Defence: When Too Much is Still Not Enough

by Allan Behm

Defence remains the Morrison government’s favoured sacred cow. Without any detailed or substantiated policy platform, the budget increases the Defence spend by 3.1 percent, lifting the total Defence spend of $48 billion in 2022/23 to more than 2 percent of GDP. It appears that a period of profound uncertainty and disruption and an increasingly assertive China is sufficient justification for an eye-watering $575 billion over the next decade, just under half of which (270 billion) will be spent on weapons systems (capability).

Again, without any considered planning principles, the budget promises the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) $9.9 billion over the next decade to combat cyber threats and to enable Australia to conduct offensive cyber operations. This funding will provide an additional 1900 people to ASD’s workforce over the decade, though how they are to be recruited in a highly competitive market is moot.

As with so much of the Morrison government’s ‘forward planning’, spending in the outyears of the decade is purely conjectural. ASD’s 2022-23 allocation is $680 million, growing to just under $1 billion over the forward estimates. Thereafter the budget remains silent.

The ‘never never’ also dominates the government’s approach to forward ADF personnel planning, with a notional $38 billion in additional workforce costs stretching out to 2040.

Notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding the government’s announced acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, the 2022-23 budget makes no provision over the forward estimates. So much for both the urgency of the project and the utility of AUKUS.

But the budget does provide $6.7 million to the Office of the Special Investigator for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes that might have been committed in Afghanistan. This measure is offset from within the Defence allocation.

Unusually, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel recently informed the media that he had threatened resignation to garner additional funding for veterans’ support. As they age, and the consequences of decades of sustained operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan come home to roost, veterans are presenting in ever increasing numbers with the physical and psychological injuries that are an inevitable part of war. But the Minister’s grandstanding delivered little more than ‘rats and mice’ in the overall defence budget, with small marginal adjustments to the staffing of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and small additional funding for the Assistance Dogs program and the important Kookaburra Kids ‘Defence Kids’ program.

To sum up, the 2022-23 Defence budget represents the triumph of ambition over achievability. Much of the projected expenditure lies beyond the forward estimates. Given Defence’s continuing record of waste, mismanagement, capability underachievement and cost over-runs, savings might have been expected. This budget is little more than a cynical exploitation of the unstructured fears generated by the government in recent years for very short-term electoral purposes.

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