A little while back, we identified a set of challenges that whichever incoming government and Defence Minister would have to grapple with. In the new ASPI paper Agenda for change: strategic choices for the next government, we go into more detail on those, including the questions that we think the Minister should ask of the department.
We identified eight areas of concern, but there’s one that stands out as especially important: matching ends and means. No amount of good governance, project oversight or clever military strategy will help if there’s a mismatch between the objectives and the money allocated. There’s a case to be made that Defence’s medium- to long-term plans have always had an aspirational air to them—we can recall a ‘bow wave’ of unapproved projects being on the books 20 years ago—but the situation now seems to be significantly worse than usual.
At the moment, we have the combined effect of a raft of major projects delivering, or about to deliver, new platforms to the ADF which will be very demanding of future sustainment resources. These include the LHD amphibious ships, air warfare destroyers, Super Hornets and Growlers. The last couple of years have also seen initial operating capability of new air-to-air refuellers and Wedgetail aircraft, as well as sophisticated new helicopters for Army and Navy. Many of these capabilities—some of which date back to the 2000 defence white paper—were approved at a time when support for defence was high in the wake of the Timor-Leste deployment and the 9/11 attacks, and budget pressures were minimal (yes, Virginia, there really was a time when Treasury consistently underestimated government revenue). They’re being delivered into a very different environment.
On top of that, the 2009 defence white paper outdid its predecessor in terms of capability enhancements, with the maritime sector in particular seeing some ambitious new projects added, in the form of the future submarines and frigates. Future defence budgets will have to simultaneously deal with increased sustainment costs and an ambitious acquisition program. And the inexorable above-inflation increase of defence costs for other inputs, such as wages and health costs for personnel, shows no sign of abating. In short, a crunch is inevitable unless there’s a change of plan or new buckets of money.
So, what to do…
One possible approach would be a bipartisan accord on defence, in which both parties sign up to a forward funding envelope to provide a solid basis for planning. Such an approach has at least two drawbacks. First, a bipartisan agreement might not be achievable or even desirable. It’s entirely possible for our political parties to reach different conclusions about the priority for defence spending. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; the natural tendency of oppositions to oppose creates a healthy dialectic that’s at the heart of our parliamentary democracy. Second, and more important, even with an accord in place there’d be no guarantee that plans would be affordable. Consider the situation today; we effectively have bipartisan agreement on what the defence force should look like and how much to spend on it—yet there remains a mismatch between plans and resources.
Here’s the problem. Incentives for the military and politicians to plan beyond available resources are strong. The military do so to ‘lock in’ projects in the hope that future governments will be forced to find the money when the time comes. Vested interests in defence industry have every reason to support them in that venture by understating future costs. Politicians ignore affordability because announcing defence acquisitions garners acclaim today, yet the task of crewing and operating the capability will be someone else’s problem a decade or more hence. For example, in the coming weeks we’ll no doubt see both sides of politics re-announcing the intention to build 12 new submarines in South Australia to great fanfare—submarines that will be lucky to enter the water before 2027.
Of course, it’s open to political leaders to act responsibly and ensure that plans for the defence force are affordable. The Cameron government in the United Kingdom has acted to do so by reviewing and revising plans for the UK military and making the Permanent Under Secretary (equivalent to our Secretary) personally responsible for ensuring that defence plans are affordable. Disappointingly, neither side of Australian politics seems eager to face the hard decisions such an approach would demand. Instead, we get vague statements about ‘aspiring’ to spend 2% of GDP on defence, without any concrete discussion of why it’s necessary or whether it’s achievable.
Perhaps the proposal by Jim Molan to publicly disclose advice on defence planning from the CDF and Secretary to the government would help? If it did, it would come at the cost of abandoning the principle of Cabinet confidentiality, whereby officials can provide frank and fearless advice without being embroiled in politics. It would transform the CDF and Secretary from apolitical advisers into political players in their own right.
Ultimately, there’s no magic solution beyond the routine accountability of the government to the electorate. The ongoing unreality of Australian defence planning reflects a broad apathy among the public towards defence matters. If people cared, governments would be under pressure to deliver credible plans attuned to the strategic risks Australia faces. Instead, current plans for the defence force are driven by those with a vested interest in clinging to overly ambitious goals.
Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist, and Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.