One order of LHDs—would you like other government services with that?
27 Nov 2013|

Consolidation of the Superstructure and the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) 01 Hull is well underway, All four blocks (811, 820, 830 and 841) have now been lifted onto the Hull. This is the first of two new amphibious ships that will be delivered to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the coming years. It’s my fault. I should have known better, really. I foolishly issued a challenge asking those who insist we need an amphibious capability to make their case—and Peter Dean quickly did.

The essential point is pretty obvious. The essence of Australia’s strategic geography is revealed by a glance at an atlas. Although we have no land borders, islands surround us. Odds are that, at some point, we’ll need to interact with these in one way or another. This means there will almost certainly be a requirement for some form of amphibious capability—this point isn’t in doubt.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t bicker, very substantially, about the missions we need to perform or the way they’ll be conducted. These issues both revolve around the equipment we purchase to do the job. And this, in turn, leads inevitably on to the central issue confronting defence planners: how much money should we spend? This is the point at which the engaged citizen re-enters the debate. Why should my tax dollars be spent on something unless I’m persuaded of the need?

Thomas Lonergan emphasises that we shouldn’t get too hung up about the specific platforms that provide the wherewithal to do what’s required. Nevertheless he does then go on (at some length) to emphasise exactly how and why the new LHD platforms “will allow Australia to develop a true amphibious capability”. I don’t doubt this and whilst (like Hugh White) I may suspect there are other significant advantages with the purchase of smaller amphibious vessels, made in Australia for our requirements, I’m happy to leave this to others.

So there’s no way I’m going to try to argue about the details of operational techniques or the specifics of the ships. Besides, the government’s already bought the two LHDs that are currently being constructed in Spain. The political reality is that these are the vessels we’re going to have for the next couple of decades.

The trouble is, though, that other people can make equally convincing arguments about a whole load of other capabilities as well. Those airpower people, for example, point out that missiles are much cheaper than LHDs and, in a real war, unless you can control the airspace over the fleet you’re going to have significant problems. With their silky voices they whisper that although Air Warfare Destroyers provide some protection, the attacker only needs to get lucky once.

Of course, in order to dominate the airspace we also need to invest considerably in enablers, such as electronic warfare aircraft and cutting-edge ground-based radar. A fleet of transport aircraft provide another sine qua non, particularly if we’re going to be operating in the adjacent archipelago.

Meanwhile the sub-surface warriors proclaim they’ve got a costly submarine fleet we can’t possibly do without. And we haven’t even looked at the Army yet. As they say, ‘a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money’. The budgetary imperatives are looking a bit tight.

And that’s the real point of my earlier post. There’s absolutely no doubt that the amphibious capacity as recently outlined would be fantastic. Once it’s operational it will certainly be used. But the key thing to remember is that every dollar that is put into the amphibious fleet is a buck that can’t be spent elsewhere.

These articles have been posted under the heading, ‘Policy, Guns & Money’. This is the salient point and two recent Press Club lunches emphasise why. Last Tuesday, for example, a bacteriologist from the 3M Corporation emphasised the dangers of pandemics.

Tony Abbott was responsible, when he was Health Minister, for purchasing significant supplies of protective equipment. Emergency personnel would require these if we suddenly faced an epidemic. Unfortunately, much of this is now ending its serviceable life. There’s an urgent need to boost stocks. Expenses such as this are considerably less than the maintenance of an amphibious capacity, but try telling the public we need one more than the other.

Then, the next day, Mitch Fifield stood behind the lectern. As Disability Minister, he’s responsible for the introduction of the National Insurance Disability Scheme. He’s personally committed to it as well. But, since taking over government, Fifield’s come to realise there isn’t going to be enough money to fund the scheme because the estimates were wildly out. The current projections have the scheme costing nearly as much as Defence once it’s fully rolled-out by the year 2017/18. There just isn’t enough money to go round.

This is the background to the current debate—not how marvelous the amphibious fleet is going to be. Lonergan suggests more needs to be done to inform and educate academia and media about amphibious capability and manoeuvre. Similarly, disability advocates insist that journalists need to explain the details of their scheme. Both are convinced that if we just understood how good their proposals are, we’ll find the money to fund it.

Defence spending is currently at its lowest share of GDP since 1938. Under Kevin Rudd the government’s tax-take was as low as it has been since the ‘60’s. There’s plenty of room to boost funding so we can afford extra capacity. Nevertheless, it won’t be enough to simply ‘educate’ people. They’ll have to be convinced to part with their money as well.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.