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Demystifying Australia’s defence exports

Posted By and on March 3, 2023 @ 06:00

The successful export of Australian company DroneShield’s counter-drone technology [1] to Ukraine is testament to the innovative capacity of Australia’s defence industry to fill niche gaps in the global arms market. DroneShield’s success adds its products to the historical list of successful Australian defence exports, like the Ikara ship-launched anti-submarine missile [2] and the Bushmaster protected mobility vehicle. While some exports like Ikara have been given the limelight, many of the past and current successes of smaller companies are largely unknown.

This anonymity is primarily the result of public information on Australian defence exports being reliant on sporadic self-reporting and occasional media attention. There is no official information on actual Australian defence exports, even from the Australian Defence Export Office (ADEO). The ADEO was established in 2018 to help support the previous government’s defence export strategy and to help the local defence industry win export contracts.

However, an Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report [3] reviewing the strategy in 2020 stated that it wasn’t possible to assess whether the strategy was working because even the Department of Defence didn’t know what was being exported since there was no obligation for companies to report exports or for the department to collect that data.

This isn’t because companies are breaking the rules and simply exporting whatever they want. In order to export, a company has to request an export permit from the Defence Export Controls [4] unit within the Defence Department for any items on the defence and strategic goods list [5], which includes not only defence materiel but also explosives and other items used in civilian industries such as mining. Dual-use technologies and weapons of mass destruction also require permits. An applicant is required to include estimates of the total value of the export over the life of the permit and multi-year permits, like repair contracts.

The ADEO publishes aggregated data [6] by measuring defence exports through export applications received and through the estimated total value of all permits issued. The statistics include the total number of applications received, finalised, processed, assessed, denied, approved and the number of certifications and permits issued by end users’ geographic region.

The ADEO statistics do not, however, equate to actual exports because the export activity under the permits is not tracked. Furthermore, ADEO statistics do not list the individual selling company, nor do they differentiate between complete platforms, subsystems, components provided to global supply chains, intangibles and service categories. For example, it’s not entirely clear whether Australia’s $2.7 billion in F-35 global supply chain contracts [7] for more than 50 local companies are treated as military exports by the ADEO.

Overall, however, it’s reasonable to assume that the ADEO statistics significantly overestimate the value of exports because not all permits translate into actual sales.

Other government agencies also publish some data on defence exports, but they use different methodologies which produce very different assessments of the nature and value of exports. This includes the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT’s) annual reporting to the Arms Trade Treaty [8] (ATT), an international agreement created in 2013 to establish global standards for the international trade of conventional arms.

ATT transparency reporting [9] provides information on the category of conventional weapon, the number of category items, the permits granted, the purchasing entity, the items’ valuations and item descriptions. Like the ADEO, however, ATT reports don’t include [10] data on the selling company or on services, global supply chain inputs and other intangibles.

While DFAT uses permit data for its ATT transparency reports, for its domestic publications it uses other information sources. DFAT uses its own estimates, as well as unpublished and tailored information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), to track Australian defence exports. DFAT uses major conventional weapon categories, including warships, tanks and other traditional capabilities. But that means it also ‘misses’ other exports.

The ABS lists the value of the statistical category of ‘arms and ammunition’, which also covers only a small part of Australia’s defence exports.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) publishes data [11] on global defence exports. This is a very valuable source of international data. But it is reliant on national disclosure regimes and also focuses on traditional major systems and doesn’t track components and services.

Australian authorities’ use of broad, different categories results in widely divergent estimates of the value of defence exports. For example, in 2020–21, the ADEO estimated Australian defence exports at $2.69 billion [12], the ABS at $165 million [13] and DFAT at (AHECC) $139.31 million [14]. SIPRI lists the value [15] at 413 ‘trend indicator values’ (TIVs; very roughly analogous to US dollars) in 2020 and 173 TIVs in 2021—but those were largely the sale of retired frigates and Hornet fighter planes rather than exports of goods and services.

This large discrepancy illustrates the lack of baseline data either at the level of individual contract or at the aggregated top level.

Without export data, it’s difficult to understand the capabilities of the Australian defence industry or evaluate the success of an export strategy designed to help domestic companies export more through tailored support, funding, promotion and market advice. More accurate data would provide greater clarity for the industry and help it promote products to future, or prospective, customers.

Defence acknowledged the absence of data identified by the ANAO and has said it has begun engaging the government and defence industry to address the issue. But as noted in the 2020 ANAO report, establishing a reliable dataset on defence exports is a complex undertaking and would also require explicit changes to the government’s policy settings on disclosure.

This isn’t the place to advocate for a particular solution. We believe that transparency is in principle a good thing but acknowledge that stakeholders have a broad range of concerns about full disclosure. For example, Defence has repeatedly stated at Senate estimates hearings that once an export permit is granted, any export is essentially a commercial matter, and requiring companies to disclose exports would impinge on commercial confidentiality.

In sum, establishing a more comprehensive system of export disclosure will require engagement between the government, parliament, defence industry and civil society.

Having undertaken a wide survey of export disclosure regimes in Western democracies, we would note that there are a very wide range of approaches. Perhaps the most comprehensive disclosure is conducted by the US’s Defence Security Cooperation Agency [16], but few regimes come close to that gold standard. We would also note, however, that Australia’s system sits at the lower end of the disclosure spectrum.

As a first step to filling the data gap, we have attempted to aggregate any data we could find on Australian defence exports. This includes sources such as company media releases, annual reports and media reports.

We have taken a very broad view of defence exports; we include not just traditional ‘platforms’ and major systems, but also subsystems, components and services. We regard providing training facilities to foreign militaries as an export.

The dataset provides (where we could identify it) information on the selling company, the recipient, the export, the year of order, the year of delivery and the value, as well as the source of information. Where possible, the dataset also tracks whether an export has seen prior or subsequent service in the Australian Defence Force.

While this is not comprehensive or complete dataset, we hope this new resource will help provide a better understanding of Australia’s defence export industry. We think it will show that Australia has a robust, internationally competitive defence industry that has won export success far beyond the headline stories that many of us are familiar with.

The dataset can be accessed in section 9 of APSI’s Cost of Defence public database [17].

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/demystifying-australias-defence-exports/

URLs in this post:

[1] counter-drone technology: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/small-business-secrets/article/the-australian-aid-and-technology-being-rushed-to-ukraines-frontline/bqcwku9l5

[2] Ikara ship-launched anti-submarine missile: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/special-reports/australia-was-once-a-worldclass-guided-weapons-producer/news-story/6d8be6b7594ef1a9dd8cbda136d3fa44

[3] report: https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/design-and-implementation-the-defence-export-strategy

[4] Defence Export Controls: https://www.defence.gov.au/business-industry/export/controls

[5] defence and strategic goods list: https://www.defence.gov.au/business-industry/export/controls/export-controls/defence-strategic-goods-list

[6] publishes aggregated data: https://www.defence.gov.au/business-industry/export/controls/about/performance

[7] contracts: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2020-12-09/australian-businesses-share-record-27-billion-contracts-f-35-program

[8] Arms Trade Treaty: https://www.dfat.gov.au/international-relations/security/non-proliferation-disarmament-arms-control/conventional-weapons

[9] ATT transparency reporting: https://www.thearmstradetreaty.org/reporting.html

[10] don’t include: https://thearmstradetreaty.org/annual-reports.html?templateId=209826

[11] publishes data: https://www.sipri.org/databases

[12] $2.69 billion: https://www.defence.gov.au/sites/default/files/2022-08/Financial-Year-2020-21-Statistics.pdf

[13] $165 million: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/economy/international-trade/international-trade-goods-and-services-australia/aug-2021

[14] $139.31 million: https://www.dfat.gov.au/trade/trade-and-investment-data-information-and-publications/trade-statistics/trade-statistical-pivot-tables

[15] lists the value: https://www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers

[16] Defence Security Cooperation Agency: https://www.dsca.mil/press-media/major-arms-sales

[17] Cost of Defence public database: https://www.aspi.org.au/cost-of-defence-database

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