The 2019–20 budget provides $38.7 billion for defence, equivalent to 1.9% of GDP.1 Both major parties have committed to increase spending to 2% of GDP by 2020–21. Spending has increased steadily since the 2013–14 budget, when it was at 1.59% of GDP.2 Growing the domestic defence industry has been a major focus of the current Government, and it has the support of the Opposition.
The Liberal–National Coalition has committed to increasing defence spending to 2% of GDP and building up Australia’s domestic defence industry. The Royal Australian Navy will get nine new frigates and 12 submarines, all built locally. In January 2018 the Turnbull government committed to making Australia a “top ten” global defence exporter.3
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A $50 billion defence deal between the Australian Government and Naval Group, a French company, will double the size of the Royal Australian Navy’s submarine fleet. Australia currently operates six Collins‑class submarines.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told the Lowy Institute that the Australian Labor Party’s commitment to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP is “fundamental”.4 Labor supports the government’s efforts to build up the national defence industry but has described the government’s ambition for Australia to become a top-10 defence exporter as “overcooked”.5
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Australia is making a major push into unpiloted aircraft. Orders have been placed for 12 to 16 armed Reaper drones and six Triton maritime surveillance drones, with a wingspan roughly the same as a Boeing 737. Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has also announced an Australian program for a ‘Loyal Wingman’ drone to accompany crewed fighters into combat.6
The bipartisan commitment to higher defence spending is welcome, and reflects heightened concern on both sides of politics about the strategic implications of China’s rise. But Australia is about to waste a lot of time and money on building weapons locally, which suggests our politicians have not quite grasped the full scope of the China challenge.
The government boasts of a $90 billion continuous shipbuilding program that will include 12 submarines, nine frigates, 12 offshore patrol vessels, and more.7 In the election campaign, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that two mine warfare vessels and a hydrographic vessel would be built in Western Australia for $1 billion.8
It will take decades to realise this grand plan. Our submarines are our military trump cards, and doubling the size of the fleet to 12 boats is a very good idea. But these boats are principally strategic assets, not a jobs program. Both sides of politics insist our submarines should be built in Adelaide, but that means the first submarine won’t be operational until the mid-2030s. The first new frigate won’t be in service until around 2027.
Meanwhile, China’s maritime power is growing faster than America and its allies can match. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that between 2014 and 2018 alone, China built enough warships and auxiliaries to match the tonnage of the entire French Navy.9 Rising Chinese influence in Australia’s neighbourhood is happening now. Our defence focus should be to ensure that Southeast Asia and the Pacific can never be dominated by Chinese military power.
Australia also needs to think about the implications for defence spending if America’s role in Asia changes. It is not inevitable that the United States will want to maintain its strategic leadership in Asia indefinitely, given that the costs of doing so are rising rapidly. We now have bipartisan commitment to boost spending to 2% of GDP, but are politicians and voters prepared to spend 3% or perhaps more? That may be a question we face at the election after next.