Understanding the price of military equipment
4 May 2022|

Confusion reigns in discussions about the cost of the Department of Defence’s equipment projects. Whether we’re talking about media articles, parliamentary committee hearings, letters to the editor, duelling internet commentators or any other forms of discourse that address Defence acquisitions, the only thing that’s clear is that we’re almost always talking past each other when it comes to the cost of military equipment. Defence doesn’t help when it releases only a bare minimum of information. This sorry state of affairs reached its peak several years ago, when it turned out that when Defence said that the cost of the Attack-class submarine was $50 billion it really meant that the cost was somewhere around $90 billion.

The situation gets even murkier when commentators compare the cost of military acquisition projects here in Australia with ones overseas. It’s very rare that we can make a direct, apples-to-apples comparison between local and overseas projects, and very often it’s more like apples-to-orangutans. Being completely unaware of the basis of the costs they’re comparing doesn’t stop some commentators from making strong claims about the rapacity of foreign arms companies or the competence of the Australian Defence Department.

My new ASPI report, released today, is intended as a guide for the perplexed. It’s not a technical manual, but a plain-English discussion that unpacks the cost of Australian defence equipment projects. While it would be useful for those working in the field of defence and strategic studies to read the whole report, it can also be used a reference tool explaining key terms such as ‘constant’ and ‘out-turned’ dollars or different cost-estimation methodologies.

It’s important up front to acknowledge that the cost of modern military equipment can be eye-wateringly high, and there’s always a ‘sticker shock’ when we compare the costs of military systems with the costs of their civilian counterparts. Those costs are driven by the constant quest for better capability that provides an advantage in a life-and-death business. That striving in turn drives rates of cost escalation that greatly outstrip inflation in the broader economy. No Western country has yet found a way out of that endless cost spiral, and Australia is certainly not an exception.

Anyone discussing cost has to understand what’s included in the price. It’s here that comparisons of Australian and overseas projects are difficult. Australian defence project costs include all the elements needed to get a capability into service, which are known as the fundamental inputs to capability. They comprise much more than the military equipment itself and can include facilities, training systems, documentation, intellectual property, integration of the new equipment (such as a missile) onto existing systems (such as the aircraft that will launch it), science and technology programs, and so on.

Elements other than the equipment aren’t trivial and can sometimes make up half of the total acquisition cost. Australian projects also include significant risk provisions, known as contingency. In contrast, most overseas programs don’t include all of those elements, so their cost can appear significantly smaller.

In the report, I provide a hypothetical example that illustrates how the cost grows as we include these factors. If we start with available off-the-shelf equipment costing $1 billion and adjust for price escalation (including inflation and capability enhancements) and factor in all fundamental inputs to capability and contingency, we quickly get to a total acquisition cost of $3.5 billion. That’s before we include operating costs.

The report also briefly examines a current, real-world example by comparing the cost of Australia’s Hunter-class frigate project with analogous international projects. While I attempt to make some assessments, the exercise confirms that comparisons are difficult when we don’t have visibility of what’s included in the price tag.

I also attempt to debunk the popular and deeply held view that Defence projects frequently go over budget. Based on the public evidence, the opposite is in fact the case. Once the government considers a business case and gives Defence approval to enter into contracts to acquire a particular system with a set budget, the department rarely goes over budget. However, it must be said that, before that point, Defence’s estimates of the funding needed to acquire a capability can grow significantly as its understanding of its requirements and the possible solutions develops. It’s here that the infamous ‘blowouts’ generally occur, not after actual acquisition commences.

Some commentators have suggested that focusing on the cost ignores the value those systems provide—why quibble over a few billion here or there when the security of the country is at stake? I’d argue that it’s difficult to assess value for money if you don’t understand how much money you’re paying. This study aims to help Australians understand how much they’re paying. It’s only then that we can make informed decisions about military spending.