How much is too little? Learning to live with a smaller force
15 Aug 2012|

Ever since the government slashed defence spending back in May, they’ve copped a shellacking in the press. In case you haven’t caught up, here’s a selection of what’s being said:

And Greg Sheridan has railed against the government’s decision, not once, not twice, but three times, and has gone so far as to say that the cuts are ‘the most radical, irresponsible and dangerous action Labor has taken in government’.

These are serious professionals—undoubted experts in their fields—talking about a serious topic. Their views warrant close and careful attention. So the question must be asked: is the government making a colossal mistake that seriously threatens our security in the years ahead?

There’s precious little reassurance to be found in the government’s explanation for cutting defence spending. Unless there is a subtlety I’ve missed, the imperative to deliver a surplus has simply eclipsed defence as a political issue—pure and simple. Worse still, by promising to both keep the so-called ‘core capabilities’ of the 2009 White Paper and maintain current ADF numbers, the government has created a mismatch between means and ends that can’t be reconciled. The planners up on Russell Hill must be pulling out their hair trying to square the circle.

Nonetheless, despite the extraordinary mess that’s been created, I believe that the current situation is retrievable. Mainly because I do not think that Australia needs a larger or stronger defence force than we have at present. So while I’ve argued elsewhere that we can afford to spend more on defence, I do not believe that we should.

My reasons are explained in this Policy Analysis. My argument rests on two propositions:

  1. The expansion and modernisation of the ADF over the past decade provides an adequate base to build a force to hedge against risks that might (a) arise in the fragile states in our immediate region, (b) emerge from or arise within Southeast Asia, or (c) require a contribution to a US or UN operations further afield.
  2. We cannot realistically hope to make a strategic difference to the great power politics of North Asia through military means, so we shouldn’t waste our time and money trying. Instead, we should be content to rely on US efforts to maintain stability in the region. As jarring as this might sound, it’s actually what we’ve been doing for the sixty plus years of the ANZUS alliance.

There’s nothing radical about my two propositions; they’re consonant with the force structuring criteria set out in the 2009 Defence White Paper, albeit stripped of verbiage and adornment. The problem with the 2009 White Paper is that it failed to build a coherent vision for a defence force consistent with its declared policy. Instead, we got Force 2030 which, among other failings, was heavily tainted by a costly undeclared but since made public knee-jerk response to China’s rise.

Even if my two propositions are accepted—and I expect that there will be many who will demur on one or both of the points—there remains much to be done to design, build and maintain the defence force implied. But that’s a story for another day.

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI.