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White paper a ‘disaster’ for defence
Greg Sheridan believes the government’s defence white paper lacks both operational and strategic sense.
BIPARTISANSHIP on defence policy has been fractured after the Coalition today ruled out a “Son of Collins” submarine, which Labor is keeping on the table in its latest defence white paper.
The white paper released today rules out an off-the-shelf design for 12 new submarines, which would be either a more highly-evolved version of the existing Collins Class boats, or an entirely new, tailor-made, design.
The paper also commits Australia to the purchase of 12 new “Growler” electronic warfare fighter jets at a cost of $1.5 billion, while taking a more conciliatory position on the rise of China than the previous strategic blueprint in 2009, which warned against China’s growing military might in the Asia Pacific region.
The document, released today, rules out an off-the-shelf design for the new submarine fleet to replace the trouble-plagued Collins Class boats.
“We’ve come to the conclusion, as reflected by the white paper, that an off-the-shelf submarine does not give us the strategic or the operational reach that we need for Australia’s interests as a maritime country and continent,” Defence Minister Stephen Smith said.
He said Australia had gained intellectual rights to the Collins Class design, “so we’ll progress that”, while the alternative was a wholly new design.
Whatever the design, the fleet would be built in South Australia and be installed with US combat systems.
Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston said a new design could present problems, but the Collins Class design should be avoided at all costs.
“You know, I wouldn’t want to go back near Collins if it was the last thing on earth that we had to do” he said.
“I think Collins has been a very expensive disaster.”
Minister Smith and Julia Gillard said the upcoming May budget would include a modest rise in defence spending, after last year’s cut.
Mr Smith confirmed the government aspired to lift defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, subject to economic circumstances.
“What we have discovered over the time since then is it is very difficult, if not impossible, to map out precise funding for defence or any other area of government when you are facing changing economic and fiscal circumstances,” Mr Smith said.
“In this case, it is called the global financial crisis … the adverse consequences of which are ongoing,” he said.
Senator Johnston said the Coalition had a similar target, but it also had a plan to get there by lifting defence spending by 3 per cent a year.
He attacked the white paper for its lack of financial detail, saying the Coalition would redo the white paper in office, including the full cost of hardware procurement.
“What sort of a plan is this when the department cannot or is not permitted to put a dollar figure on any of these acquisitions?” he said.
“We have the biggest capital works program, not just in defence’s history but in commonwealth history, (and) there is no plan, no schedule, no money. So where does that leave 12 submarines?”
Defence Force Chief General David Hurley said he believed there had been a good budget process given the reality of the government’s fiscal position, which preserved defence capability into the future.
“I think this has been a good outcome for all,” he said.
The purchase of the 12 new Growler aircraft is a change of plan for the government, which had intended to refit 12 of its fleet of 24 Super Hornets as Growlers.
The government says that will not affect plans to buy around 100 fifth generation Joint Strike Fighters.
The government will also bring forward replacement of the navy’s Armidale Class patrol boats, which have been heavily used on border protection operations across Northern Australia.
Replacement supply ships may be built in Australia to replace HMAS Sirius and HMAS Success.
The white paper makes no commitment to acquiring a fourth air warfare destroyer.
Neither does it make a firm decision on long-running proposals to acquire long-range surveillance drones to watch over Australia’s northwest.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said the white paper was a “long list of acquisitions without the money to pay for it”.
“The reality is this government talks a good game on defence, but defence spending as a proportion of GDP is at the lowest level since 1938,” Mr Abbott said.
But a leading defence analyst says the new white paper fixes some of the errors of the 2009 document and does a far better job of matching capability with available resources.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute defence capability expert Dr Andrew Davies said some unnecessary capabilities, such as offshore patrol combatant vessels, had gone, while the number of Joint Strike Fighters had been scaled back from 100 to 72, with future governments able to opt for more.
“Resources and aspiration have come back closer. It remains to be seen whether they will match but it’s certainly closer than it was four years ago. Let’s give credit where it’s due. This fixes some of the errors of the last one.”
Source – The Australian