Commentary: Defence ‘con job’ shames leaders on both sides of politics

18 Jul 2023

It looks increasingly likely we’ll get nothing of consequence out of the whole Defence Strategic Review. This is not only dismal and not only the doing of this government. It shames our whole nation. – Greg Sheridan

It is almost time to pronounce February’s Defence Strategic Review a failure, and the government’s implementation of it a bigger failure.

It’s not that the government is doing nothing. But it’s not doing nearly enough, and not nearly fast enough. This is so even though the government is on track to soon announce the formal acquisition of 220 Tomahawk missiles for our three air warfare destroyers. The Tomahawks will make the AWDs a more formidable warship. The Americans approved the sale some time ago, but the formal decision to buy Tomahawks has still not been made, or at least not announced.

Last week the heads of Navantia, the Spanish firm that makes AWDs, were in Canberra to talk about building more AWDs.

It was authoritatively reported that former defence force chief Angus Houston and former defence minister Stephen Smith, the DSR authors, recommended just dumping the deeply troubled $45bn Hunter-class frigate program. It’s so delayed, so overweight, so over-budget, and each Hunter has only 32 vertical launch cells for missiles. That’s uncompetitive for modern warfare. It can’t defend itself. You could deploy it only if it was protected by something else. But apart from our three AWDs, we don’t have anything else. Oy vey!

When the government came into office, nothing at all happened in defence because all decisions were on hold until the DSR reported. The government then censored the report and didn’t give the Australian nation the benefit of the uncensored views of Houston and Smith.

Instead of the DSR itself making decisions, in its published form at least, it mainly recommended a series of new reviews. One of these is a review of the Australian surface fleet, which will report by September, with the government to make decisions on its recommendations by the end of the year.

In no part of the physical universe does that represent urgent action. More on the surface fleet in a minute – it’s just the most tragic element of the contradictions under which the government, and the nation, is labouring.

Here’s the contradiction in its starkest terms. The government endorsed Houston’s view that these are the most difficult and dangerous strategic circumstances Australia has faced since World War II. At the Lowy Institute before the election, Anthony Albanese was admirably frank about China and its military build-up and commented: “The China of Xi Jinping has demonstrated a harsher authoritarianism at home and more strident nationalism. This has manifested itself more recently in a takeover of Hong Kong, repression of human rights in China and the militarisation of the South China Sea.”

Albanese was clear that a government he headed would “work with Defence and those experts who have identified the need for government to quickly increase Australia’s strike capabilities”.

Then comes big fact No.2. The Albanese Labor Party rightly endorsed AUKUS and the move to get nuclear-powered submarines for Australia. It produced a good plan to do so. If everything goes well, we’ll get our first such sub in the early 2030s and have a fleet of eight of them around 2050.

Because that’s such a long process, it doesn’t do anything at all for our defence capabilities in the near term. Albanese legitimately mocked the record of the Liberal-National governments. He rightly said they made grand announcements but didn’t take action. They made announcements about announcements. But of course what we got in the DSR was a review that decided only on more reviews.

Here’s killer fact No.3. Although we don’t get the nuclear-powered subs for many years, they start costing money quite soon. Therefore, if we are to “increase Australia’s strike capabilities” we would need to substantially increase the Defence budget in the immediate future to pay for the nuclear subs while increasing our strike capabilities, as Albanese foreshadowed.

Instead of which, the government has committed only to maintaining the previously committed forward estimates spending over the next four years.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute the government is actually cutting defence spending overall by a small amount.

The three big facts simply don’t cohere: desperately urgent circumstances requiring immediate action; a costly long-term commitment to nuclear submarines requiring immediate expenditure; but no new money. In the physical universe, those realities cannot be reconciled. The government is reconciling them only by ignoring the need to increase our strike capabilities in the near term.

The government does envisage a big increase in defence spending in the second half of the decade ahead. But in 45 years of journalism I’ve heard defence ministers offer every excuse in the world as to why defence spending will rise substantially, historically, in eye-watering proportions, producing unparalleled capabilities, just beyond the forward estimates, but not now.

I respect the Albanese government’s national security team. But if they couldn’t secure increased defence spending in the immediate future, after everything that has happened in the past five years, how will they in five years?

The defence industry is distraught: it expected the DSR to offer a way ahead. One of the most senior defence mandarins we’ve ever produced once told me: “The only money you can trust in defence is the money being spent in the six months we are actually in.”

The horizontal-launch version of the Tomahawk missile – the type we’d need to put it on the Collins – is not in production. But, previously, senior navy figures said they were confident the US would produce more of them if we put in an order for them. Will we?

Consider this. The Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordinance Enterprise project to manufacture missiles in Australia was first announced by the Morrison government in 2020. But under the DSR’s recommendations we don’t get a decision on it, much less the actual start of a factory to produce missiles, until the middle of next year.

That’s four years after the announcement before we even have a plan. No nation that believes (a) strategic circumstances are uniquely dangerous, (b) we now live in the missile age and (c) we need to urgently increase our strike capacity could move as slowly as that.

Both sides of Australian politics have perpetrated a con job on the Australian people, telling them their circumstances are dire and we’re going to do something about it quickly, and then virtually do nothing, always with big plans just over the horizon.

In Albanese’s Lowy speech – which was indeed a fine speech – he mocked the Morrison government for not deciding on where it would establish an east coast nuclear-powered submarine base.

Instead, he said, purely to avoid announcing a site before the 2022 election, they made an announcement about an announcement, wanting the credit for deciding to have an east coast base but avoiding the politics surrounding its location.

Where is the Albanese government’s announcement? Everyone assumes it’s going to be Port Kembla. As the second Sydney airport showed, it takes decades to produce such infrastructure. There will be lots of local opposition. The Chinese will surely run clandestinely sourced social media disinformation campaigns against it. But to do it you must win the politics, you must start.

Meanwhile, the appalling reality is we’ll probably end up continuing with the wretched Hunter frigates and not moving fast to replace the useless offshore patrol vessels with capable corvettes or light frigates. In other words, we’ll get nothing of consequence out of the whole DSR. This is not only dismal and not only the doing of this government. It shames our whole nation.