Media reporting indicates that we’ll soon see an announcement about the acquisition of twelve extra F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter aircraft at a cost of US$3.6 billion. This will be a classic example of a ministerially driven defence equipment acquisition—the occasional (and often very short-notice) buys that aren’t anticipated in Defence plans. Of course all Defence acquisitions are ultimately sanctioned by government, but most emerge from lengthy force structure development processes. I’ll write on the Super Hornet decision specifically in a second post. For now I’ll provide a potted history of some notable ‘surprise’ equipment announcements over the last quarter century.
Kim Beazley famously decided on the acquisition of 14 Light Armoured Vehicles (LAV-25) following a visit to the United States in 1989. It led to a forensic and (from this distance entertaining) Senate Estimates Committee exchange in which Defence reluctantly acknowledged the vehicles had no air cooling system, overheated in the north and could not operate effectively off roads. ‘One would envisage … its being used primarily for surveillance of road nodal points, airfields, and beach sites—all of those, of course, having road access’ deadpanned the then Major General Mike Jeffery. Over time, and with extensive modification, the Australian Light Armored Vehicle (ASLAV) became the mainstay of the Army’s armored reconnaissance capability.
A much larger surprise acquisition was announced in answer to a question without notice in the Senate on 15 October 1992. Minister for Defence Robert Ray reported on a visit to Washington:
I did raise … the possibility of Australia acquiring additional F-111 aircraft from approximately 250 being taken out of service by the United States. The reaction from the United States was positive. Since my return there have been further discussions within Government and a team will be sent to the United States to negotiate the purchase of up to 18 F-111 aircraft.
Ray observed: ´The Government’s action will ensure that we retain superior strike and interdiction capability’. This was certainly true in relation to undercutting the Opposition’s imminent launch of a defence policy statement: A Strong Australia. The story is taken up by Mark Lax in his excellent history of the F111 in Australian service:
The first the RAAF knew was when Senator Ray called the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Ray Funnell, over to Parliament to inform him. Funnell was astounded when Prime Minister Keating announced he wanted to buy 52 F-111Gs. Funnell recalled: ‘my immediate thoughts were that the RAAF couldn’t handle such a number and, more importantly, what would the neighbours say’?
Australia eventually acquired eighteen aircraft and additional spares. The F-111Gs were 30 years old at that point and not easily compatible with the F-111Cs, but the decision helped to keep the capability in service to 2010.
The Howard Government made a significant number of short notice ministerially driven acquisitions. Three key decisions stand out: the C-17 Globemaster, the additional Army expansion announced in 2006 and the decision to acquire the Super Hornet.
The C-17 purchase was the result of creating an opportunity out of a problem. The opportunity was to take advantage of an existing US production run of military off the shelf (MOTS) aircraft; the problem was a looming major underspend of the Defence budget. Government completed both first and second pass approval for four aircraft and support systems in March 2006 for a cost of $1.8 billion. The aircraft were delivered on time and demonstrated their operational value in responding to the Japanese ‘triple crisis’ in March 2011. A fifth aircraft was ordered in April 2011 by the Labor Government, again taking advantage of a MOTS buy to soak up a budget underspend and negotiations for a sixth aircraft were announced in September that year, corresponding to—you guessed it—a third underspend, although the government has claimed that the two weren’t linked.
As the Audit Office dryly noted in its assessment of the C-17 project: ‘Considerable acceleration of the standard acquisition cycle is possible when the major supplies being procured are off-the-shelf production items’. For Defence and for successive governments it was the prefect project: fast cash for a fine capability.
In August 2006, John Howard announced a major expansion to the size of the Army:
In order to fully meet future regional and global security challenges, the Government has decided to increase the size of the Army by two additional battalions. The Army will increase to eight battalions, with an additional 2600 soldiers recruited.
It was only six and a half years ago, but the regional security imperative for this $10 billion decision seemed more obvious then than now. Howard said the need for expansion was ‘self-evident’: ‘…this country faces ongoing and in my opinion, increasing instances of de-stabilised and failing states in our own region.’ Australia recommitted large numbers of troops to the International Stabilisation force in East Timor in 2006, redeployed troops to the Solomon Islands in April that year, and intervened in November to stabilise Tonga after rioting. That contrasts sharply with the assessment of a ‘more positive’ Pacific security outlook in the recent National Security Strategy. More prosaically, for Howard the mid-2000s was a time of major defence spending increases and the announcement a perfect way to demonstrate the government’s commitment to Defence.
In my next post I’ll take the story up to the present by looking at the Super Hornet decisions of 2007 and (possibly) 2013 as well as couple of other Ministerial ‘surprises’. What should be clear already is that not all ‘surprise from the skies’ decisions are bad, even though they may trash the lovingly crafted plans of the force structure developers, and determine the shape of the ADF for decades into the future.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Leorex.