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Defence: fact, folly and fiction

By Bruce Haigh - posted Thursday, 24 May 2012

Writing in The Australian on 12 May, "Our forces reduced to impotence", Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, takes up the issue of defence cuts announced in the recent budget. He begins by quoting the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), an organisation which lobbies on behalf of the defence industry and interests.

According to Sheridan, from the perspective of defence preparedness in the 30's," no nation slept more foolishly, and more dangerously, than Australia." Sheridan quotes APSI data which claims that in 1938 Australia spent 1.55% of GDP on defence and that as a result of budget cuts Australia will spend 1.56% on defence in 2012/13.

In his budget in reply speech, the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, drew upon the 1938 analogy; an analogy singularly devious in its application. In 1938 Australian wealth had increased significantly from the private losses and government cuts occasioned by the Great Depression of 1929. The economy started to recover in 1932, in that year unemployment stood at 23%, amongst the highest in the world, by 1939 it stood at 11%.


Government spending in areas like defence was cut in the early 1930's, by 1937/38 it was being restored, but lagged behind the overall growth in wealth. In that year Australia had a population of 6.9 million people with a militia of 43,000 men. Australian historian Gavin Long in, "The Six Year War", says that in 1933, "The purchase of a cruiser, the building of smaller vessels in Australian yards and the rearming of coastal batteries were authorised...Other large-scale metal-working industries capable of conversion to the making of weapons of war, had been established...Essington Lewis, Managing Director of Broken Hill Pty Ltd, after a world tour in 1934, was convinced that steps should be taken to prepare Australia for war. Plans were put in hand to extend plant, improve efficiency and make new kinds of steel."

From 1934 to 1937 defence expenditure in Australia doubled to about 9% of Federal revenue. The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation was formed in 1936. Some 9,000 workers were employed in government munitions and aircraft factories by 1939. A three year defence spending program was announced by Prime Minister Lyons in August 1937 and greatly increased in April 1938, after the German annexation of Austria in March. Following the Munich crisis in September 1938 Australia increased by half the defence allocations of April. The problem now was to spend the money. By April 1939 there were 70,000 men in the militia, from the ranks of whom were drawn the 6th and 7th Divisions of the AIF. War was declared on 3 September 1939. The 6th Division sailed overseas on 10 January 1940.

Paul Hasluck in, "The Government and the people 1939 – 1941", says that there was a steady rise in defence expenditure from 1933 and by the 1936-37 budget it had reached pre-depression figures. Hasluck notes that faced with a rapidly deteriorating international situation, Australia undertook the mammoth task of getting its defence forces up to speed after the debilitating effect of the depression. The state of Australian infrastructure and industry, struggling, with the best will in the world, to get up to speed, meant that the defence budget was chronically underspent.

Hasluck writes that, "It was true that the 1938-39 figure was nearly twice as much as Australia had ever spent in a single year and four times as much as she had been spending five years earlier, but it was a tiny proportion of the nation's resources and the dangers were great and so immediate.

Perhaps more than anything else the modesty of the defence proposals at this period was due to a defect, not of the will but of the imagination."

The same might be said of those charged with shaping defence policy and procurement for Australia over the past fifty years. Forget the white papers and rhetoric, Australia has shaped its defence policy to be compatible with US foreign, strategic and defence policy and US force structures, from Abrams tanks, to air warfare destroyers, to submarines and fighter aircraft ,all are designed to be compatible with US forces when we operate beside them in whatever theatre of conflict and war that the US deems essential to the survival of democracy and the western way of life – and for that read US interests. From Vietnam, to the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan we have lined up with the US on the basis of our alliance and our so called shared common values.


The alliance is predicated on common objectives in WWII, where Australia was a vital base for the re-taking of the Pacific from the Japanese and subsequently morphed into political dogma that the US will come to our assistance should our fundamental interests be threatened again, if we nurture the alliance.

However to date it has been Australia that has run after the US and bent over backwards to do them favours. This is a country with which we have a substantially unequal trade agreement; negotiated under Howard on their terms. This is a country that competes with Australia in the export of wheat and has quotas on the importation of Australian beef and lamb. The US has no major industrial enterprise in this country, yet wants us to accept waste uranium. This is a country that wants us to line up against China in a forward defence strategy that will see Darwin become a base for US marines, naval assets and aircraft, including B52's capable of bombing Chinese submarine bases. It proposes basing submarines in WA at Garden Island and drones on Cocos Island.

On behalf of the US, Australia positioned Oberon Class submarines off Valadivostok to carry out surveillance of Soviet fleet movements. So pleased were they with Australian efforts that in response to US offers of increased co-operation if these activities were continued, if not enhanced, that Australia built a hybrid submarine not suited to operate in the archipelagic waters of our north and really not suited to being a submarine. We have built air warfare destroyers to be an integral part of a US force structure, but to be of use to Australia in an independent role they will need to be reconfigured. And so it goes. By the time we get the F35 it will be way over budget and out of date.

Who are our enemies at the present time and who are likely to be our enemies in the future? The enemies of the US should not automatically be our enemies. A point forcefully made to the new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, at talks with the Chinese on 14 May. Sheridan hints in his article that the Chinese might be our enemy; they will be if it is left to the US, but this need not be. Our defence, should be just that – OUR defence, relying as much on diplomacy, trade and cultural exchange as weapons of war. Australia must identify its own vital interests and develop the means to protect those interests using all means available to us.

On this basis Sheridan's analysis carries no weight. We have overspent on inappropriate items of equipment to please the US and because we have not developed a register of our interests and how best to maintain and protect them within the range of our considerable resources both human and technical. Sheridan has been lazy in accepting ASPI and defence analyst Ross Babbage as his sources. A little work on his own account would show that Australian defence spending at 1.55% of GDP is in company with Germany at 1.34%, Italy, 1.40%, Spain, 1.05%, Sweden, 1.23% and Finland, 1.50%.

With an independent and tough minded analysis of Australia's defence requirements, post-Afghanistan, and at some distance from the bullying of the US, we might find that we can do more with less, once we establish what it is we need to do to co-exist, foster and protect our interests within the region.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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