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National defence - an infrastructure issue

By Michael O'Connor - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

A constant refrain from Australian political parties not only in the recent election campaign but for generations has been that Australia cannot afford more money for national defence. Even the military chiefs, the defence bureaucrats and academics peddle the same line that defence preparedness must be achieved within the fiscal guidelines prepared by governments.

It’s rubbish of course. Between 1980 and 1987, Australian governments of the two major parties spent an average of 2.6 per cent of Gross Domestic Product on defence. More accurately, because government spending as a percentage of GDP varies, they spent 9.1 per cent of total Federal outlays on defence. Since that time, again under governments of both parties, defence outlays have fallen to 1.8 per cent of GDP and 7.6 per cent of Federal outlays. The difference as total Federal outlays decline as a percentage of GDP is at least $2.4 billion at today’s prices.

Over the past two decades, GDP has just about doubled in real terms while Federal revenue has grown in real terms by 72 per cent. Real defence spending has grown by just 41 per cent although the real cost of military personnel and modern defence equipment has more than doubled.


Measured by outputs – military personnel and units – the reduction in defence capability is just as striking. Military personnel numbers, full and part time, have fallen by 25.8 per cent since 1980. Some equipment is almost 40 years old and increasingly ineffectual if not unsafe. At the same time, the proportion of officers in the force has grown from 13.9 per cent to 22.9 per cent, too many of whom are employed in administration rather than command.

As far back as 1904, Winston Churchill wrote in the London Daily Mail that:

The Army is not like a limited liability company, to be reconstructed, remodelled, liquidated and refloated from week to week as the money market fluctuates. It is not an inanimate thing, like a house, to be pulled down or enlarged or structurally altered at the caprice of the tenant or owner; it is a living thing. If it is bullied, it sulks; if it is unhappy it pines; if it is harried it gets feverish; if it is sufficiently disturbed, it will wither and dwindle and almost die; and when it comes to this last serious condition, it is only revived by lots of time and lots of money.

To some extent, the Australian Defence Force is suffering that fate. Separation rates are high and recruitment low although the latter figure is influenced by the government’s strict ceiling on numbers. Morale is variable but shaky as the force tries to cope with an ever-growing burden of management decrees and reduced funds for training and maintenance.

At the same time, the force is working at an unusually high operational tempo, especially for peacetime. With seven of its nine frigates committed to current operations in the war on terrorism, the interdiction of asylum seekers and support for peacekeeping operations, the navy is now operating at a tempo not experienced since the darkest days of World War II and maybe not even then. Thus it is now unable to maintain its infrastructure of refits and modernisation, crew training and submarine training. Although the navy is supposed to have 14 frigates – a figure arguably too small anyway – the five that are being built will not be in service until 2005.

At a time when operational commitments in a volatile strategic era are growing rather than diminishing, the navy stands to be partially crippled for an extended period because successive governments and the community have believed that defence capabilities could be turned on and off like a tap.


For its part, the army – and navy and air force – performed superbly in all respects in the INTERFET commitment to East Timor. The army in particular gained great kudos for its efforts which, however, need to be seen in perspective. Despite all the hyperbole and popular enthusiasm, the commitment to East Timor was a small military operation and, in combat terms, not an overly dangerous one. Compared even with our small involvement in Vietnam, Timor was a very limited operation yet it was one which the defence force could not sustain for longer than four months without doing the same damage that is now being done to the navy.

Some improvements have been made at the margin. For the first time, the government can now call out reservists for service overseas although the political constraints on their doing so remain substantial. Many employers will resist losing those employees who are reservists because all too often they are also key employees.

The air force is the service least affected, at least in its front line capabilities, by the wide range of military commitments in the post-Cold War era. Its transport and maritime surveillance units are hard worked but the combat squadrons of F/A-18 Hornet fighters and F-111 strike aircraft are desperately short of pilots. Government and bureaucratic policy will not allow the air force to recruit pilots solely for flying and fighting. They must also be employed as administrators when, like most pilots, all they want to do is fly.

Given their record, it is very difficult to believe that Australian governments even understand what is entailed in maintaining a national defence capability. They seem unable to understand, much less explain, that the defence force is like an insurance company’s reserve funds. It is not something to be raided or frittered away on a whim but a capability to be employed against the armed foreign enemies of the Australian community. Moreover, as was asserted in the preamble to the 1976 defence White Paper:

The first responsibility of government is to provide the nation with security from armed attack and from the constraints on independent national decisions imposed by the threat of such attack.

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About the Author

Michael O'Connor is executive director of the Australia Defence Association.

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