Defence under Australia's new government

Last weekend, Australia elected a new Labor government under Kevin Rudd, replacing John Howard’s Liberal (conservative) government that had been in office for over a decade. With the recent exception of Iraq, defence is rarely a political issue in Australia. That is likely to continue to be the case. In addition, given that both parties articulated similar defence, security and foreign affairs policies, at first glance, there appears to be little scope for significant policy shifts. In fact, while short-term changes will be limited in scope, more significant changes could follow later.

Both of the major parties announced before the election that they would produce a new Defence White Paper, as the extant one dates back to 2000 and does not reflect the impact of terrorism and other recent issues on strategic thinking (yet, there have been a number of strategic updates post-2001 that capture the impact of the war on terror). The Rudd government will release a Defence White Paper in late 2008 or early 2009. In the new document it is likely that Australia will continue to see a global role for itself, as well as a role in regional and local operations, but Labor’s stated position is to change the emphasis to Australia’s immediate neighbourhood.

In terms of the issues that captured the attention of the electorate during the election campaign, the single biggest point of departure between the two main parties was their support for the Australian contribution to Iraq. The previous government supported a continuing open-ended involvement while the then opposition did not, arguing that a continuing effort in Iraq reduces the resources available for operations in Afghanistan and for regional deployments closer to Australia.

The incoming government will withdraw what it terms Australian ‘combat forces’ – actually meaning some land components only - from Iraq around the middle of 2008, but will leave security detachments in place (such as forces required to protect the Australian diplomatic presence in the country). In reality, the impact of these changes will be largely symbolic. Australia’s deployment in Iraq is small and has not been involved in major land operations since the March 2003 invasion. (It is worth noting in this context that Australian forces have had no fatalities due to enemy action in Iraq.) Also, Australian frigates and maritime patrol aircraft will stay in theatre. The biggest challenge for Australia is the management of the relationship with Washington during the withdrawal of Australian forces.

The Labor party has taken pains to spell out the importance of the alliance between Australia and the United States. Iraq aside, the alliance enjoys a great deal of electoral support in Australia and has historically attracted bipartisan support. Earlier this year, Australia and the United States announced a treaty level agreement that would streamline the processes required for Australian industry to gain access to US defence technologies. Labor will continue to cultivate the relationship – nominating it as one of the ‘three pillars’ of its defence policy.

The other two policy pillars are Australia’s active membership of the United Nations and ‘comprehensive regional engagement’. The former is likely to be, in part, a move designed to provide some product differentiation from the Howard government, perceived by the electorate as too diffident to international bodies such as the UN. ‘Comprehensive regional engagement’ appears to be a bipartisan position, but scope exists for some differences of implementation. The Howard government enthusiastically embraced a trilateral security arrangement with the United States and Japan, though it was somewhat cooler than the US about the addition of India to the arrangement. The trilateral arrangement appears to be a hedging strategy against the rise of China as a power in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese themselves have made it clear that they do not welcome any attempt of ‘encirclement’. Prime Minister-elect Rudd was once a diplomat in Beijing (and is fluent in Mandarin). He may opt to manage relationships with China, Japan and the US differently.

In terms of hardware, Labor has said that it would ‘honour all existing contracts’ – no small undertaking given the projects announced recently. 2007 saw the announcement of the A$6 billion acquisition of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft as a ‘gap filler’ prior to the acquisition of the F-35 JSF planned for the next decade, A$3 billion for two amphibious lift ships and A$8 billion for three new air warfare destroyers (AWDs) to be built in Australia.

While Brendan Nelson, defence minister for the Howard government, stated that taking up an option for a fourth AWD was an attractive prospect, Labor has opted to defer any such decision until the project is established and performs well enough to allow for some confidence of costs and schedule; though the acquisition of long-lead items means that the window of opportunity may not allow such a luxury. Labor has also announced that it will conduct a review of the future air combat capability, claiming that the process leading to the Super Hornet decision was flawed. It has also canvassed sounding out the US on the release of the F-22 aircraft to Australia. Just how the review and its possible outcomes squares with the pledge to honour the Super Hornet contract remains to be seen.

As oppositions are wont to do, Labor has been very critical of the management of the Department of Defence and of major defence acquisitions, pointing to some projects with very poor outcomes. It has pledged to improve processes so that future projects will perform better, and to conduct a detailed review of the defence budget. But, as governments the world over have discovered, improving the performance of defence projects will prove to be much easier to promise in opposition than to deliver in government.

The review of the defence budget will reveal that, despite a position of continuing the Howard government’s three percent annual real increase in defence spending until 2016, there is insufficient money to deliver all of the promised projects, conduct operations and recruit and retain the personnel required. The size of the identified shortfall – likely to be substantial from around 2010 – will provide a policy challenge for a party that traditionally prefers to spend its funds on other activities, should it opt to continue all or most of the current plans.

Labor has promised to spend as much of the Defence budget as possible within Australia. Given the high premium that often accrues when decisions to build locally rather than to acquire ‘off the shelf’ from elsewhere (over A$2 billion for the AWDs for example), there will be some tension between that promise and the wish to keep the requirement for additional funding down.

Finally, while the previous government managed security issues through existing intelligence, security and police organizations, as well as set up the Border Protection Command which carries out a range of customs, constabulary and surveillance activities, Labor has proposed setting up a Department of Homeland Security. The business case for the new body is yet to be articulated in detail.

In summary, the management of defence and security by the new government will mostly be a case of ‘business as usual’, at least in the early days. The points to watch for possible departures from extant policy are: the Australia-Japan-US security relationship (and Australia’s approach to China), any alliance issues that follow from a withdrawal from Iraq (probably minimal), the response to reviews of the defence budget and the future air combat capability, and the role, if any, of a Homeland Security department.

Andrew Davies is the Director of Operations and Capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The views here are his own.

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