Shipbuilding: don’t sink a real debate
3 Sep 2015|


It all seemed so much easier in the old days. Equipment got old and it was replaced, like for like. Not always of course. Remember we used to have an aircraft carrier? In fact, at one time we had two.

The Royal Australian Navy planned to replace HMAS Melbourne with HMS Invincible. Unfortunately, the British withdrew their offer to sell us their aircraft carrier after the Falklands War, once they realised how necessary air cover was to protect a naval task force—particularly an amphibious one. Now you’d expect this would make the government even keener to retain this vital capability.

Surprisingly, however, the Fraser government just um’ed and ah’ed. It seemed that even a conservative government couldn’t find the money for the vessel when it balanced this defence need against electoral survival. Postponing the decision didn’t help. Bob Hawke was elected and the money was urgently needed for other things. Labor binned the idea and few complained. Since that date no government has been prepared to restore the capability. They never will. We can’t afford it.

Despite valiant attempts (including here on the The Strategist) no politician has ever really believed voters would be prepared to embrace the sort of tax hike necessary to fund such projects. Joe Hockey has made it clear that the government has two current priorities: reducing the deficit and handing out tax-cuts.

This is why, when we’re discussing strategy, it’s always necessary to return to the essential, element that shouldn’t, theoretically, be relevant at all: money. The question to ask isn’t, ‘what equipment do we need?’, but unfortunately, ‘what will the voter/taxpayer pay for?’ 

And that’s why Hugh White has a place in this debate. James Goldrick has it all over the Professor when it comes to commanding from the bridge of a ship; but on the other hand White has sat in the PM’s office and listened to the real debates about where the money’s coming from. Most critically, he’s attempted to work out how the capabilities will be funded. And that’s why we must listen carefully to White’s opinion (and, for that matter, that of ASPI Executive Director Peter Jennings, who later held the Deputy Secretary–Strategy position). White’s concerns can’t be dismissed simply because he (allegedly) ‘misunderstands the fundamentals of maritime operations’—although more on that in a moment.

The point is that Australian defence strategy is currently at the intersection of a number of significant trends; all of them throw up challenging problems. The first is technical and tactical: the remarkable advances in precision and range that have dramatically extended the lethality of weapons systems. These have changed warfare.

I have no doubt that a former Admiral has a much better grasp of the intricacies of these than I do. Equally, however, command experience doesn’t guarantee that anyone will be able to accurately predict the future, particularly when it hasn’t already happened. In 1939, remember, few officers of any navy understood how submarines and carriers were about to transform maritime operations and yet they were supposedly experienced professionals.

We can make guesses, of course, but it would seem unlikely that anyone can pontificate with certainty about a revolution.

The next trend impacting on the defence budget is the increasing demands on government. The need to find money for boosts to health and education has already squeezed the budget. Yet this week the Treasurer has raised expectations that the government will go to the next election promising further tax cuts. Combine this with the need to reduce the budget deficit, and Tony Abbott’s promise to raise defence spending to 2% of GDP looks rather ‘courageous’ (in the Sir Humphrey sense).

Now I’ve got no expertise when it comes to defence, but as a journalist you speak to a wide range of people. They buy the paper, so it’s not my job to tell them they’re wrong. But as you’re reading this for free, I’ll tell you what I really think, and it’s that given a choice between a new hospital and defence equipment, the voting public will go for healthcare every time.

Defence commentators need to recognise this. It’s no use demanding more money so we can keep up with the neighbourhood, because the money isn’t there. We can no longer afford to buy the capabilities we used to take for granted.

Which leads us to the final trend: our changing economic circumstances. Military capabilities are becoming more expensive. We’ll have to make some choices because we can’t have it all.

I’m not suggesting the US is becoming irrelevant, or that China will be able to act as it chooses; but simply that the world we are living in today is most emphatically not the world of a decade ago. Back in the 1980s the Navy recognised that it had to abandon the idea of basing the fleet around an aircraft carrier. We need to harness that intellectual flexibility again.

That’s why Goldrick is utterly correct when he insists, ‘it’s high time the debate moved on from the fixation on platforms’. Unfortunately, this time he’s being ignored by the politicians (of both persuasions).

At a time of significant technological change we should embrace the opportunity to develop new naval weapons systems. Instead, however, our politicians don’t appear to be able to see beyond the votes they believe are entwined with dockyards.

Opportunities to engage intellectually with transformative technologies are being squandered. Regrettably, political debate is concentrating on providing jobs for riveters, welders, and politicians in marginal electorates.