The importance of defence reform

Whoever becomes Australia’s next Defence Minister will need to continue to focus on the importance of defence reform

1st Sep 2010


Whoever becomes Australia’s next Defence Minister will need to continue to focus on the importance of defence reform. Current operations in Afghanistan will still be the Minister’s number one priority because lives are at stake and the conflict has far reaching international repercussions, but to lose sight of the need for major changes in the way the Department does business would be a major mistake.

But as difficult as the Australian reform process will be, spare a thought for the United States and the struggle faced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to make any meaningful savings. In the 19th century the most powerful navy in the world was that of Great Britain. Following the Battle of Trafalgar, Government policy was to ensure that the Royal Navy (RN) was at least one third larger than its nearest rival.

Later in the century this was increased to the “Two Power Standard” whereby Britain committed keeping the RN larger than the combined strength of the next two largest navies – a policy Britain tried to keep in place at enormous cost until 1914. The background was that Britain was engaged in a genuine arms race with other major powers that could have – and eventually did – lead to a cataclysmic struggle for national survival.

Contrast this with the current military position of the United States. In a time of relative calm between major powers, the US has gone way beyond the “Two Power Standard”. The US military (not just the Navy) is not only larger than the combined strength of the next two powers, but is more powerful than the combined strength of all the other militaries in the world. This is an unprecedented situation in modern history – never before has one country been in a position of such overwhelming strength.

This is not to say that the US does not face threats – clearly it does. The struggle against international terrorism continues, as current events in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia demonstrate. Matters of energy security – always an extremely important matter for Washington – are of concern, especially given issues of political stability in the Middle East and now all of Central Asia. In the medium term the rise of China might well have a destabilizing effect on Asia. The Korean peninsula remains a dangerous flashpoint. As a consequence of these issues, the 9/11 attacks combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the US now has forces spread more widely across the globe than at any previous time in its history. But why and at what cost?

In international affairs the US is overwhelmingly a force for good and errors such as the invasion of Iraq are the exception rather than the rule. The last thing any sensible observer would want would be a withdrawal by Washington from international affairs – but unless the US can tackle its potentially catastrophic budget deficits that might well be the end result. And even though the US defence spend is less than 5% of GDP it should logically be an easy target of reform just because there is such a huge gap between the size of the military and the tasks it must perform. As Secretary Gates has become fond of asking: why does the US need 11 aircraft carriers in this day and age? China doesn’t have one and the capabilities of Russia and India are negligible, with France hardly a threat. Why so many nuclear submarines, strategic bombers and – especially – headquarters organizations?

The real reason why reform in the US will be so difficult, despite being so needed, is because of the highly political nature of the Defence procurement system, where it seems that every single member of Congress has a defence-related factory and is prepared to bargain and horse trade to make sure it remains open. Previous attempts to close production lines – such as the C17 – have been rejected by Congress. At least Secretary Gates might have more luck cutting back on the size of the civilian bureaucracy, the number of contractors and the plethora of headquarters organizations – starting with the Joint Forces Command.

Which brings us back to Australia and the need for continuing reform. We are now into the serious part of the Strategic Reform Program where the new Minister will have to be on top of the portfolio to make sure that savings are realized. This has to be done without staff cuts (unlike in the US), without base closures (unlike in the US), and without rationalizing bloated headquarters (unlike in the US).

For a positive example we should look at a regional nation with a defence budget identical to Australia’s – South Korea. For the same number of dollars spent, South Korea has a defence force of 650,000 well trained personnel, Aegis-equipped ships, a fleet of submarines growing to 12, amphibious support ships, advanced fighter aircraft and indigenously developed and built jet trainer aircraft, utility helicopters, main battle tanks and self-propelled artillery. South Korea – hosting a G20 meeting in November – has been eagerly awaiting enhanced defence cooperation with Australia via the decision on self-propelled howitzer element of Project LAND 17 - a decision the Department unconscionably continues to delay. Another matter for the new Minister to examine.

APDR at a glance