The Militarisation of Defence

One of the most shocking features of contemporary Australian defence policy is that military expenditure has a longer and larger guarantee than any other type of Australian public spending has ever been given before. The 2009 Defence White Paper concluded with a final chapter entitled ‘The Government’s Financial Plan for Defence’, which was an astoundingly brief page and a half long. This guaranteed the Defence Department increased funding of 5.5 per cent every year until 2017–18 and 4.7 per cent each year from then until 2030. No other type of Australian public expenditure has ever been promised such largess for such a long period.

When this is questioned, ministers have said that the Defence Department has been directed to undertake ‘a substantial program of reform, efficiencies and savings’ which are expected to yield $22.7 billion of savings during the next decade. However, that only allows internal changes of priority: these so called savings will simply be used for building up other areas of military activity, whereas other areas of government which are subject to an ‘efficiency dividend’, like the CSIRO and the National Library, lose funds every year.

Supporters could also argue that the promised increases are not likely to substantially increase the proportion of military spending in national income and that would be true. Real national income may well grow by an average of around 3 per cent a year and inflation is unlikely to be less than 2 per cent a year. But that is not the point. Guaranteeing military spending each year for the next 20 involves abandoning careful analysis of requirements. It assumes that the international military situation will steadily deteriorate and that purchases of more weapons and employment of more military personnel will be essential. This is a doctrine of despair, and is consistent with weakness of discussion about means which could contribute to strengthening security.

An early expression of the White Paper’s plans was the Defence budget for 2010–11, in which spending was increased by $1.57 billion to $26.8 billion. In the same budget the allocation for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was $1.1 billion. So the increase in Australian military spending in 2010–11 is 50 per cent greater than the total allocation for diplomacy. This is simply irresponsible at a time when we have 18 per cent fewer diplomats posted overseas than in 1996 (due to the depredations of the Howard government). Australia has fewer overseas diplomatic missions than any other member of the G20. Yet diplomacy is the prime means of avoiding conflict as well as of representing Australian interests overseas.

This is happening at a time when the government’s principal commitment is to achieving a balanced budget by 2013. Such fiscal austerity requires spending cuts in many high priority activities, and constraints are being imposed on most. Why should defence be immune from those? It is also happening at a time when all other developed countries are searching for ways of reducing their military spending and many have already announced major cuts. The United States announced plans in January 2011 to slash $78 billion from the Pentagon’s budget during the next five years including by cancelling orders for new weapons. The British conservative government announced in October 2010 that defence spending would fall by 8 per cent over the next four years. ‘Harrier jump jets, the Navy’s flagship HMS Ark Royal and planned Nimrod spy planes are to be axed and 42,000 MoD and armed forces jobs cut by 2015’, reports the BBC.

The Australian increases are also happening at a time when there is no electoral pressure for increased military spending. Public opinion does not support the White Paper’s plans. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Special Report on Public Opinion in Australia towards Defence, Security and Terrorism, Issue 16 concludes that ‘support for more defence spending has dropped to its lowest level since the end of the Cold War’. The reason is that ‘The proportion of voters seeing a security threat to Australia has declined consistently since the late 1960s’. Most voters are far more concerned with employment and living standards, health services and education than with defence. The Medicare card is of greater importance to the security of most Australians than increased military spending.

Why then have these perverse and sectorally skewed plans been made? Governments are necessarily in the business of prediction and no more so than on issues of defence and national security. So they turn to ‘defence planners’, who predict the future in order to enable governments to decide on defence policy. Those people, by training and environment, are pessimistic about what is going to happen. Their task is to warn of possible threats to national security, and when they sit down to think up threats and spend their professional lives discussing threats with their colleagues they end up with a long list of things that might just conceivably happen.

From a theoretical point of view, their starting point is the nation-state, and the assumption that nation-states are armed against each other in a global anarchy: best, therefore, to arm one’s own state to the teeth lest some other state invade. Never mind that the end of the Cold War, the emergence of globalisation and the development of new international norms about peacemaking and peacekeeping render such a view simplistic.

Unlike an earlier generation of Labor ministers in the Hawke and Keating governments, the Rudd government did not resist demands from the Defence Department, the weapons manufacturers, and the other members of military-industrial complex. In place of a focus on ‘defensive defence’, low-level threats and regional peacekeeping, they opted for ‘offensive defence’. The 2009 White Paper intensified key elements of Howard government defence policy, that is, forward projection of forces, strike capability, and high technology weapons systems, and, like the Coalition, promised increased real spending on defence every year.

In detail, the White Paper proposes buying: twelve submarines, which would be Australia’s largest ever single defence project; air-warfare destroyers and a new class of frigates to replace the ANZAC class ships; maritime-based land-attack cruise missiles; naval combat helicopters; 100 F-35 joint strike fighters; Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft; maritime surveillance and response aircraft; and around 1100 armoured combat vehicles. The period of acquisition is long, twenty years, but the costs are unprecedented in Australian peacetime defence spending.

The Military Silo

The White Paper discusses Australian defence as if it is in a silo, which enables defence to be planned in isolation from other dimensions of global affairs. The isolation of military strategy prevents discussion of the relative priority and weight given to other aspects of foreign policy such as comprehensive reviews of bilateral, regional and multilateral relations and alliances; political contact and discussions; diplomatic activity; multilateral engagement; peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, especially negotiation, mediation and conciliation; development policy including official development assistance; international economic, financial, social (including human rights) and environmental relations; and global governance including its economic, social and environmental dimensions. Although the White Paper does mention some of these, they are not incorporated into the analysis.

A more holistic approach to national security would reflect a qualitative improvement in strategic thinking. Such a change would require a creative re-evaluation of Australia’s security requirements for a new Asia-Pacific century. This would entail the recognition that conventional military forces are commonly ill-suited to achieving desirable international outcomes. This in turn would require a considerable reallocation of human and financial resources to increase the capabilities of other national departments and national and multilateral agencies. The White Paper even acknowledges that many ‘argue that Defence should be considered in a whole-of-government security context that includes aid programs and diplomacy and contributions to non-government organisations’ (WP: 18) but explicitly chooses not to do this, instead treating military spending as if it is a closed world which can be considered in isolation from other factors which determine the degree of co-operation or hostility between countries.

In the wider world, political and social attention has turned to issues such as humanitarian emergencies, mass human rights abuses, intra-state conflict, state failure, terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Militaries are frequently required to play a key role in responding to potential conflict and its consequences and to natural disasters. So the range of activities that the military may be required to undertake has expanded substantially. This security-centred paradigm requires a reinvention of the roles for which the military prepare.

The largest single deployment of Australian troops in recent times has not been to our northern borders to protect the country from invasion or even to Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather to East Timor at the head of INTERFET, a coalition of the willing with UN authority. The interventions in East Timor and the Solomon Islands brought together the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police in joint projects for restoring law and order while building the state. The determining consideration in Australia’s defence planning should be likely contingencies of this and other kinds, not the remote possibility of international conflict or invasion.


Misjudging Threats

The Minister’s preface to the White Paper begins ‘There is no greater responsibility for a national government than the defence of the nation, its people and their interests’. This familiar claim for the pre-eminence of defence needs to be put in context. Protection from external threats is certainly one aspect of national and personal security but so are economic stability, opportunities for employment, environmental sustainability, high quality health and education services, safety on the streets and much more. The Minister’s claim exaggerates the importance of defence in peacetime and lays a foundation for the misleadingly narrow analysis. National security is only one aspect of national wellbeing.

The White Paper asserts that the ‘primary obligation [of defence] is to deter and defeat attack on Australia’ and moves straight on to address force structure, rather than discussing whether resisting a threat of invasion is currently or foreseeably the highest realistic priority. So the principal issue which the comment raises is neglected. It also works against the White Paper’s own assessment that there is neither currently nor foreseeably any power in the region capable of mounting such operations. The fear of invasion is close to fantasy: there is no credible interest anywhere in attacking this country nor has there been for two thirds of a century. As Kim Beazley said when tabling a committee report on threats to Australia over three decades ago, only one country has the capacity to invade Australia, the United States, and it is able to obtain all it wants from Australia without such action!

The White Paper points out that China will become the strongest Asian military power ‘by a considerable margin’ and that the Chinese military modernisation which is under way ‘appears potentially to be beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan’. The implication is that Australia needs to prepare for Chinese aggression. China may or may not become a military threat as it expands economically, but to posture against it before evidence justifying this emerges risks encouraging aggressive Chinese preparation in return. Allan Behm writes: ‘Quite simply, in the timeframes considered by this White Paper, China will have neither the intention nor the power to mount a direct attack against Australia. The chapter’s key judgement is breathtaking in its naivety and lack of nuance’.

The White Paper recognises that ‘The enduring reality of our strategic outlook is that Australia will most likely remain, by virtue of our geostrategic location, a secure country over the period to 2030’ yet it fails to plan on that reasonable conclusion. Geoff Miller, the former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments, concludes that ‘the White Paper only makes the case for the huge expenditure it projects by focusing on the stated principal task of deterring and defeating attacks on Australia without relying on the combat or combat support forces of other countries, while ignoring its own conclusions about the limits to self-reliance and about the likelihood of Australia having to defend against a major power adversary on its own’.

The White Paper makes the case for the extraordinary increases in military spending by exaggerating the threat to Australia—which has been the normal tactic of governments for the last sixty years. The effect of exaggerating military threats has been to justify current expenditure which is already far larger than is necessary, $73 million a day. Australia does not need military spending per person more than twice that of Japan or Russia or 50 per cent more than Canada.


The Benefits of Seeking Peace

The world is less threatening than the drafters of the White Paper claim. Most states now prefer to avoid inter-state conflict, and military activity is constrained by national economic and political interest and as well by rules, norms and conflict resolution processes. The traditional concept of state-based military power utilised to pursue national interest is being supplanted by the view that war is a threat to national interests. A recent example is the Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which argues that ‘The downside risks of waging aggressive war in a globalized interdependent world are seen today as outweighing almost any conceivable benefit’.

Military power is no longer regarded by most nations and policy makers as the only basis of security. Alliances enable countries to strengthen their security. Multilateral rules, norms and conflict resolution processes constrain aggression. National economic goals are overwhelmingly achieved through commercial and political activity. And countries which act aggressively face penalties. The global order of the early 21st century is one in which great net benefits flow from co-operating with the international community.

The White Paper offers little explanation about what might cause conflict or war and nothing at all about peaceful means of attempting to resolve potential conflict. Australia’s interest is as much in peaceful conflict resolution as is that of all United Nations member states, yet this top priority is neither mentioned nor discussed. Nor is the value of regional political and economic bodies in strengthening integration and stability acknowledged.

The White Paper mentions the formative role of the UN Charter in establishing a rule-based international system and recognises that the maintenance of this multilateral system is a key consideration for Australia’s security. It does not, though, go on to discuss how to participate so as to act in ways consistent with the commitments of member states or to contribute to enabling the United Nations to do its work more effectively.

The UN Charter is the foundational document of postwar multilateral relations. Article 1 of the Charter describes the first purpose of the United Nations as being:

To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and the removal of threats, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.

Article 2 requires that Member States act in accordance with stated principles, the third of which is that:

All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

That is, membership of the United Nations requires countries to attempt by all reasonable means to avoid the threat or use of force and to seek non-violent means of minimising and resolving conflict. There have been many resolutions in the Security Council and General Assembly elaborating the theme of peaceful conflict resolution. For Australia to effectively fulfill this responsibility would involve taking the following steps.

First, defence planning should be more thoroughly integrated with other aspects of foreign policy. Recognition of the complementarities of foreign and defence policy would create the basis for a public and governmental discourse in which a range of perspectives and possibilities could be included. Australian security would be strengthened if defence is liberated from the silo within which it is imprisoned so that the framework for foreign and defence policy could be addressed holistically.

Second, for all these reasons and to conserve scarce funds for other higher priority international and domestic programs, proposed defence expenditure should be rigorously reviewed and some proposed weapons purchasers cut or cancelled – as the US has just announced it will do. This would limit competition for finance for services which voters regard as of far greater importance. Good public policy should not treat one kind of public outlay differently from all others by conferring on defence the unique privilege of announced real increases until 2030. The quarantining of defence spending discriminates against every other area of public service, introduces rigidity, and eliminates a financial incentive to strengthen the efficiency with which defence is provided.

Third, funding for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) must be substantially improved. Why should diplomacy, the instrument supposed to sustain a global and regional web of relationships and co-operative arrangements favouring Australia, receive one twenty-sixth of the funds allocated to defence? The Lowy Institute argues carefully for reversal of these trends, opening of new missions, increased appointment and training of qualified diplomats and expansion of other vital supporting activities. Swift implementation of those recommendations is vital. Steadily improved funding would allow DFAT to build up its capacity for engagement in peaceful conflict resolution through bilateral and multilateral analysis, consultation, mediation, negotiation and the other means listed in the UN Charter.

Fourth, continued expansion of the Australian aid program as promised by the Rudd Government is vital so that Australia can make a fairer and more effective contribution to economic, social and environmentally sustainable development, achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and reduction of despair, alienation and poverty. Seeking peace with justice is a more effective and constructive way of making Australia more secure than is militarism.


John Langmore is a Professorial Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. He was the federal MP for Fraser for twelve years and a Director in the United Nations for seven. These arguments are elaborated in John Langmore, Calum Logan and Stewart Firth, The 2009 Australian Defence White Paper: Analysis and Alternatives, Austral Policy forum 10-01A, 15 September 2010

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If we have that much to spend on defence we should have no trouble 5 billion to improve the
education of Australian children.

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