DEFENCE: by Ken AldredNews Weekly
Australia and UK slash defence spending
, February 2, 2013
The United Kingdom and Australia share a common culture, traditions and experiences. Unfortunately, they also share a historical propensity to make the same mistakes. In this instance I refer to the decisions both nations have made in recent times to substantially cut defence expenditure in the years ahead. In each case the reductions have been driven by domestic budget pressures.
Neither nation faces any foreseeable threat in the immediate future. However, both confront significant tensions and uncertainty in their respective parts of the world.
Recent events in Mali and Algeria, both once part of French North Africa, have shown how quickly that uncertainty can turn into a regional crisis. Having faced nearly a year of destabilisation and loss of territory to Islamic fundamentalists, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traoré on January 10 this year asked France for help.
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Avalon Airport, Victoria.
(Photo courtesy of Defence Department. © Commonwealth of Australia).
On January 13, France commenced aerial bombing of jihadists in Mali. As Algeria had authorised its airspace to be used by French jets to bomb Mali, in retaliation Islamic fundamentalists seized a gas plant near Amenas in Algeria. They seized 41 Westerners of nine or 10 nationalities as hostages, along with local Algerian workers. In the following days over two separate operations, the Algerian military freed the hostages and squashed the jihadists. Regrettably, because both operations were botched, scores of the hostages were killed, along with dozens of the militants.
This crisis required a largely French response, but in another part of Africa the British may well have found themselves having to intervene. How quickly the world changes.
The first round of UK defence cuts came with the Cameron government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and the Spending Review of October 2010. In essence, the UK defence budget was cut by 7.5 per cent in real terms over four years. UK defence spending is therefore likely to fall to 2.2 per cent of GDP in 2014, down from 2.7 per cent for both 2009 and 2010.
Should all operational spending end by 2014 because of the winding down of British involvement in Afghanistan, then the UK’s defence-to-GDP ratio is projected to fall further to an estimated 2.0 per cent. This means that ultimately, the UK defence budget might fall below 2.0 per cent, which is the minimum that NATO member-states had agreed to spend on defence.
However, the UK Royal United Services Institute pointed out in its Working Paper 9 (November 2010): “Most members already fail to meet this guideline, including Canada (1.5%), Germany (1.4%), Italy (1.4%), the Netherlands (1.5%), Poland (1.7%), Romania (1.4%), Spain (1.2%) and Turkey (1.8%). In contrast, the US now spends 4% of its GDP on defence, a sharp increase from the 2000 level and more than twice the NATO European average of (1.7%).”
The UK spending cuts of October 2010 envisage reducing the British Regular Army from 102,000 to 94,000. In July 2012, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond announced further cuts of 12,000, shrinking the Regular Army to 82,000 by 2020. To partially compensate for this, the Territorial Army was to be boosted from its strength of 15,000 in 2010 to 30,000 by 2020.
Seventeen of the British army’s 136 major units will be abolished by 2020, including five famous infantry regiments. Public uproar about the possible abolition of the Second Regiment of Foot Guards, known as the Coldstream Guards, seems at this stage to have stopped that move in its tracks.
Substantial cuts are also being made to armour and artillery, with the Royal Artillery being reduced from 13 to 12 units and the Royal Armoured Corps by two units. Significant reductions are also being made to the Royal Engineers, the Royal Logistic Corps, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and the Army Air Corps.
Slamming the cuts, Conservative MP and former army officer Patrick Mercer, said in the Australian edition of the International Express (July 10, 2012): “We are at war. You cannot cut combat power whilst the nation is fighting. The MoD, like every department has got to make savings. But why should that be amongst the infantry, armoured and artillery units that have proved so capable in Afghanistan?”
Expressing a broader concern, Andy Smith, director of the UK National Defence Association, said in the same article: “These are dangerous cuts as they can only be interpreted as an admission by the government that we can no longer play an influential role on the world stage.
“As British interests are worldwide and we still aspire to be ‘a force for good in the world’, making 20,000 soldiers redundant and leaving us with little more than a home defence force is the height of folly. This is a decision ministers will live to regret.”
The same could be said of the defence cuts in Australia, upon which I will now focus attention.
Most of the cuts in Australia came as part of the May 2012 budget of the current federal Labor government. Investment in defence is to be slashed by $5.5 billion dollars over the next four years.
This followed the effective demise of the 2000 and 2009 Defence White Papers. Earlier the 1991 Force Structure Review reduced the size of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) by 28 per cent. The subsequent rebuilding of numbers and capabilities over the last two decades cost more than the funds “saved” in 1991.
In addition, our defence industrial base has continued to contract. The 2012 budget has grave implications for the future. Defence is down to 6.4 per cent of the federal Budget, which is even lower than the 7 to 8 per cent it has been for four decades. As a percentage of GDP, the defence allocation is now down to 1.56 per cent, the lowest since 1938. Defence has been under 2 per cent since the late 1980s and has not been more than 3 per cent since the Korean War.
The federal government has sole responsibility for defence. Costs in the other major expenditure areas, namely social welfare, health and education, are shared with the state and territory governments.
Yet in the 2012-2013 Budget, health was funded at three times the level of defence, and education half as much again, with social security set at six times the level of defence.
As the Australia Defence Association has pointed out in its budget analysis, our nation is now heading again to the ill-prepared situation we faced in 1914, 1940, 1942, 1950, 1965, 1999 and 2001-2005. The East Timor operation in 1999 was a near-run thing and succeeded only because of the wit of the senior Australia commanders and the flying in of critically needed equipment from the United States.
The continuing rundown of our defence infrastructure, now accelerated by the heavy cuts of the 2012/13 federal Budget, occurs against a backdrop of a region with increasing uncertainty. Like the UK, we do not face a foreseeable direct threat. However, we are in a region of incrementally increasing tensions.
Last year’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper has outlined the implications for Australia of the economic growth of China, India and other Asian nations. This offers major business and economic opportunities for Australia, especially with our major trading partner, China.
However, economic growth also helps fund major enhancement of military capability, especially with China and India. Indonesia, it must never be forgotten, has the world’s largest Muslim population. It is also worth remembering that the developing Asian middle-class, which is keen to purchase our quality niche food and manufactured goods, is also capable of maintaining and operating sophisticated weapons systems.
The island-states of the South-West Pacific also pose problems for regional stability. Our intervention has been required a number of times, and the recent political crisis in Papua New Guinea could have required our involvement had it not been resolved. We should also not forget the current not-so-obvious positioning going on in Antarctica.
Despite all these present and future uncertainties in our region, government announcements have steadily undermined our defence capability. Prior to the 2012/13 Budget, the government flagged the reprioritisation of projects that were part of the 2009 Defence Capability Plan (2009 DCP). Of the original 180 projects listed in the 2009 DCP, 10 have been cancelled or stopped. Come the budget, a further 19 projects were earmarked for cancellation (two projects), reduced scope and provision (three projects), or delays of one year (12 projects) or of two years (two projects).
Among the DCP initiatives dispensed with are the cancellation of the army’s self-propelled artillery under Project LAND 17, the early retirement of the RAAF’s fleet of 12 C-130H Hercules medium transport aircraft and deferral of a replacement for the Caribou aircraft.
The budget also confirmed the earlier announcement in May 2012 that the purchase of 12 of the first 14 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) will be delayed by two years. This did fit with US statements about project delays that mean a fully integrated F-35 is unlikely to be tested before 2015. There could also yet be implications for the government’s commitment to build 12 new submarines in Adelaide, though the basic decision still stands, according to the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith.
The most immediate effect of the budget cuts is upon the capability and readiness of the Australian army. Under the Total Force Concept enshrined in Plan Beersheba, which arose out of the Defence White Paper 2009, all three regular brigades cease their specialisation and become “like” multi-role manoeuvre brigades (MMB). Each MMB is to have two “standard” infantry battalions plus a cavalry regiment which is to include a tank squadron. Their third battalion is an Army Reserve battle group raised from two aligned Reserve brigades. The battle groups are to progress within the Regular Brigade’s three-year Force Generation Cycle (FGC).
This entire concept has now been undermined by the defence cuts as Army Reserve training has been cut to 20 days per soldier for the current year. Yet, as Major General Jim Barry (Retd), national president of the Defence Reserves Association, has pointed out in The Australian Reservist (October 2012): “The historical mandatory 20 days to be classified as ‘efficient’ has no relationship to current capability requirements. For example, an infantryman requires at least 30 to 37 days to just maintain an appropriate level of effectiveness without considering any training courses.”
Barry added: “Under Plan Beersheba… the ARES Battalion Battle Group in the readying phase of the FGC will need at least 50 days, meaning for other General Reservists they will have less than the mandated (generally) 20 days and therefore be non-efficient in terms of long services awards, health support and housing loans.”
As the nominally 20,000 strong Army Reserve is already down to 14,000 active Reservists, Major General Barry forecast that, unless remedial measures are taken, the budget cuts will so adversely affect morale that Army Reserve numbers will fall even further with serious consequences for the Total Force Concept.
The defence cuts in both the UK and Australia have left the armed forces of both nations, especially in each case the army, in a grim situation. Little seems to have been learned from history.
The ideas in the federal government’s Asian Century White Paper will be reflected soon in the foreshadowed 2013 Defence White Paper, which will also incorporate the government’s response to changes in US defence policy. Central to these changes is President Obama’s Pivot Towards Asia, which in the short-term for Australia will see 2,500 US Marines rotating through Darwin, and an increased number of US Navy ship visits to Fleet Base West.
Let us hope the foreshadowed Defence White Paper provides a more positive outlook for the Australian Defence Force than did the Budget and lasts longer than its discarded predecessors.
However, given the leaked draft version of the paper (The Age, January 23, 2013) is already forecasting closure of Army Reserve bases and other negative measures, the situation does not look very promising.
Ken Aldred is a defence specialist and a former federal Liberal member of parliament for Victoria.