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The myth of the Howard Government's defence competence
This piece by Webdiarist James Sinnamon was originally published in Online Opinion on 21 November 2007.
The myth of the Howard government's defence competence
by James Sinnamon
The same opinion polls which predict that John Howard will lose the election on 24 November, nevertheless, also consistently show that Australians still perceive his Government to be competent at handling Australia's defence, or at least more capable than the Labor Opposition. The figures given in the 23 October NewsPoll were 43 per cent to 39 per cent in Howard's favour.
However, this perception is not borne out by the evidence. Although Australia was once governed by leaders who capably managed our defence, this is no longer the case.
Andrew Ross's meticulously researched book Armed and Ready published in 1995 conclusively shows, contrary to the widely promoted myth, that Australia was ready to face a Japanese invasion in 1942 thanks to the visionary work of a number of far-sighted politicians, both conservative and Labor, public servants and industrialists. Since the 1920's they worked hard to make Australia capable of defending itself without any need for the supply of military equipment from elsewhere as had been the case in the First World War. The policy goal was to become known as "self containment".
As a consequence, after war was declared in Europe in September 1939, Australia was able to rapidly convert its peace-time economy so that by June 1942, which is the earliest date before which Japan could possibly have launched an invasion, Australia had eight fully equipped Army divisions and an air force that was at least capable of denying them total air supremacy. Supplies for this defending force would have been maintained by one of the world's most advanced industrialised economies of the time using local raw materials. What little Australia could not have supplied itself could have been obtained from overseas as the invading Japanese would not have been able to maintain an effective naval blockade without having first captured a port the size of Sydney or Melbourne.
Short of the United States reaching a separate peace with Japan, there was no realistic prospect that an invasion could have succeeded. It is for this reason that the Japanese Army vetoed a plan by the Japanese Navy to invade Australia before the US victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea in March 1942.
After the Japanese advance was stopped Australia played the major role until 1943 supplying the manpower and military hardware which drove back the Japanese on land. Of Australia's contribution to the Allied war effort, US President Truman was to say in 1946:
"On balance, the contribution made by Australia, a country having a population of about seven millions, approximately equalled the United States". (Report to congress on Lend Lease, 27 Dec 1946, cited in Armed and Ready)
Moving forward 65 years to 2007, how does the Howard Government's record stand against the proud record of its ideological predecessors?
Informed Australians understand that in the broader sense of looking after Australia's defence needs by pre-empting likely causes of armed conflict, the Howard Government is a dismal failure. Its role in starting the Iraq war, having previously allowed AU$296 (all dollar figures are Australian dollars unless stated otherwise stated) in bribes to be paid to the regime of Saddam Hussein, has undoubtedly made the world a more dangerous place and raised Australia's own profile in the eyes of terrorist organisations. Furthermore, John Howard's sabotage of international efforts to confront the problem of global warming has exacerbated a threat which even the Pentagon considers greater than that of terrorism.
However, many Australians may be surprised to also learn that the militarily aggressive Howard Government has, paradoxically, been no more competent in safeguarding Australia's security even in the more narrow sense of managing its defence forces.
This has been shown categorically in the groundbreaking book National Insecurity - The Howard Government's betrayal of Australia published earlier this year and, more recently by the Four Corners documentary Flying Blind, which screened on Australian TV on October 29.
F111 and air supremacy
Flying Blind showed how Prime Minister Howard and his Defence Minister Brendan Nelson have scandalously mismanaged the procurement of replacements for Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) ageing, but still capable, fleet of F111 fighter bombers.
The F111's are due to be replaced by the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), but the original decision to purchase the JSF was made counter to all well-established defence force equipment procurement procedures. In June 2002 during a visit to the US, aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin made a presentation to the Prime Minister in his hotel room. During the presentation John Howard suddenly agreed to purchase the fighter that was still on the drawing board at a projected cost of $16 billion. According to National Insecurity, he agreed so quickly that even senior Lockheed Martin executives were 'flabbergasted'. "That was just amazing, it stopped everything in the room at the time", said Lockheed's international programs director for the JSF, Mike Consentino, about Australia's surprise announcement. "This was our first international customer so it was a memorable day".
The JSF, however, may not be ready until 2018, and it appeared that the service lives of the F111's and FA18 Hornets were to have been extended with modifications and the use of an abundant supply of cheap spare parts.
This ran counter to the plans of another aircraft manufacturer Boeing, who had seen an opportunity to sell its Super Hornet, for which it was having difficulty finding customers.
At first, the Air Force was not interested in the Super Hornet, but after an F111 wing had cracked during a maintenance test, the new Defence Minister Brendan Nelson seized upon this to convince Cabinet that the Super Hornet was necessary, at a cost of $6.6 billion. It was subsequently found that the crack in the F111 wing had only been caused as a result of a fault in the test design. Professor Hugh White (Deputy Secretary of Defence, 1995-2000) told Four Corners that he could not "recall in Australia decisions of this magnitude ... being made so quickly on such a slender basis of advice".
The Hornet is markedly inferior to its likely adversaries in the region which would include the new Russian built Sukhoi 30's with which the air forces of Indonesia, Malaysia, China and India are soon to be equipped. Retired Air Vice Marshall Peter Criss said to Four Corners, "I cannot believe that we would waste $6.6 billion of the taxpayer's money on an aeroplane that has no practical use against any modern, new generation fighter coming into our arc of interest to our north".
As a consequence of these decisions, Australia stands to lose the regional air supremacy that allowed it to safeguard the independence of East Timor from Indonesia in 1999.
The decisions to buy the JSF and the Super Hornet are not the only questionable defence equipment procurement decisions made by the Howard Government in recent years. Others include:
The M1 Abrams tank
In 2004 Australia agreed at a cost of $539 million to purchase 59 second-hand Abrams M1A1 main battle tanks to replace Australia's current fleet of 100 German-built Leopard tanks purchased by the Whitlam Government in 1974. Due to the necessity having US contractors service the Abrams, rather than domestic contractors, only around 30 are expected to be operational at any one time. In contrast to the life expectancy of the Leopard, which have so far been operational for 25 years, they are expected to last only 10 years.
The Abrams is too heavy for use on Australian bridges and roads. It cannot be airlifted by any of the ADF's transport planes and cannot even be loaded onto any of the Navy's six heavy landing craft, let alone its smaller LCM8 landing craft, so they are entirely unsuited to the defence of the Australian continent and could only conceivably be used as part of joint combat operations with the US.
The Abrams' reputation for indestructibility has been laid to rest by the experience of Iraq where its armour has been penetrated with surprising ease by low-tech bombs and rocket propelled grenades used by Iraqi insurgents. At least 80 have so far been destroyed.
The Collins class submarine combat system
In 2001 the tendering rules for the contract to supply a combat system for the Collins class submarine were changed to make the prime criterion 'interoperability' with the US.
Additionally, in a number of smaller acquisitions, domestic Australian suppliers have been systematically discriminated against.
The Government refused the Army's request to purchase the Australian manufactured Aerosonde Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) used successfully for surveillance in the Solomons in July 2003. Instead of purchasing this proven and relatively cheap technology, the Government opened a tendering process for the supply of a more expensive high-tech version, then cut short the tendering process, instead opting only to field test two systems - both from the US.
According to a report "Auditor lashes $2.1bn frigate upgrade" in The Australian newspaper of 1 Nov 2007, the privatisation of the Australian Defence Industries in 1999 appears to have led to a delay, so far, of four and a half years in the upgrade of six frigates and a $275 million cost blowout. In spite of the blowout, the navy will only be getting four frigate upgrades instead of six. Other projects which have incurred cost blowouts include the navy's Seasprite helicopter, the army's M113 personnel carrier upgrade, the RAAF's Wedgetail surveillance planes and the Tiger reconaissance helicopter. Total cost blowouts for Australia's Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) are running at $13 billion according to Labor's defence spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon.
An earlier and tragic consequence of outsourcing of defence force responsibilities to private companies was the HMAS Westralia disaster in 1998 in which four sailors were killed in a fire caused by the faulty installation of hoses by poorly trained private contractors.
Australian taxpayers have also yet to learn the costs of the Howard Government's propensity to sell defence force buildings, including housing for defence personnel, to private investors and then to lease them back.
These decisions show a record that compares very unfavourably to that of those previous governments which led the country prior to, and during, the Second World War.
The corporate newsmedia such as Rupert Murdoch's News Limited does nothing to make this fact apparent to its readership. As an example, the scandalous mismanagement of the procurement of the replacement for the F111 reported by Four Corners was not pursued by News Limited or any other of the newsmedia. Instead, it repeatedly reports without comment, NewsPoll results favourable to the Howard Government in this area.
In past elections this perception has helped unravel Labor's election winning lead and even at this late stage a recurrence of this cannot be entirely ruled out. If, as a result, Howard should win a fifth term of office, then the health of Australia's democracy will have been shown, once again, to have been wanting.
This article is largely based upon the following resources:
Linda Weiss, Elizabeth Thurbon and John Mathews, National Insecurity - The Howard Government's betrayal of Australia, 2007, Allen and Unwin, pages 133-173.
The Four Corners episode "Flying Blind", which screened on ABC Television on 29 October, 2007. The transcript is available at: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2007/s2073943.htm.
Andrew T Ross, Armed and Ready - The Industrial Development and Defence of Australia 1900-1945, 1995, Turton and Armstrong.