A Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Super Hornet practices low-level flying in Queensland. The new government has said it is committed to a plan to buy up to 72 joint strike fighters initially and will weigh Australia's requirement for up to 100. (Royal Australian Air Force via AFP)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — Now that the Australian Liberal-National Party Coalition led by Tony Abbott has won an emphatic victory over the Australian Labor Party, attention will turn to choosing a defense minister and following through on a pledge to return defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the next 10 years.
Prior to the Sept. 9 election, shadow Defense Minister David Johnston had reaffirmed the coalition’s commitment to the US alliance, the acquisition of major capabilities such as F-35 joint strike fighters and future submarines.
Vote counting is underway in several marginal seats and Prime Minister-elect Abbott had not named his new cabinet as of Sept. 13, but it is almost certain that Johnston will be sworn in as the new defense minister, possibly early in the week.
During the campaign, both sides made the pledge to boost defense spending. The only major difference on defense matters between the two parties was then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s announcement that a re-elected Labor Government would relocate the Navy’s main base north from Sydney to a range of proposed locations in Queensland.
The Aug. 27 announcement, made two weeks before the ballot, took many by surprise and, according to the opposition, contradicted the findings of the government’s defense white paper released in May, which discounted the move on cost grounds.
Speaking to media after the announcement, Johnston said, “Almost all of these options are not suitable for a new base and would require billions of dollars to redevelop them for such a purpose.”
In the week following the debate, the coalition released its own defense policy, which although light on detail, reaffirmed Australia’s position on strategy and capability and promised its own white paper.
It its policy statement, the coalition listed its priorities as the defense of Australia and its direct approaches, fostering security in the region, supporting strategic stability in the wider Asia-Pacific region and supporting global security.
“The coalition is unequivocally committed to the strong and enduring alliance with the United States of America. We will look at areas where it would be in the mutual interest of Australia and the United States to deepen our longstanding alliance relationship building on the recent announcement to rotate a Marine brigade through Darwin,” the report noted of the coalition’s relationship with the US. “Such initiatives will be in Australia’s security interests and will assist the United States in its broader objectives of remaining forward-deployed in the Asia-Pacific region and of dispersing its military forces within the region.”
With regard to the restoration of defense spending to 2 percent of GDP however, Mark Thompson of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute notes that Australia will have at least three more federal elections in the next 10 years and estimates that around 5.3 percent of real growth per year will be required to achieve the goal.
“If the government is going to make good on its promise of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense within a decade, they can’t afford to skip a year or two and then try to play catch up. Resisting the urge to do so in a couple of years’ time when a [budget] surplus is within reach will be the test of how seriously their promise can be taken,” he said.
Three capabilities were specifically mentioned in the coalition’s policy: the Lockheed Martin joint strike fighter, a broad area maritime surveillance UAV such as Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton and Australia’s Future Submarine program.
The coalition said it remains committed to the joint strike fighter and, subject to advice from the service chiefs, will proceed with the initial purchase of up to 72 aircraft. Australia’s requirement for up to 100 aircraft will be considered in the light of the previous government’s decision to acquire a dozen Boeing E/A-18G Growlers and decision around the future of the Super Hornet fleet, which essentially maintains the status quo.
Prior to the election campaign, the coalition had said it would acquire broad area maritime UAVs for border surveillance as a matter of priority, but the policy statement reflects a more circumspect approach. “The acquisition of unmanned aerial vehicles will be dependent on the advice of the chief of the Defence Force and service chiefs, as well as a clear cost-benefit assessment that demonstrates the value of these aircraft,” it stated, adding that the coalition saw merit in acquiring new state-of-the-art UAVs.
“They have softened their policy on Triton, their policy 12 months ago was to go ‘hell for leather,’ but they’ve decided to have a more measured look at it,” said Andrew Davies, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s senior analyst for military capability. “I think that’s a fair reading; they have realized it is a really complex business.”
Finally, the coalition says it will ensure the existing Collins-class submarines will have a service-life extension to ensure they remain a viable capability ahead of the Future Submarine project. It has also pledged to make decisions to ensure Australia has no gap in submarine capability within 18 months of the election.
Johnston has previously ruled out nuclear propulsion as an option for the Future Submarine program, telling ABC radio last November that, “Nuclear submarines are not a coalition policy and they are not on the table for us to be examining.”
If this policy holds true, it aligns with that of the previous government and would appear to rule out the possibility of the Virginia-class nuclear submarine being acquired from the US.
“I would doubt that the nuclear option would be on the table,” Davies said. “I don’t think the money will be there for it. But there are worse things than designing and building your own giant conventional submarine.”