In the wake of a few years of significantly reduced budgets, a lot has been said of the lack of defence funding. Much of the argument surrounding the spending cuts have called for resourcing in line with what has been in place for the last ten or so years. But we do need to ask whether such spending is still necessary based on the new strategic context.
The reasons for the lowered level of spending are diverse. Politically, Defence became a victim of government’s self-imposed, stubborn determination to return the budget to surplus, whatever the cost. Lowered tax revenue from a cooling in the resources boom meant less money to go around and the drawdown of Australian Defence Force operations in Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands meant Defence was no longer at the top of the government-resources food chain.
All in all however, despite the harsh cuts to Defence since 2009 the RAAF hasn’t done too badly. Two additional C-17s, ten new C-27J Spartans, 12 additional EA-18G Growlers and a reaffirmed commitment to procuring the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As far as the RAAF is concerned, there hasn’t been a significant, harsh cut in spending as much as there has been a reprioritisation of resources and slowing of acquisition cycles.
What’s more, the RAAF can expect that many of its significant procurement projects coming down the line will remain so, due to the strategic-offset and risk mitigation nature of high-end air combat capabilities, and the broad, flexible utilitarian nature of air transport and mobility. With nothing resembling a domestic aerospace manufacturer, the RAAF will be able to maintain fast, cheap acquisitions through programs like the US Foreign Military Sales office. The greatest lose will be to our domestic aircraft maintenance and sustainment industry.
The same will be slightly less true for the Royal Australian Navy.
Army, despite doing most of the boots-on-the-ground work for the last 14 years, is likely to see the most significant, ongoing cuts.
Capability and procurement isn’t about supporting a manufacturing industry or meeting an arbitrary spending level as a percentage of GDP. It’s about having the tools necessary to face the challenges which may arise.
Strategically, we know that the process of procuring those tools takes time and effort now in order to be ready in the future. Large-scale procurements cannot be achieved in short time periods. But this is not the approach taken by decision-makers in practice. With the lowered threat level of the late-1980s and 1990s, the ADF ran into significant resourcing problems. It was only with the operational imperative provided by deployments in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan that we saw funding redistributed towards capability.
The fact is, defence doesn’t need a spending boost for the sake of a spending boost, nor a boost to save defence industry. Defence Capability Plans should be living documents – they can and must change in composition, scope and scale over time. Even popular opinion doesn’t matter all that much. Fundamentally, defence needs an operational imperative for increased spending. Operations are one of the few sole-factors that can – and should – lead to increased spending on capability and resources for the ADF in order to achieve the mission.
Regardless of whichever side of politics is funding defence, they will be faced with the same financial constraints as the current government, or at least those constraints that aren’t self-imposed. Despite very similar commitments to return the defence budget to respectable spending levels over the next decade, the truth is that no matter who wins government on September 7 – the extant state of defence spending is unlikely to change without an operational imperative to do so.
Perhaps the time has come to recognise that defence funding as we knew it – riding on the back of the resources boom and operational necessity – is over. But what impact that might have on RAAF and broader ADF capabilities remains to be seen.