, and it ignores
the strictures of international law and the UN when
it feels it has to. So it is not "good" in
the sense that it eschews aggression. Nor, for all its
military might, has it a solution to the threat of terrorism.
Designing our armed forces to become an extension of
theirs in coalition operations will not help us against
Finally, we need to consider the cost. We cannot
afford to squander billions on interoperability with
the Americans. Our health system is on the brink of
collapse. We have an ageing population. We have serious
problems of environmental degradation and climate change.
Our Defence Department excels principally at wasting
money on big-ticket projects which blow out in time
and cost. The government's ideological hang-ups on defence
and the US are becoming expensive liabilities.