DEFENCE WHITE PAPER: by Antony O'BrienNews Weekly
Glaring flaw at heart of government defence thinking
, May 30, 2009
The Government's recent Defence White Paper 2009 has advocated greater defence self-reliance for Australia, but has contradicted its central argument by seeking to make Australia more reliant on overseas suppliers for essential defence equipment. Antony O'Brien reports.Australia's Defence White Paper 2009 is now is the public domain. The Australian Defence Force (ADF)'s big winner is the navy with promises of newer and more submarines, helicopters and ships. In real terms, this means that the sea-lanes connecting Australia to the outside world are recognised as a vital strategic interest to the survival of this nation.
The air force will get new aircraft, while on-going debates will continue as to the suitability of the selected fighters and their limited numbers, comprising only 100 machines.
The army also increases its strength with two new operational battalions, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces, including self-propelled guns.
Some commentators have speculated whether or not the white paper is directed against China. Others have suggested that it is a sound plan for future self-reliance in an uncertain world, while one has called for more unmanned aircraft. Though these various responses make great headlines, there are serious issues and many unanswered questions raised by this paper.
One sound principle adopted and recognised in the white paper (p.13) is that Australia must be able to act independently where we have unique strategic interests at stake and where we would not wish to be reliant on the combat forces of any foreign power.
This would seem to indicate that we must improve our defence capability and industrial self-reliance in order to be able to protect our sea-lanes and offshore islands sufficiently.
However, subtle escape clauses and loopholes in the paper undermine the above principles.
A defence white paper is supposed to do two things:
i) It outlines a government's interpretation of the unfolding strategic scenario for the country over the next decade or so.
ii) It is a government business plan, which projects the funding costs and necessary expenditures over the same period.
But in this paper, budgets and finances are contained in only a few words that comprise the minuscule chapter 18 (pp.137-138). Worse, the Government's commitment to self-reliance is self-contradictory to an absurd degree.Dependence
Commencing with the suggestion that Australia should accept a degree of dependence on the global supply-chain to support the ADF (chapter 6.22, p.48), the paper thereby dilutes the government' s commitment to self-reliance.
In so doing, and by embracing a series of flawed concepts, the 2009 paper ignores many historical lessons; including that of the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War during which Britain's prompt imposition of a naval blockade on southern Africa deprived the Boer republics of armaments, munitions and clothing re-supplies for the duration of that war.
The paper's authors forgot the significant lessons of the U-boat blockades during both world wars and Australia's isolation and vulnerability in 1942. Rather, they assume that if the Department of Defence can overcome problems of inventory control, the global supply-chain will mystically ensure that ADF's munitions and other essentials are supplied on time, every time, no matter what the circumstances.
They seriously believe that Australia, by saving billions of dollars in inventory and embracing just-in-time (JIT) deliveries from overseas suppliers, can somehow escape the harsh realities of previous wars and blockades in favour of retail store ideologies or vehicle manufacturing techniques.
The white paper assumes that our overseas trading partners can somehow deliver essential defence equipment, even if our ports are blockaded, or an enemy controls some, or part of the international or local sea/air corridors. This Treasury-inspired cost-saving mindset constitutes a major strategic risk for Australia. Who in government or defence can guarantee that re-supplies will never be interrupted, delayed or lost in transit?Dismantling local production
While a global JIT concept may be suitable for stocking supermarket shelves with imported foods and vegetables, it is against our national interest if it results in the dismantling of local defence production of munitions and other strategic items.
The initial "dependence on the global supply chain" flaw is further exacerbated, because of the Commonwealth Government's determination to reduce the size of the inventory holdings of strategic and logistical reserves so as to optimise the return on expenditure (chapter 15.30).
This has convinced some Australian defence firms that the government will seek to slash costs "by buying cheaper off-the-shelf overseas-sourced hardware, with dire consequences for local industry" (John Kerin, "Cost-cutting issues put defence firms up in arms", Australian Financial Review
, May 19, 2009).
Talk about historical amnesia and blind faith in the tattered theory of free trade and globalisation! Surely, these rear sections of the white paper have been accidentally lifted from scripts for the ABC television's series The Hollowmen
The paper indicates that the government will follow a British model and establish "priority industry capabilities (PIC)". The PIC concept supposedly confers an essential strategic advantage on industries located in Australia, and foreshadows that where PICs are of such importance, the government should intervene to maintain and support them (chapter 16.21).
But such intervention is by no means assured, because it depends on such factors as "market value", "the criticality of the industry" and the "health" of the industry sector (chapters 16.22 and 23). Does this mean the government will assist Australian defence technology companies such as Metal Storm, by placing an order with them?
In truth, the white paper offers no commitment to national self-reliance or local manufacture. The so-called PICs are undefined (chapter 16.24), but they may include entities such as, ship-building, combat-clothing manufacturers, repair of armoured vehicles and selected munitions and explosives, which the government will merely "monitor" (chapter 16.26).
No mention is made of ensuring any PICs continue or are contracted to manufacture essential services (chapter 16.25).
The government (as distinct from the armed services) drafters of the white paper have forgotten that, with the Iraq commitment in 2003, Australian service personnel, armed with blank cheques, dashed off shopping in the United States and elsewhere, seeking cold weather and other essential protective gear and equipment, none of which Australia held in strategic reserves.
This was value for money, because they got it at retail price. But who cares that it was sometimes inappropriate, non-standardised, didn't do what it was designed for and failed to arrive "just in time" (JIT)?
Australia's Defence White Paper 2009
abrogates the government's financial commitment to the concept of self-reliance and local defence R&D or manufacturing. Among the most glaring flaws in this paper is the government's unswerving faith that, in reducing inventory costs in the short-term, the global supply-chain will deliver essential war materiel from overseas manufacturers and suppliers to the ADF, on time, every time, even during a conflict.
The history of warfare suggests otherwise.
As the old Latin saying has it, Vae victis
- Woe to the vanquished!- Antony O'Brien is a Victorian-based historian and freelance writer.