As threats mount, Australia must start taking defence seriously

As threats mount, Australia must start taking defence seriously, by Greg Sheridan.

Australia cannot defend itself against any big, militarily capable adversary. Though we spend nearly $40 billion a year on defence, we have no serious capability to resist, or impose a substantial cost, on any big, powerful nation that means us harm.

In any conflict with a big power, any threatened conflict or even a scenario of sustained coercion, we are dependent on the Americans to fight for us. …

After Labor took our defence spending to its lowest percentage of GDP since the 1930s, the Coalition, after six chaotic years, has barely got it back to 1.9 per cent, still below the NATO minimum. And NATO countries, unlike us, are surrounded by allies. …

As one senior figure put it to me, the Australian Defence Force resembles a stamp collection. There is one, or two, of everything and they are all beautiful. But you must never take them out of the album because they are all ir­replaceable.

With the French subs, Canberra has chosen the Rolls-Royce of conventional subs but been indifferent to when we get them. The subs are new, big, complex and an “orphan” class, so they will be late, over budget and have huge teething difficulties. The Collins is now an effective sub but it took at least 10 years after the first one was commissioned.

Industry sources say we won’t get the first French sub before 2036. That means we don’t get the 12th until about 2050. We are not, as defence planners sometimes do, preparing to fight the last war. We are preparing for the war after next, with no provision for anything nasty in the meantime. If no one causes us any bother until 2050 we may have a good defence force by then, if all the future generations of governments live up to today’s woolly promises. …

Our forces are too small and too diverse. As Stalin (paraphrased) said, in the contest between quality and quantity, quantity has a quality all of its own. Or as soldiers put it, 80 per cent on time is better than 100 per cent too late. …

Putting the possible choices with characteristic bluntness, [Senator Jim Molan, a former major general in the army] says: “The Americans will only be able to fight with us if ours is the only war going on at the time. The Americans won’t be able to defeat the Chinese if all their F-22s are required in the Baltics, or if they need three-carrier battle groups to reopen the Persian Gulf. American power is no longer ­infinite.

“The Chinese could Finlandise (neutralise) Australia. They could do that in 22 days because we have no liquid fuel reserves. …

“Defence in this country is a joke. The Australian Defence Force is optimised to provide very good forces in very small quantities to the Americans around the world.” …

Most of our military capabilities are high quality but held in much too tiny numbers to have an effect. Remedying this would not take a huge extra effort. It would need more money and more discipline in spending and force structure. Kim Beazley, before he became governor of Western Australia, pointed out that when he was defence minister Australia spent 2.3 per cent of GDP on defence rather than the 1.9 per cent it spends now.