Conservative ideology and policy making is informed by the past and constrained by current capability. It struggles with recognising the challenges of the future and the innovation needed to deal with them.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the eye-watering sums that we waste on so-called defence spending.
In the four budgets since the 2016 white paper, defence has received $143.2 billion in funding. This year’s budget is about $106 million per day (not including funds appropriated to the Defence Housing Authority, nor those administered by Defence for military superannuation schemes and housing support services).
Capital expenditure alone will be $19 billion a year at the end of the forward estimates, growing to $23 billion a year by the end of the White Paper decade. Since 2013–14, when the Coalition came to power, that’s real growth of 185%.
This rapid increase in projected expenditure has been beset with problems, not least of which is the inability to attract personnel.
By now, the ADF was supposed to have increased by 1730 people but they have only been able to recruit 600. HMAS Perth will be up on blocks for two years after its latest upgrade for want of a crew.
We have always had trouble finding enough submariners for the six submarines that we have let alone when we ramp up to twelve in the coming decades. $79 billion is a lot to spend on something you can’t use.
But finding personnel is not their only problem.
With increased capability comes increased sustainment costs.
The first of the F-35A aircraft have arrived but, to achieve final operating capability, the fleet’s flying hours will need to increase nearly sixfold over the next four years which will be expensive as their hourly flight cost is twice the classic Hornet’s.
The Future Submarine Program delivering the Attack-class submarines took nearly three years to sign its head contract, which is the strategic partnering agreement. There is still confusion about where the submarine yard will be.
If all goes well, we won’t get the first of the new frigates into service until around 2030 and the first submarine won’t be in service until 2034 or 2035, despite a conservative design philosophy based on using only currently mature technologies.
ASPI predicted that Defence will have spent over $20 billion before the first frigate and submarine become operational. They are now saying that looks conservative.
We are spending hundreds of billions on acquiring and sustaining “exquisitely expensive” manned-warships that “are too valuable to risk losing” in a world that is rapidly moving into the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ of autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.
Already, there are comparatively cheap anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles and drone technology that is evolving with things like swarms of tiny drones which can disable aircraft engines.
Meanwhile, ASPI reports that our Air Force still has some way to go to get the Reaper and Triton unmanned aerial systems into service.
Currently, less than 1% of Defence’s budget goes into its innovation funds.
ASPI, who are generally supportive of increased defence spending, gave some advice to the government in their appraisal of the 2019-20 defence budget:
“The value-for-money calculus doesn’t favour billion-dollar manned platforms…. But just as important is imagination and a willingness to pursue the disruptive potential of new technologies so they aren’t dismissed out of hand as poor substitutes for traditional platforms….There’s no point investing billions in military capability if it doesn’t support Australia’s political or military strategy.”
Conservative politicians try to convince us that they are concerned with the problems that face “the quiet Australians”. I can’t think of a one of them that can be solved with having a few missile-carrying planes and warships.
Have you noticed how many conservative politicians have a military background and how many of those are also climate change deniers? Perhaps they think we can shoot our way out of the problem?
Why else, out of everyone to choose from, would they think twice rejected retired General Jim Molan was the best choice for a Senator of Australia?