Defence White Paper 2013

Kym Bergmann / Canberra

Given Australia’s strategic and budgetary circumstances, the 2013 White Paper seems reasonably well balanced. Or to put it another way, it could have been a lot worse. In foreshadowing a modest increase in spending in the short term and an aspiration target of 2% of GDP, the Government has sought to maintain its credentials in the national security domain.

However, an overall credibility problem remains because the White Paper – which is a high level blueprint – must be read in conjunction with more practical documents such as budget papers and the next Defence Capability Plan. It is a bit like viewing an artist’s impression of a new car – it looks great, but when will it be built and how much will it cost?

There are no real surprised regarding the assessment of Australia’s strategic circumstances in that we are relatively safe from the prospect of armed invasion but live in a multipolar world facing not only the growth of China but other regional powers as well. Our drawdown – which used to be called a withdrawal – from Afghanistan has been a reality since the US made the decision to do so and ending our military commitment to both Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands is a recognition that circumstances in those countries has stablised.

In the vital domain of air power, the Government has announced the addition of 12 new build Super Hornet Electronic Warfare Attack ‘Growlers’ to the 24 strike variants already in service. This has been done without affecting Australia’s long-term commitment to three squadrons of F-35s – which is a pleasant surprise given the assumption that additional Super Hornets would reduce Joint Strike Fighter numbers. There will be a sigh of relief in aviation manufacturing circles as Australia’s JSF work share is proportional to the numbers of platforms we buy.

At first glimpse the big loser in industry terms is naval shipbuilding, which seems to have been completely thrown to the wolves. Despite rhetoric from both the Government and the Department that they are aware of halt of major shipbuilding work in 2015, nothing seems to have been done about it – unless some major surprises are included in the next DCP. There was no mention of a fourth Air Warfare Destroyer, despite a great deal of speculation that this would be used as a gap-filler until other projects started to ramp up.

This vein of disappointment continues into other sectors of shipbuilding, such as the potentially massive SEA 1180 that aspires to produce up to 20 multi-role vessels. This was always going to be ambitious, as APDR has pointed out. The White Paper mentions it as a possible long-term project, but in the meantime platforms such as the hydrographic ships and motor survey vessels will be upgraded. There is mention of a need to replace the Armidale Class patrol boats – a slight surprise, though they have been subjected to a great deal of wear and tear – and that might offset major further job shedding and the close of yards such as Williamstown naval dockyard. Perhaps it is time for Defence to finally embrace a lead yard and follow yard to spread the benefits of any new contract as broadly as possible, rather than continue the winner-takes-all formula.

Another straw to clutch at is a reference to replacing the supply ships HMAS ‘Success’ and HMAS ‘Sirius’. If – as we have argued – they could be brought forward there would be substantial amount of work for industry. But for this to happen, Defence would need to fast-track the process. Defence fast-track is an oxymoron.

There is some further definition to the Future Submarine project by excluding eminently sensible options such as a modified European designed submarine. This means that the new submarine will either be a completely new design, or an evolved Collins. Collins itself is a modified European design, so why that approach has been discarded is a mystery. If it is to be a completely new design, the big questions are: designed by whom; for how much; and when? It will certainly be a very large amount of money spent at a very distant future point. The idea that ASC could design a completely new submarine is a dangerous folly and the RAN is in no position to assist having spent the last 20 years de-skilling their engineering abilities.

Finally – does the White Paper really matter? Quite correctly, the Opposition would like their own White Paper and as seems increasingly likely they will be in a position to ask for one after September 14. While they are unlikely to push for major changes doctrinally or with regard to our international relations and obligations, they could have a good hard look at the DCP and also the structure of the Department. They might well take the view that more capital equipment is affordable if the extraordinarily top heavy Department and – even more so – Defence Materiel Organisation are given a very substantial haircut. They might also prefer a more realistic and affordable approach to SEA 1000 by placing the myth of unique Australian requirements under closer scrutiny than has been the case to date.


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