How to defend Australia

Australian Navy officials pose with President Rodrigo Duterte (6th L front row) during a tour on board the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessel, Her Majesty's Australian Ship (HMAS) Adelaide III as part of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Joint Task Group Indo-Pacific Endeavour in Manila, Philippines, 10 October 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco).

Author: Hugh White, ANU

How much should Australia spend on defence? The question is especially urgent as the demands Australia’s forces may face in the decades ahead are much greater than the ones they are designed for. The obvious answer is that it depends on what Australia wants its armed forces to be able to do — but for a long time Australian defence policy has reversed this logic.

Like many other countries since the end of the Cold War, Australia has been fixed on 2 per cent of GDP as the gold standard for defence spending. To spend less than this is condemned as irresponsible, and to spend more is tacitly assumed to be unnecessary. Insufficient attention is paid to what kind of forces the money is spent on, or what those forces are supposed to achieve.

This is of course absurd, in several ways. For a start, defence spending as a proportion of GDP expresses the ratio between two numbers and varies equally with either of them. The defence share of GDP goes up when GDP goes down, and even goes up when defence spending falls, if GDP falls faster.

But more fundamentally, even a more robust measure of how much is spent reveals nothing about how adequate Australia’s armed forces are for the tasks they might face. To understand better how much Australia should spend, we need to re-invert the logic and look again at what its forces need to be able to do.

Since the 1970s, Australia’s defence forces have been planned primarily to defend the continent independently against a local adversary — in effect, Indonesia. More recently, some attention has also been paid to preparing them for stabilisation operations in Australia’s near neighbourhood and for modest contributions to more remote US-led coalitions.

This made good sense as long …continue reading