Aussie Rules And The Australian Defence White Paper 2013

Two weeks ago ANZAC day was remembered in Wellington with an Aussie Rules  game at Westpac Stadium. The Sydney Swans beat the St Kilda Saints 79-63. Although Kiwis are unfamiliar with the AFL code, there was a solid turnout of more than 22,000 including many who crossed the Tasman for the game.

Few New Zealanders give any thought to the composition of AFL teams because it is not a code as popular as union or league in New Zealand. Similarly, few New Zealanders give any thought to the strategic interests of Australia in terms of regional and global security. We are not a country that engages in much realistic discussion of security issues. The military is an afterthought and certainly not a priority for any government because there are no votes in it.

Nonetheless, the release of the Australian Defence White Paper 2013 provides an interesting insight into how the Australian defence establishment views the risks to Australian national interests in the region. It also outlines how Australia invests considerable effort in developing military capability that enables it to back up diplomatic and economic credibility with strategic credibility.

One of the notable changes from the 2009 white paper is that the language around China has been toned down. That reflects the reality that Australian prosperity over the past few years has essentially been a transfer of wealth from rapid growth in China to commodity producers in Australia. In turn, capital investment and employment growth in Australia is linked to continued Chinese prosperity.

The importance of the Indian Ocean and shipping channels through Singapore and Indonesia are emphasised. The importance of Indonesia as a regional partner is stressed. They say that New Zealand will remain a key contributor to regional security in the South Pacific. However, there is little discussion of whether the engagement in Afghanistan provided good value for money in terms of Australia’s strategic interests and partnership with the United States.

The launch of the Australian Cyber Security Centre will be something to watch because it is clear that China is engaging in cyber war and it enables a country to deliver crippling blows from afar. Just think about how control of the electricity distribution network or bank ATM network could bring any country to a standstill. In New Zealand and Australia, imagine the EFTPOS network being down for longer than a few days!

Obviously the biggest difference between the Australian approach and the New Zealand approach to protecting national interests is that Australia puts its money where its mouth is. The continued support of the joint strike fighter program and plans for 12 submarines to replace the Collins class of submarines as they are retired is a clear indication that Australia is beefing up its capital expenditure and building the capability to defend its shipping lanes and support strategic partners.

When the Indian and Chinese navy are increasing the size of their submarine fleets, a strong Australian submarine fleet is a substantial counter to that change in the strategic balance of power. The US Submarine Force Pacific Fleet has a lot of submarines but far more territory to cover, so that’s definitely a major plus for countering any risk to shipping lanes. In the event of any conflict, New Zealand benefits as well because we are highly dependent on shipping lanes that Australian surface and submarine fleets will protect freedom of the seas on.

One interesting highlight was how Australia and Spain are working together on naval co-operation and LHDs, multi-role tanker aircraft and the Air Warfare Destroyers which will provide the capability for Australia to protect an amphibious assault group of ships in conjunction with a submarine through integrated systems.

The acquisition of 12 Boeing EA-18G “Growlers” is an exciting enhancement of Australia’s air power. When they have taken deliver of their Joint Strike Fighters they will be able to project a lot of power over their “Northern approaches”. But technology isn’t everything. The White Paper makes it perfectly clear that solid intelligence is a major force multiplier for Australia.

That makes sense – if Australia gets its intelligence assessments wrong and miscalculates what sort of “future force” requirements it needs there are clear risks in the event of any major regional instability. At this point some discussion of the GCSB being tasked to assist Police must be criticised – the proper role of the GCSB is in assisting our intelligence gathering partners to make sure there are no repeats of the intelligence failure in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

New Zealand needs to acknowledge that as the ANZAC class of frigates are retired, and the inability of the RNZN to maintain high operational tempo through “days at sea”, our ability to contribute to naval operations in support of Australia is significantly reduced. There is no need to go crazy and obtain a class of vessels like the Air Warfare Destroyers but a new class of frigates that can meet days at sea requirements in an age where NZDF employment is not that popular is a no brainer.

Because of New Zealand’s large EEZ and really long airframe life on the P-3 Orions which have been extended far beyond what they were originally intended, we should take note that the Australians are moving to the P-8A Poseidon. They can operate in conjunction with maritime surveillance drones which extends their range even further. There is merit in maritime surveillance aircraft, and Australia is taking steps to ensure that it has a firm grasp on what is happening within their EEZ.

What I think is the most important part of the white paper is the discussion around people and the labour market. When the economy of Australia gets to join the rest of the world in Great Depression 2.0 it will find that a lot of the mining and construction sector employment could find ADF life a good compromise. There is clearly a major pay and benefit differential between the New Zealand and Australian militaries, but the Australians have a completely different attitude towards protecting their national interests. This is reflected in things like retention bonuses for submariners and bonded periods of service for skilled technicians to prevent them from going to the mines without “giving back” the taxpayer’s investment in their skills.

It is disappointing to learn that a 4th Air Warfare Destroyer is unlikely, but that increases the possibility that any lighter frigate class project in 5-10 years time will be open for New Zealand to hook into as the ANZAC frigates move towards the end of their useful life.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it is likely that there will be no New Zealand media coverage of something as important as the strategic and defence ideas of our closest partner. Perhaps tellingly, we were behind the United States and South Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in the “partners” section.

Making the effort to understand how Australia is thinking about its long-term strategic interests in what it calls the “Indo-Pacific” is something solid thinkers should do. It flows through to our trade relationships, how we should think about shipping channel risk in the event of any global or regional flareups and inform our resolve to ensure that our intelligence capabilities are not wasted on copyright violations and instead deployed in a way that enables us to maintain our free riding on other countries “hard power” investment.

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