Where’s the Beef?
3 May 2013|

Mark Thomson,senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI.Back in the day, you could get a free Big Mac from McDonalds by reciting  ‘…two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun…’ in less than 5 seconds (limit one per customer per day). As a hungry teenager I made it my mission to master the art.

My summer of eating for free was a spin off of the Burger Wars of the late 1970s and 80s between the large hamburger chains in the United States. Over that period, millions of dollars was spent on television advertising by McDonalds, Burger King, Hardee’s and others to entice customers to the drive-through window. The most lasting legacy of the era has been the ‘Where’s the Beef?’ campaign from Wendy’s (which was revived in 2011). Take a moment now to watch the original advertisement and one of its follow-ups. It’s hard not to laugh even today.

I was reminded of the classic Wendy’s campaign today as I was reading the new Defence White Paper. Not because it’s entirely lacking in nourishment for the ADF—twelve Growlers is a substantial addition to the force structure. And there’s even a promise of some additional money over the next four years, not just for the Growler purchase but also to address budget pressures within Defence. My concern is for the longer term, when we’ll have to pay to maintain a mixed fleet of Super Hornets and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter while building twelve new bespoke submarines at great cost and risk, not to mention maintaining today’s troop numbers and enhancing ADF base infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country. None of this will come cheap.

We’ll get more details on funding in the Budget next week, with expenditure guidance out a decade promised. This is a positive step, but we’ll have to look closely to see if there is sufficient money allocated to do all that has been promised today. It’s only then that we’ll be able to lift the bun of the burger and see how much beef there really is.

Even if there’s a hearty chunk of bovine protein sitting amid the tomato sauce, there’s the question of what comes next? It’s unrealistic (and clearly pointless) to ask the government to commit to defence spending so far into the future. As we’ve seen over the past four years, governments can and will change their mind as events intervene. That’s okay, we need them to do just that. Nonetheless, we should also expect that due regard is paid to the compatibility of today’s plans with longer-term economic expectations. There’s little point investing billions of dollars in military equipment if we cannot be sure of being able to afford to operate it in the future.

On this count, we must be concerned. The unexpected collapse of this year’s surplus heralded the emergence of a long-term structure deficit of unknown dimensions. Unfortunately, we will not be getting an Intergenerational Report this year so we don’t know how realistic it is to aspire to spend 2% of GDP on defence, or how long it might take us to get there, or indeed how much money might amount to in the years ahead.

It’s not the case that if we say ‘three air warfare destroyers, special forces, tanks, planes, rifles, bombs and lots of regional engagement’ fast enough that we’ll get it all for free.

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI.