Australia is in the middle of a budget emergency. We know this because Joe Hockey told us so. The Age of Entitlement is over; people need to tighten their belts; those looking for free healthcare and cheap degrees should probably just move to Scandinavia. But wait, that can’t possibly be right. After all, the Government has also just purchased an additional 58 F-35 combat aircraft for $12.4 billion! Is this really a necessary purchase at a time when our economy is supposed to be in bad shape? But also, should Australia spend money on defence at all?
First up, some comparisons. To our immediate neighbours in Oceania and South-East Asia, Australia is a military superpower. It has essentially unmatched air combat and naval capabilities. In the wider Asia-Pacific region, Australia remains competitive with countries such as Japan or Singapore. The ADF’s primary deficiency is its lack of troops, which is relatively unimportant for an island nation.
Australia’s defence posture also contrasts dramatically against that of our best-friend neighbour, New Zealand, whose military is a fraction of our size. Their air force consists mostly of transport and maritime patrol aircraft; fighters such as the F-35 haven’t featured since 1999. Their navy has two ships that are actually capable of combat. Their army is smaller than the population of Kings Cross. They are truly, as once suggested on the Gruen Transfer, “100% ours for the taking”. But while Aussies may appreciate the ability to skip immigration on their way to the State of New Zealand, nobody else gives a fuck. New Zealand is too far away and too insignificant, and Kiwi policy-makers know it.
It is arguable that Australia enjoys many of these same advantages. We are also relatively geographically isolated. We have few sea-based natural resources that other countries want. The South China Sea, seemingly a powder keg in Asia at the moment, is thousands of kilometres away. And although the Malacca Strait is an important and proximate shipping route, it is so important that countries far more powerful than Australia also have an interest in keeping it open. So basically, Australia’s powerful military is about as necessary as an ashtray on a motorbike.
Since that is true, there are only two potential reasons why Australia should maintain its current defence policy. The first is to ensure it remains a ‘senior partner’ in any multinational military effort in the Asia-Pacific region. But there’s no inherent reason why this is valuable to Australia or its residents. Australia is isolated and economically strong enough to be capable of ‘splendid isolation’.
The better reason might be that Australia is currently positioned as a leader of humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in our nearby area. As in cases such as INTERFET in East Timor or RAMSI in the Solomon Islands, Australia is generally expected to lead when a local country or an international organisation petitions for assistance. In this way, Australia can act as a stabilising force for surrounding countries when internal conditions warrant peacekeeping or the
imposition of order, something that arguably benefits all parties. This is not something that can be done with a minimal military force – New Zealand contributed to INTERFET, but in a supporting role only.
Australia is essentially unique in its ability to keep peace in our immediate region. Granted, it’s hard to argue that Operation Sovereign Borders or Tony Abbott giving the thumbs-up signal from the cockpit of an F-35 or even the ongoing problems with ADF culture represent this kind of moral leadership. Perhaps it is ironic, in the current political climate, that our nation’s primary coercive force might be our best opportunity to be a force for good.