Force 2030: Massive Australian military spending for the Asia Pacific century

The federal government released its long awaited twenty year defence plan yesterday which calls for a possible $100 billion in spending to boost the nation’s military capability. The government says the new long term strategic blueprint, called Force 2030, will give Australia the ability to meet defence requirements as well as a range of regional contingencies. The plan will be partially funded by reform within the department but will require additional budget funding. Treasurer Wayne Swan refused today to outline exactly how much funding that would be, with the federal budget just one week away.

The 137 page defence white paper is available in pdf format. In his introduction, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says defence is the greatest responsibility for a national government and this was the first white paper to address strategic outlook in ten years. It attempts to address threats posed by events such as 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the terrorist bombings in London, Madrid, Bali and elsewhere, the possibility of cyber-attacks, a nuclear North Korea, and above all, the rise of China and the emergence of India as geo-political players. Fitzgibbon acknowledged the document was coming out in the middle of a global recession but the timing showed “the premium it puts on our national security by not allowing the financial impact…affect its commitment to our Defence needs.”

The paper outlined the sliding scale of importance of four Australian defence objectives over the next two decades. Firstly and most importantly, is the defence of the nation against attacks by states and by non-state actors such as terrorism groups. Secondly, there is the security of the air and sea approaches in the “immediate neighbourhood” which the paper defined as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, New Zealand and the South Pacific island states. Thirdly, there are the challenges of the Asia-Pacific region and the maintenance of a regional security environment. Finally there is the worldwide strategic interest in “preserving an international order” to restrain aggression and manage risks and threats.

Key to the policy is the principle of self-reliance allied to the ability to do more to support strategic interests if required. This means the capacity to act independently, lead military coalitions, and making “tailored contributions” to wider interests. Consistent with the four objectives, the paper defined the tasks for the ADF as deterring and defeating attacks on Australia, contributing to stability and security in the South Pacific (including humanitarian and disaster relief operations), contribute to military contingencies in Asia-Pacific, and finally contributing to military contingencies in the rest of the world.

It charts the rise of China, a point studiously ignored by Chinese news agency Xinhua’s report on the white paper. Australia expects the US to remain the pre-eminent world power in 2030 though China will be the strongest Asian power by a considerable margin. The US and China form the “crucial relationship in the region”. The paper identifies Taiwan as a potential flashpoint while it re-affirms Australia’s “one China” policy. China will also exert economic and soft power in South East Asia which is relatively peaceful apart from the “serious challenge” of Burma. The report is positive about Indonesia which has “managed a successful transition to multiparty democracy, embarked on the long journey of economic reform, and proven to be a strong partner in the fight against terrorism.”

The paper anticipates no progress in the Middle East with Iran’s nuclear ambitions further complicating matters. Pakistan is “a pivotally important state” with its nuclear weapons, terrorist networks, and links to Afghanistan presenting a risk of a “radical Islamic capture of the state”. Afghanistan will continue to need support for “the next decade or more” and will require sustained Australian engagement. Iraq is not seriously addressed (mentioned just six times in the document compared to Afghanistan’s 44) and it can be assumed will take an increasingly less important focus for Australia in the coming decades.

The navy will be the clear winners from the strategy. The plan calls for the replacement of six Collins-class submarines with 12 “Future Submarines”, acquiring three destroyers, replacing the Anzac class frigates, as well as enhancing “offshore maritime warfare, border protection and mine countermeasures.” The army will also benefit from 46 MRH-90 helicopters in a pooled fleet with the Navy while the Air Force will be expanded to a fleet of 100 combat aircraft.

Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull was quick today to criticise the paper for not giving enough funding detail. The report calls for 3 percent growth in the budget to 2018, and 2.2 percent beyond that date. There will also be a 2.5 per cent fixed indexation for the entire period. That will not pay for the expensive measures in the program, so the government is also proposing a “Strategic Reform Program” to overhaul the department to save $20 billion in accountability, planning, and productivity.

Speaking on Insiders, defence analyst Hugh White called the department “wasteful” and said there was probably $20 billion to be saved, but added “it’s going to be really hard and the choices that have to be made to save that money will not be politically easy.” White says that means changing the way defence does business. “That’s a challenge for ministers, for politicians, for the Cabinet as to whether they’re prepared to take quite hard and often quite unpopular choices,” he said.

Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter suggests Japan and Korea will be happy with the plan to counter China’s power; Trevor Cook is deeply unimpressed with what he calls an unaffordable, electorally cynical, stupid strategy; and Andrew Elder skewers Greg Sheridan’s incoherent addition to the debate in The Australian.

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