by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Editorial: Defence - "hype" and reality
, January 27, 2001
The Defence White Paper, released with fanfare on December 6 last year - with spectacular photos of missile-firing jet aircraft and soldiers dressed like cyborgs - was described by the Prime Minister as "the most comprehensive reappraisal of Australia's defence capability in decades", and by the Chief of the Defence Forces, Admiral Barrie, as "a great day" for the Defence Force.
The headlines told us that the Government would spend an extra $24 billion on defence, with about 100 new combat aircraft, an increase in the size of the defence forces of 3,000, and new helicopters, destroyers and early-warning aircraft.
The White Paper also gave a detailed appraisal of the changed strategic environment facing Australia, in particular, giving a welcome new emphasis to the zone of instability in Australia's near north.
Specifically, the White Paper referred to the island chain stretching from Indonesia through the troubled country of Papua New Guinea, and into the Pacific Island nations, including Fiji and the Solomon Islands, which were subject to military coups last year - a theme familiar to readers of News Weekly.
Yet the detail of the White Paper does not suggest that the Government is serious about meeting these new challenges.
The clearest indicator comes from the fact that the extra $24 billion is to be spent over the next 10 years, but only $500 million will be spent in the financial year 2001-2 and $1 billion a year later. Most of the additional $24 billion will clearly be spent in replacement of existing equipment which has reached the end of its service life, particularly, 100 new aircraft to replace the ageing F111 and F/A 18 Hornets, necessary additional expenditure on the computerised combat system of the troubled Collins class submarines and upgrading Australia's frigates.
Another indicator of the reality of the Government's defence plan is that the defence forces will increase by 3,500, but it will take nearly 10 years to achieve this modest increase. The White Paper does not put this into historical perspective.
However, the Defence Discussion Paper released last June was revealing. It asserted that as a result of "efficiency" reforms over the past ten years, the size of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had been slashed. It said, "In the early 1990s, the ADF had a total force of 70,000 personnel and 25,000 civilians undertaking tasks from basic administrative support through to complex policy formulation and defence research. Today, there are around 51,000 ADF full-time uniformed personnel and 15,700 Defence civilians - a fall of about 30 per cent and 35 per cent respectively."
Since last June, the number of uniformed personnel has fallen further, to about 50,500. What the Defence White Paper is proposing is that by the year 2010, this figure will rise to 54,000: about the same level that existed in 1997-98!
A further serious concern is that the White Paper does not appear to have addressed the problems revealed in the Interfet deployment in East Timor in 1999-2000.
Of necessity, Australia played a key role in restoring peace in East Timor, and at the operation's peak over 5000 Defence Force personnel were deployed there, stretching the capability of both the army and navy near to breaking point.
Supplies were commandeered from army barracks throughout Australia for the Timor operation. Yet it is a scandal that many of the Australian servicemen in East Timor had to use their own money to kit themselves out for the Interfet operation.
Among the problems which occurred were the fact that the Royal Australian Navy had no available vessels equipped to provide the necessary control and command function for the landing force. Very fortunately, US naval vessels, at the time en route to Australia to participate in joint exercises, were able to perform this function. These are a necessity in any future deployment.
Additionally, heavy lift helicopters were required to convey equipment into East Timor, and were only available due to the presence of the United States Navy.
Under plans revealed in the White Paper, Australia will have no heavy lift helicopters, and only four medium lift helicopters, although there will be an additional three squadrons (up to 36 light helicopters) purchased for reconnaissance and troop movement.
A further major concern is that the White Paper gives no indication of the need for the establishment of Australian bases in the island nations to our north. The need for such a presence was confirmed by the Chief of the US Pacific Fleet during a recent visit to Australia.
After all that has happened in East Timor, it is inconceivable that Australia will simply withdraw its forces when the UN mandate expires in East Timor, perhaps at the end of this year. To provide necessary security along East Timor's open border with Indonesia will require a sizable military force, certainly numbered in the thousands, for years to come.
Australia could well be required to make a similar commitment in Papua New Guinea, if the political situation deteriorates there, and could be expected to make smaller commitments elsewhere in the Pacific.
What all this indicates is that the Defence White Paper's "hype" bears little resemblance to reality. It's time for the Government to get serious.