OPINION: The sense of action and purpose that has been conveyed by the recent flurry of defence reports and reviews is largely illusory and cannot disguise an alarming drift in defence policy under the Gillard government.
The ambitious, but achievable, strategic and budgetary targets set out in the 2009 defence white paper are now dead in the water. That is the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the steady attrition in defence spending over the past three years, which is accelerating as the government sacrifices good policy on the altar of political expediency in its obsessive pursuit of a pre-election budget surplus.
This is not the first government to cut a defence budget and it certainly won't be the last. But there are few precedents for a government imposing such deep cuts in the absence of a recession or a demonstrable peace dividend.
Neither applies to Australia, which is still outperforming just about every other developed country, as Treasurer Wayne Swan continually reminds us. And, by the government's own admission, Australia's security environment is becoming more unpredictable and challenging, not less so, hardly a compelling case for reductions in defence spending.
Equally worrying is the means chosen to obtain defence savings which have been achieved largely by deferring, or slowing down, agreed acquisitions, unnecessarily complicating already difficult defence and industry planning by reducing certainty.
We have now reached the point where important capabilities are under threat, either because the necessary funding is unlikely to materialise, or because there is insufficient time to make equipment and systems combat-ready within designated time frames. The new submarine program is a prime example. As a recent study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute makes clear, it will be difficult to avoid a significant gap between the new submarines becoming available and the retirement of the Collins Class submarines they are slated to replace.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith's announcement of yet another review to determine which submarine we need begs the question of why these reviews were not carried out in the nearly four years since the National Security Committee of cabinet first approved their purchase.
An even more telling indictment of the government's perfunctory approach to defence is the apparent unwillingness, or inability, to match funding with declared strategic aims.
Major changes to approved equipment and personnel changes, including the location of Australian Defence Force units and supporting infrastructure, should not be made without a considered evaluation of the strategic reasons for, and consequences of, these changes.
But the government has ignored this logic with its decision to axe modern artillery and commission a major force posture review. Since the artillery was an approved purchase, what were the operational and strategic factors which justified its cancellation ahead of other capabilities that might equally have been eliminated? The suspicion is that there weren't any, and that Army was simply told to find savings of $225 million.
And how can the government accurately assess, in the just completed Force Posture Review, whether the ADF is "correctly positioned geographically, to meet Australia's current and future strategic challenges" without reviewing the 2009 white paper or writing a new one, neither of which has yet occurred? This is putting the cart before the horse, since it is the white paper which is supposed to determine the challenges confronting defence and where, how and with what the ADF needs to fight and deploy.
These decisions will have three major consequences, none of them good.
First, after more than a decade of commendable remediation efforts by both Coalition and Labor governments to restore the ADF to good financial and operational health, politics is set to trump national security as the Gillard government pursues its holy grail of a budget surplus. The spending cuts already announced will not be the last, so defence can expect to see further salami slicing and the cancellation of capabilities once considered essential to meeting its mission requirements.
Second, the ADF is unlikely to ever deploy 12 modern, combat-ready submarines designed in Australia or the promised 100 Joint Strike Fighters simply because they are no longer affordable. The government should admit this publicly and begin factoring in fewer submarines and advanced fighter aircraft. While there may be some justification for delaying a final decision on the JSFs, each year without a decision on new submarines further increases the already unacceptably high risk of a major capability gap developing towards the end of the next decade.
Finally, the next government is going to have to make some very tough decisions about defence spending priorities in economic circumstances which may turn out to be far less favourable than those faced by this government. None of this augurs well for our future defence capabilities or capacity to provide for our own security.
Alan Dupont is director of the Institute of International Security and Development at UNSW.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Australian