Desert khaki reminds us political expediency ought never be sought from those who serve


From the Victorian Liberal Magazine

The biggest threat to our country today comes from what the Gillard Government isn’t doing, writes Alan Tudge – presiding over the ‘terminal decline’ of our defence forces.

Perhaps the finest hour of Australia’s defence forces was their defence of this continent against the axis of dictators intent on destroying liberty and democracy in our world seventy years ago.

But many of our heroes went to fight in the verdant forest of Papua and other islands in desert khaki, because there were no other uniforms for them.

I’m sure they compensated with customary bravery. But the image of these men, many of whom laid down their lives for us, moving through the rainforest as conspicuous targets for the bullets of the forces of tyranny, comes to me when I consider defence spending.

In defence policy, the thing that matters is our capabilities. Our nation needs to have a complete, integrated set of defence capabilities that is able to meet any foreseeable threat.

The Howard Government sought to achieve this by setting up a long-term plan for the ADF and promising and delivering long-term funding. Labor promised to continue this pathway, but in government has done the opposite. It has slashed our defence budget, deferred the purchase of planned military items and weakened our resolve.

Our defence budget has been reduced to a level unmatched since the 1930s, falling to below 1.6 per cent of GDP. As retired Major General Jim Molan has said, the Labor cuts have resulted in our ADF being in “terminal decline” and seen a gap exposed between strategic rhetoric and real world capability.

Labor’s creation of gaps in our defence capabilities and equipment creates three dangers.

First, it exposes our forces to unacceptable risks in a conflict. Second, it might render the combined defence effort ineffective. Third, it sends the message we are not serious about national security and says to our allies we are not pulling our weight.

One of the most serious capability gaps is the period when Australia will not have a single working submarine in its fleet. Another is the cancelling of the acquisition of self-propelled howitzers. These modern guns have a range nearly double that of towed guns and therefore provide greater troop safety and effectiveness.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has attempted to deflect the criticism by referring to capabilities that are provided for, such as helicopter ship-to-shore capability. But it is the integrated totality that matters. Smith’s astonishing claim that the “cuts that we have made in our defence program continue to protect our long term capability” is Orwellian newspeak.

The government’s cuts are politically motivated. Having broken so many other promises, the Gillard Government is pinning its last hopes of surviving the next election on delivering a miniscule budget surplus, and defence is the easiest target for cuts.

The Gillard Government is moving more of the responsibility for our region’s security onto the United States because it is prioritising its domestic social agenda ahead of our national security. The government is taking a free ride on the US.

All the more galling is the government’s references to American defence policy when it tries to justify its debilitating cuts.

True, the US has made some cuts. But these cuts are made from a very high level – 4.8 per cent of GDP. Most importantly, US policy leaves its country’s integrated strategic capabilities intact, including its capabilities to come to our aid if required. And surely if our most important ally is retreating at all on its military efforts, then it should be an argument for us to do more, not less, in defence.

The correct point of reference is not insignificant cuts to the US defence budget, but increased military expenditure by neighbouring Asian powers. It is not credible that we need to make drastic cuts to our defence in the middle of a commodities boom.

Labor’s view of the world is that the government should be at the centre of the economy, growing our welfare state, regulating our speech and controlling our behaviour.

In fact, the single most important role of the Federal Government is the security of our nation. Labor’s massive cut to defence is not just another broken promise, but is its most serious abrogation of its responsibilities in governing our country

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