After the White Paper conference: what now?
15 Apr 2016|

One obvious conclusion to be drawn from ASPI’s Defence White Paper conference last week is the need for Australia’s Department of Defence to take steps toward the establishment of a single agency to promote, coordinate, execute, monitor and sustain the provision of defence-related equipment and services to Australia’s partners in the Indo–Pacific.

Doing so makes sense for several reasons. First, sales of Oz-made defence equipment will provide additional work for domestic industries. Just as important, the sharing of expertise with Australia’s regional partners makes sense as a way to better prepare both her forces and those of a nation undergoing  a potential security or HA/DR emergency. Second, a market expansion belies the argument that the defence industry is simply welfare by another name. Third, generating additional demand for large end-items such as naval vessels or wheeled vehicles will go a long way toward preventing ‘continuous build’ from becoming a punchline. Finally, the DWP demands that Australia finally adopt a coordinated approach to ‘Phase 0’ operations that helps meet security objectives, complements the efforts undertaken by the US in the region and that both generate and sustain readiness for the ADF.

Much of the conversation at last week’s conference centered on the DWP’s material requirements—aircraft, ships, armored infantry and cavalry vehicles, and the like. Industry is understandably eager to participate, though there’s some hesitation when it comes to naval construction. In addition to much conversation on submarines, significant attention was paid to production schedules for the new air warfare destroyer (AWD) and offshore patrol vessel (OPV). The problem for industry is that the numbers called for by the DWP are relatively small, and though securing those contracts would generate significant revenue, they alone offer very little in the way of job security or predictability. The future AWD or OPV is expected to have a life-of-type in the 30–35 year range. In other words, the first ships to be built will still have over 20 years of service ahead of them once the last one enters service. The life of the production line would be greatly extended Australia were to ink agreements with two or three of its closest regional partners (say Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) to facilitate their purchase of the same OPV class.

An expanded market for the same platform offers cost savings to the Australian taxpayer through economies of scale. It also offers the prospect of a much longer production line life than Defence can hope to offer right now. Moreover, building for export isn’t some sort of ‘New Deal’ work-fare scheme. It’s about preserving Australia’s industrial base so that it can adapt to future requirements, expand more quickly in an emergency, and create an increased demand not just for welders and fitters but for engineers, draftsmen, production managers and other STEM-related fields. In other words, it keeps Australia’s workforce diversified and competitive in a global market.

The logic underpinning a coordinated defence export agency is reinforced when it’s tied to the strategic objectives in the DWP. A robust domestic defence industry populated with well paid and highly skilled & educated workers provides needed insulation to Australia’s economy, which is one aspect of defending the Australian homeland. A strategic outreach program, focused on conflict prevention and deterrence (tasks associated with Phase 0 in US joint doctrine), can make an Australian defence export capability attractive to potential partners. For example, sales of OPVs to regional partners (along with agreements to provide new equipment training, maintenance, and parts) could easily be combined with proposals to develop a multilateral maritime awareness network for the South China Sea and beyond.

Finally, standardising vessel types among Australia’s closest neighbors facilitates the next logical step in security cooperation: developing operational doctrine for each purchasing nation and then testing that doctrine through bilateral or multilateral exercises. As Australia’s partners gain experience and confidence, the exercises could increase in scale and complexity, adding fixed and rotary aviation, and unmanned systems. At the high end of maritime security exercises, military and naval forces could be added as well so as to rehearse a potential hand-off of operational control during the transition from a Phase 0 to a Phase 1 scenario. At every stage of such a process, Australia’s ability to operate effectively alongside her regional neighbors increases, with a concomitant increase in regional stability.

An additional benefit will accrue to the ADF through this process, though its value is less clearly quantifiable. The individual and corporate relationships established through an expanded security assistance/security cooperation program will someday make it possible for potential conflicts to be defused with a simple telephone call. ‘Australia’ is a brand with exceptional cachet in the region and around the world. As any marketing undergraduate can explain, the key to expanding market share is capitalising on brand popularity to create brand loyalty. The ingredients are there; all that’s required now is commitment.