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Increasing Budget spending on high-tech weapons will not stop terrorists

By Gary Brown - posted Tuesday, 13 May 2003

The Treasurer and Prime Ministerial hopeful Peter Costello tells us that we need to spend lots of extra money on defence, to bring ourselves up to speed with the modern technologies of warfare. The upcoming Budget will allocate billions more to defence spending to address this need: it will be a "khaki" budget.

There is, however, little real evidence to support the view that such a need exists. Before anyone points in outrage to the 11 September and Bali atrocities, let me say that I do not deny the need for responses to the threat of terrorism, and especially large-scale or strategic terrorism. Nor do I deny that Australia is a target for such terrorism.

What I query is the need to spend vast sums gearing our Defence Forces for so-called coalition operations - that is, for operations using the advanced technologies needed for "interoperability" with the United States' armed forces. I do not see how the ability to fill "niches" in coalitions assembled by the US, with or (more likely) without UN approval, helps protect Australia against terrorism.


It is all very well to say that states can sponsor terrorism and that the US will go after such states. But state sponsorship is not a necessary condition for terrorism, and eliminating sponsoring states will not eliminate the terrorist threat. Besides, unless the US is prepared to go after an awful lot of states which (willingly or otherwise) harbour terrorists, even state sponsorship is going to remain an issue. If anyone thinks that Australia is safer from terrorist threats as a result of its participation in the recent Iraq war, then they are naïve in the extreme. In fact, as I have argued here previously, the reverse is undoubtedly true.

No-one can show that spending billions on the highest of military high-tech protects against terrorists. There are indeed things we should be doing: beefing up surveillance and patrolling of the continental approaches; improving our capacity to assist weak regional states like Papua New Guinea and East Timor with ongoing internal or external security issues; and, on terrorism, looking to prevention as well as consequence management by improving intelligence cooperation with neighbours and putting some decent domestic infrastructure into place.

If we learned nothing else from September 11 it was surely that military force - armies, navies, and air forces brandishing an imposing array of the latest and costliest high-tech weaponry - is a blunt instrument against terrorism. The Americans discovered to their cost that all the electronic intelligence gathering and sifting capabilities in which they placed so much faith were worthless in the face of the simple, cheap and (one is forced to say) brilliant plan hatched by bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Military force was able, after the event, to displace the Taliban in Afghanistan. It has now displaced the Saddam regime in Iraq. Neither regime ought be mourned, but the fact remains that terrorism is still a threat.

Terrorism is not hatched in Cabinet rooms in Kabul, Baghdad, Damascus, Pyongyang or any other capital. It is born in squalid camps, in streets and fields populated by hopeless dispossessed or oppressed people so desperate that becoming a suicide bomber (or pilot) appears to be a great and positive act. It can be aided by governments for their own reasons but the grudging and purely verbal support recently given to Iraq by Al Qaeda shows that terrorists use regimes rather than vice-versa. Al Qaeda, for its own reasons, despised Saddam's regime as much as did the US. To the likes of bin Laden, Saddam was a hypocritical secularist who invoked Islam for purely political gain.

So building up a vastly expensive high-tech Australian military capable of helping the US overthrow foreign governments will not remove terrorism, especially religiously based terrorism, as a threat to Australia. The trial of the accused Bali bomber Amrozi has begun and there are some on Indonesia's radical Islamic fringe who see him as a hero; if executed, they will make him a religious martyr. These people, and those like them around the world, cannot be stopped by the US 82nd Airborne Division or even the Australian Special Forces.


The Howard government suffers from an ideological weakness. It thinks the United States is a "good guy" that can help Australia improve national security. But in fact the US is no "better" than other governments: it uses power because it can, and it ignores the strictures of international law and the UN when it feels it has to. So it is not "good" in the sense that it eschews aggression. Nor, for all its military might, has it a solution to the threat of terrorism. Designing our armed forces to become an extension of theirs in coalition operations will not help us against this threat.

Finally, we need to consider the cost. We cannot afford to squander billions on interoperability with the Americans. Our health system is on the brink of collapse. We have an ageing population. We have serious problems of environmental degradation and climate change. Our Defence Department excels principally at wasting money on big-ticket projects which blow out in time and cost. The government's ideological hang-ups on defence and the US are becoming expensive liabilities.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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