EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Defence - the way forward
, April 21, 2001
Since the release of the Defence White Paper last December foreshadowed a reorientation of Australia's defences towards the arc of instability, stretching from Indonesia, Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands to New Zealand, there has been little evidence that the Government has accepted the logic of its own position.
Perhaps the retirement of former Defence Minister John Moore has contributed to the present policy hiatus; but in any case, Australia's immediate environment continues to deteriorate.
Just last month, in a very significant article in the New Zealand Herald, the NZ Prime Minister, Helen Clark, confirmed that New Zealand was abandoning its anti-submarine capability, which is carried out by its long-range military aircraft, the Orion. There is also serious doubt about New Zealand's maritime surveillance capability, as there are now reported to be only three pilots for the Royal New Zealand Air Force's six Orions. (NZ Herald, March 22, 2001)
Following the Clark Government's cancellation of the purchase of F-16 fighter aircraft, there are fears that the 17 remaining Skyhawks, which are New Zealand Air Force's only ground attack aircraft, and which have been in service since the 1960s, will be scrapped, effectively leaving New Zealand without an air force to speak of.Unilateral disarmament
The effect of New Zealand's unilateral disarmament will be to increase the pressure on Australia's limited defence forces to operate throughout the entire region.
In the meantime, Papua New Guinea has witnessed the second mutiny by the PNG Defence Force in four years, while the peace agreement in the Solomon Islands, arranged under Australian auspices last year, could collapse at any time, as rival militias engage in continued fighting.
As far as East Timor is concerned, the decision of the most prominent nationalist leader, JosŽ "Xanana" Gusmao, to resign in disgust as head of East Timor's de facto parliament, the National Council, leaves a vacuum in the political leadership of East Timor which will be difficult to fill.
Timor's National Council, which operates under UN auspices, is regarded as the body which will rule East Timor after elections take place within a year.
At present, Australia has around 1,500 troops serving there, and will have to maintain this force in East Timor for years to come, particularly in patrolling the poorly defined border with Indonesian Timor.
All this means that the demands on Australia's defence forces will continue to grow in the months and years ahead.
One important aspect of last year's Defence White Paper was its assessment that to maintain a credible defence force, Australia will have to bring forward its defence procurement program; to acquire state-of-the art equipment for its frontline forces, including the Army, to provide new combat aircraft to replace the ageing F/A-18s which are due for replacement, to expand Australia's maritime capacity, and to maintain the defence forces' existing strike capacity.
The White Paper put the cost of this at $16 billion over ten years. There is already concern that the Federal Government, under budgetary pressure from its backdown on the petrol excise, on the first home builder subsidy and other issues, might simply put defence at the end of the queue.
Another concern is that the Defence Department will simply procure equipment from overseas, rather than use local industry. The result of this policy, pursued over many years, has been the closure of defence manufacturing plants, from clothing, to small arms to heavy armour.
Except for the ill-fated Collins-class submarines and outstandingly successful FFG frigates, most substantial acquisitions by the Australian Defence Force over the past 20 years have been from overseas.
Obviously, some equipment (such as advanced aircraft) can only be purchased from the US. But even then, sales contracts should require that suppliers purchase an equivalent amount of equipment from Australian companies.
Most of the other equipment needed by the Australian Defence Force, including high-technology night vision equipment, improved body armour, weapons, air defence missile systems, naval vessels and their combat systems, can and should be made in Australia.
As such, they would provide a tremendous stimulus to Australian manufacturing industry, particularly in the high technology area, with consequent spin-offs in the commercial field.
It is significant how the United States and the countries of Western Europe use their defence industries to underpin their manufacturing base. It is well known, for example, that companies such as Boeing have built a multi-billion dollar commercial business on the back of its defence contracts.
The latest example of this was a plan by the US Air Force to help Boeing to sell a civilian version of its military transport plane, the C-17 Globemaster. The USAF is offering a range of financial incentives, including guaranteed US government business, purchase subsidies and even a promise to repurchase the aircraft if a company went bankrupt, in an effort to build a commercial market for this military plane.
It is time that the Defence Department's Australian Industry Involvement policy adopted the same approach.