War, what is it good for?

The lack of transparency on defence spending is indefensible when we’re talking about billions of dollars

It seems we’re preparing for war. An extensive review of the Royal Australian Navy has found that, guess what? We need more. More “optionally crewed surface vessels”, more “major surface combatants”, “air warfare destroyers” and “general purpose frigates” – all designed to increase our “lethal capability”. The revamp of the Navy’s fleet is expected to cost $54 billion, which will see $11.1 billion of new money invested over the next 10 years. The expansion will mean Australia will have its largest fleet since the end of World War Two. Defence Minister Richard Marles has claimed: “This blueprint will see the Navy equipped with a major surface combatant fleet over twice as large as planned when we came to government, with more surface combatants in the water sooner.”

But of course, when it comes to defence spending, it’s best to take budget projections with a grain of salt. We should resign ourselves to the very likely possibility that there will be cost blowouts and projects won’t meet their own timelines – and our ability to understand why may never be known because of “national security”. 

The review did identify a potential blowout of $20 billion in the cost of building Hunter-class frigates, which have had design and weight issues apparently. It’s important to point out that Hunter-class frigates aren’t some relic from the Cold War. Their design, and the decision to build them for Australia’s fleet, only goes back to 2018. In May of last year, the Australian National Audit Office found that, “At January 2023 the project was forecast to exceed the whole of project budget approved by government by a significant amount.”

No one is pretending that defence procurement – the acquisition, development and building of new technologies and capabilities – is an easy exercise. The military-industrial complex, of which Australia is now a firm player, ensures the war machine moves faster now than it ever has. What might be state-of-the-art technology this year may well be outdated before we know it. But the veil of national security, the lack of transparency on defence spending, is indefensible when we’re talking about amounts of money that we could easily put towards building hundreds of hospitals or making university free. But it seems that successive governments are captive to it – it’s the tail wagging the dog. 

When it comes to Australia’s involvement in armed conflicts, it seems the general public has never been less empowered to do anything about the war machine that has gradually throttled so much of our foreign policy. 

The public has generally accepted defence as an expensive but necessary spend. The defence of mainland Australia in the event of an attack from foreign invaders is an easy concept for most people to get their head around. What is less clear is why a foreign invader, say China, would want to invade us in the first place. Is it based on the assumption it’s because it’s what the US does – invade other countries? The political class and the commentariat, meant to be arbiters of rational thought, have spent years now pushing the narrative that war with China is inevitable.

Even less clear is why we would want to involve ourselves in yet another potential US misadventure. The cost of millions of lives and trillions of dollars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan and the Middle East – all a result of American intervention – have done little to make the world a safer place. At the end of the day, our decisions to involve ourselves in conflicts where we are not needed comes down to base politics at best. 

AUKUS is a case in point. In 2021, the ALP shadow ministry, after a two-hour verbal briefing from the defence department, in which no papers were provided, threw its support behind the proposed AUKUS deal. It was that or risk being painted as weak on national security. It meant that, when it came to defence, the electorate had no choice between the two major parties at the last federal election, no ability to decide whether we wanted all of our geostrategic eggs in the Anglo basket at a forecast cost of $268 billion to $368 billion. And who knows how much that project will blow out by?

Let’s hope China keeps buying our minerals and iron ore so we can pay for all of this.

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