What a busy few weeks it has been, from the announcement that Australia will be winding down operations in Afghanistan sooner than anticipated, through to the announcement of an accelerated White Paper process and decisions on a number of acquisition matters.
4th May 2012
Important developments for Defence
What a busy few weeks it has been, from the announcement that Australia will be winding down operations in Afghanistan sooner than anticipated, through to the announcement of an accelerated White Paper process and decisions on a number of acquisition matters. These include a delay in acquiring the next 12 Joint Strike Fighters, the disgraceful cancellation of self-propelled howitzers for the Army and at last merciful progress on SEA 1000 – the Future Submarine.
The decision to end Australia’s training role in Afghanistan was unexpected and welcome. After ten years of engagement by the International Strategic Assistance Force the time is rapidly approaching when everyone wants to get out – a view encouraged by the Government of Afghanistan. As soon as the United States announced a planned end to combat operations in 2014 it was only a matter of time before everyone else followed suit and if Australia can satisfactorily complete the training of the 5th Brigade of the Afghan National Army by 2013, there is no good reason to remain there any longer.
The situation appears slightly different for our Special Operations Task Group, which might remain in place for longer. This, too, seems sensible as none of the countries who have supported the mission would want to see the Taliban immediately back in power – a real risk if all the forces propping up the Karzai Government were all to vanish simultaneously in 2014.
Bringing forward the next Defence White Paper to 2013 is a sensible move. There are many aspects of the 2009 White Paper that need to be reviewed and updated, particularly as the world has stabilized somewhat after the Global Financial Crisis. Also there were some deeply unsatisfactory aspects to the 2009 document – not the least of which being the consequences saying that the submarines to replace Collins need to be even larger. The consequences of this wording are potentially catastrophic in terms of budget and schedule – with no one subsequently being in a position to justify the implied enormous size of what would need to be an ab initio design. More capable than Collins – sure. Larger than Collins – not a good thing. Hopefully the new White Paper will use a much more sensible form of words, focusing on capability but not dictating a particular solution.
Related to this issue, the Government has announced a commitment of more than $200 million to press ahead with definitive studies into the lifespan of the Collins Class as well as the examination of all options for a replacement. These will include Military Off The Shelf choices as well as a rebirthed Collins design and will also look at a completely new solution. The final option looks the least likely. APDR has argued that the most important question to ask of the various options is: “will they be able to sink enemy ships?” All other matters – such as where you might ideally want to sink enemy ships – need to be treated as optional.
The delay in purchasing the next batch of 12 Joint Strike Fighters has had a feeling of inevitability about it for some time. Defence Minister Stephen Smith has stated that Australia is basically following the US procurement schedule – and it is hard to argue against that. This decision alone will save the deficit obsessed Government $1.6 billion next financial year. The major concern is that the RAAF might still face a capability gap towards the end of this decade with the forced retirement of the ‘Classic’ FA/18 fleet, so presumably the option of acquiring additional Super Hornets remains alive.
The decision to cancel the acquisition of Self-Propelled Howitzers is something of which the Department and the Minister should be ashamed. LAND 17 Phase C has been around for years, yet has faced delay after delay. APDR has repeatedly asked whether this is because the acquisition will be dropped and the answer has always been “no”. Well – we told you so. The Minister alluded to programme difficulties. There are none that APDR is aware of – other than some people in Army did not want to accept an item of equipment designed and manufactured in South Korea. We will leave it to others to speculate on the motives behind such an extraordinarily insulting course of action that seems completely inconsistent with the doctrine of Hardening and Networking the Army and also Plan Beersheba. Companies have wasted many millions of dollars on this activity with little hope of recovering any of the funds that they have invested in good faith.
The consequence of the decisions on JSF and SPH will mean that once again the Department has made major internal savings that are returned to consolidated revenue. This continues the Government’s schizophrenia of claiming increases in Defence expenditure while at the same time handing back unspent funds. It is surprising that this sleight of hand does not attract the attention of mainstream commentators and analysts because it is symptomatic of a shifty approach to administration – something that according to opinion polls is seen as an increasing negative for an already unpopular Government.
At least progress on the Future Submarine – the most important Defence project in Australia’s history - is very welcome. Better late than never.