EDITORIAL | A perfect time for a complete re-think of Australia’s Defence Capex

With the elimination of the spectre of former Australian Defence Minister, and Minister for South Australian Mendicancy, Christopher Pyne, we are presented with an excellent opportunity to make a comprehensive review of our defence priorities. Pyne’s apparently much more realistic successor, Senator Linda Reynolds, should grasp that opportunity with considerable enthusiasm.

Practically all our major Capex projects for the navy and air force have barely started and, in many cases, are decades away from completion. They could sensibly and relatively economically be paused, if not cancelled, while we take a breather and re-think both our real present needs and priorities and, very importantly, what we can afford.

Many of the ship, submarine, aircraft and weapon system purchases are scheduled so far into the future as to be almost certain to be obsolete long before they are delivered.

Too many of the projects were ill-conceived for reasons more of South Australian welfare than national warfare. Minister Pyne may well have been a great representative of South Australia but he was an appalling waster of national taxpayer funds while securing his parliamentary career.

Now, of course, since he abandoned parliament, apparently thinking that the Coalition Government was a sinking ship, he is disgracefully seeking a new career as a defence industry lobbyist. That will only add insult to severe fiscal and defence readiness injury.

The orders for submarines, F-35 aircraft, frigates and offshore patrol vessels, among others could well be stayed if not totally scrubbed. They will undoubtedly cost a not inconsiderable $200 billion or more and be delivered years later than the already ridiculous 30 years that has been signed off on by Minister Pyne, his generals, admirals, senior bureaucrats and their American advisors.

The nature of modern warfare and its weapon systems is changing dramatically and rapidly. The Americans are spending vast sums of money on unmanned systems for land, sea and air warfare. Everyone else will follow that eminently logical course.

The Chinese have openly declared that America and Japan are their biggest worries and have prepared practically to do battle with them. They have examined American weaknesses and are developing comparatively economical weaponry to exploit them. Ironically, the platforms for some of their more interesting long-range hypersonic cruise missile launching fast assault boats were designed in Sydney. The PLA Navy has more than 100 of those vessels each carrying eight missiles. The Royal Australian Navy has none. Their role is to “take out” American nuclear aircraft carriers.

The Australian “Defence establishment” suffers from a considerable cultural cringe. It seems to believe that Australian designs and innovation are generally worthless. That aspect of our Defence Capex is invariably purchased offshore. It is then, too often, married very incompatibly to local construction.

It is no wonder that local shipbuilders, except for the notably inefficient government owned ASC, shun dealing with our governments. This, despite the evidence of the above mentioned Chinese missile boats. There are numerous other examples of frequent flyer points and the cultural cringe influencing Defence purchasing decisions.

The Chinese are also constructing much longer-range fighter-bombers than their American equivalents. They are also being fitted with long-range hypersonic cruise missiles to further extend their effectiveness. The cost of all these is dramatically less than for their American counterparts.

While they had little choice, the Chinese have taken an admirable and practical “clean sheet” approach to the choices of weaponry and doctrine. We should follow their example. We have our own unique cultural and geographic advantages and disadvantages. We should not blindly be following our American friends and allies.

In the end, we may very much be on our own. We should prepare for that.

We could learn a lot from a closer study of China’s defence plans and practices. Its Maritime Militia, for example, should inspire us to look at something similar to inexpensively utilise our fishing and offshore service fleets as well as our state government owned patrol boats.

Unlike China, we have virtually no merchant navy but the few domestic cargo vessels we do have could be much more effectively integrated. We are also, and this is usually forgotten by government, world leaders in the design and construction of very effective and efficient fast craft including large and small patrol and assault boats and fast logistics support ships.

What we could learn from the Americans is more about unmanned technology although we should be rapidly developing our own as Israel is doing. There is, for example, a comparatively large unmanned submarine being developed by the Boeing Aircraft Corp that could well be appropriate to the shallow seas to our north. The Americans are also very advanced with the development of unmanned aircraft, including helicopters.

We should also be very carefully re-considering our aversion to nuclear power and weaponry. Logically, we should be developing a substantial cadre of nuclear engineers and other experts.

Stupidly, we construct no diesel engines in Australia. As most warships, submarines, tanks and other land vehicles are diesel powered this is very strange. We should at least be developing the capacity to build a wide range of them here. There is an existing global system for building diesel engines under licence to leading manufacturers. We should involve ourselves in that as soon as possible.

Similarly, we refine almost no diesel and jet fuel in Australia. It can’t be very difficult to do but, apparently, most of our diesel is imported from Singapore. We have tiny reserves of that vital fluid. We should be encouraging industry to develop at least one diesel and jet fuel refinery in each state plus a couple more in the north.

The Maritime Union of Australia should be drastically reformed. That is the only way that local shipowners might be encouraged to invest in coastal cargo shipping, which is imperative for defence.

We could learn from the effectiveness of the Russian Buk missiles recently used to down the Malaysian Airlines aircraft over the Ukraine. Such truck-mounted weapons could be spread all round our northern coastline. They would be much cheaper to position than using ships or aircraft.

There is so much that we could do better, more logically and more economically. We should change our mindset to remove the focus on welfare from defence planning. The ridiculous favouritism of South Australia has to go.

That state is quite capable of surviving without endless subsidies from the Commonwealth.

The factor of South Australia’s parlous mendicancy should not enter into our defence planning. If something can be built better in that state than elsewhere, fine, but otherwise, it should be built where we can obtain the best deal, not to provide jobs for redundant car industry workers.

With the Scott Morrison government now relatively comfortably ensconced in Canberra, now is the perfect time to re-think our defence priorities. However, this time, let us leaven the defence establishment experts, the generals, admirals, senior bureaucrats and academics with some practical business people such as ship builders, naval architects, aircraft manufacturers, electronics experts, petroleum refiners and the like. A fundamental should be that the review be a truly national project and not one that favours any one geographic region.

If we don’t take a breather now, we are doomed to repeat past mistakes. Defence will continue to be a tediously slow and expensive millstone around the nation’s neck. Our current purchases will inevitably be ridiculously expensive and delivered so late that much of the equipment will be obsolete before it sees service. Senator Reynolds, as a senior Army Reserve officer, should be aware of the many defects of the current Defence Capex arrangements. She should be given an opportunity to drastically reform them before it is too late.


Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.