The Cost of Defence. ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2019 - 2020
One hundred & five million, eight hundred & fifty-three thousand, five hundred & seventy-three dollars & seventy-seven cents per day.
Little has changed in the defence funding picture since last year. This year’s budget continues to follow the trajectory of solid real annual increases set out in the 2016 Defence White Paper. The consolidated defence budget (that is, the budget for the Department of Defence and the Australian Signals Directorate) reaches $38.7 billion in 2019–20. Real growth is only 1.3%—the smallest increase under the Coalition government—and the budget has actually decreased slightly as a percentage of GDP (from 1.94% to 1.93%) because GDP has grown faster than the defence budget.
But those figures are a little misleading. Late in the previous financial year, $620 million was moved forward into 2018–19 from 2019–20, making the former a little bigger and the latter a little smaller than planned. If that hadn’t occurred, real growth would have been 4.6% and the budget would have been 1.96% of GDP. Ultimately, it makes no real difference to Defence which year it gets the money—it got it and has already spent it.
The real story is that the government so far has delivered on its White Paper funding commitments. The White Paper presented a 10-year fixed funding line that would not vary as GDP fluctuated up and down. We’re now four years into that decade. Once we take all variations into account (such as adjustments due to foreign exchange rates and supplementation for operations), the $143.2 billion in funding Defence has received over those four years is within 1% of the White Paper funding line. Granted, Defence has had to fit more things into that envelope; it doesn’t seem to have received additional funding to cover its contribution to the Pacific Step-up announced by the government last year, for example. But it’s rare that Defence has had such funding certainty.
The other key issue to note is that the defence budget, at least for planning purposes, has already moved well beyond 2% of GDP. According to the Portfolio Budget Statements (PBS), the budget will hit that milestone in 2020–21, meeting the government’s White Paper commitment. But after that the budget continues to grow, hitting almost 2.2% by the end of the forward estimates. In essence, the White Paper funding line and a 2% of GDP funding line diverge significantly. The difference is substantial, reaching $5 billion a year and totalling over $22 billion for the remainder of the decade after 2020–21. That gap is even bigger if GDP fails to grow at 2¾% or at 3% from 2021-22 as forecast in the budget papers.
During the 2019 election campaign, the government reaffirmed its commitment to restoring the budget to 2% of GDP, but it was silent on whether it was committed to the White Paper funding line. The forward estimates figures in the PBS suggest it is. But if it isn’t, Defence will have a major headache, as any move back towards 2% will entail large reductions and deferrals to planned capability.
Much of the increased funding is planned to flow into capital acquisitions. Indeed, for Defence to have any chance of delivering the significantly larger and more capable—and therefore significantly more expensive—future force outlined in the White Paper, that must happen. On paper, the capital budget grows very strongly, hitting 39% of the total budget by the end of the forward estimates. According to the White Paper’s funding model, it stays there for the rest of the White Paper decade. That would deliver a massive increase in which the capital budget alone reaches $19 billion by the end of the forward estimates and nearly $23 billion by the end of the decade. Since 2013–14, when the Coalition came to power, that’s real growth of 155% and 185%.
Will it happen? Prognostication is a risky art, but there are a few reasons to be cautious about counting chickens. There are some heroic annual leaps built into the capital budget in the forward estimates, for example, of 19% in real terms in 2020-21 and 15.5% 2021-22. Yet it can be hard to spend money. We noted last year that Defence was underspending against the White Paper’s capital predictions, and that trend has continued. The shortfall now totals over $5 billion since the White Paper, and probably only a third of that at most is due to foreign exchange adjustments.
Despite a rapid increase in capital as a percentage of the total defence budget early in the Coalition’s term, since the White Paper it’s hovered stubbornly around 30%. It is, however, difficult to assess the precise situation as neither the Defence PBS nor the annual report give data on actual achievement in the capital and sustainment programs. Rectifying this information gap should be straightforward and would strengthen transparency.
Moreover, as Defence increases capital spending, it is likely to need to increase sustainment spending in order to use the new equipment as well as personnel spending in order to crew it. We also noted last year that sustainment spending was exceeding predictions by roughly the same amount that capital was underspending. That trend has continued this year.
The rise in operating costs can been seen in the increase in the Chief Information Officer Group’s suppliers budget. This covers much of the cost of running the ICT backbone that allows the networked force to function. It’s an enabler that’s absolutely vital to capability. Since 2008–09, it’s grown by 148% in real terms while the Defence budget has only grown by 36%. It’s not just the cost of capital acquisitions that’s rising much faster than inflation.
The personnel picture also suggests there are some deep challenges in the plan. The White Paper put the ADF on a trajectory from 58,000 personnel to 62,400. That’s only an 8% increase to cover the constantly increasing complexity of the Defence organisation and its component parts. Nevertheless, the ADF hasn’t been able to achieve even the modest White Paper increases. Overall, it’s only increased by 600 actual people against a target of around 1,730 over the period since the White Paper. If increasing capital spending quickly is hard, increasing ADF numbers seems even harder. It looks like that is starting to hurt—HMAS Perth will be up on blocks for two years after its latest upgrade for want of a crew.
In short, there may well be structural factors that will hinder Defence in achieving the capital spending predicted in the PBS and White Paper. Sustaining capital spending at around 40% of the total budget might just not be achievable.
It’s possible that the lack of any updates to the Integrated Investment Plan (IIP) since the White Paper was released in early 2016 is due to Defence and the government grappling with the eternal problem of how to make everything fit the funding envelope. Rather than silence, there needs to be a better conversation between government, Defence, industry and the public. Rather than depicting the IIP as carved in stone, all stakeholders need to regard it as a living organism that evolves in response to and in anticipation of new circumstances and requirements. If there are now major pressures on and in the IIP, then the government has to make some big decisions on how to manage them.
And in our strategic environment, with our system of government, some transparency and informed public debate would be in order.
The substantial investment the government is making is delivering greatly enhanced capability across all of Defence’s capability streams. Underneath the headlines about heavy investment in locally assembled protected and armoured vehicles, the digitisation of the Army (often referred to as its highest priority) continues, as do enhancements to soldier systems. The delivery of key air capabilities such as P-8A maritime patrol aircraft and trainers is nearing completion. The Air Force still has some way to go to get the Reaper and Triton unmanned aerial systems into service. And Defence is in something of a golden age of infrastructure investment. Also, the upgrades necessary to keep the Anzac-class frigates and Collins-class submarines a relevant capability for many years during the long transition to the future fleet are being delivered.
The other key capability transition from the classic Hornet to the F-35A has entered a critical phase. While the first F-35A aircraft have arrived in Australia and supporting infrastructure has been delivered, the fleet’s flying hours will need to increase nearly sixfold over the next four years to achieve final operating capability. As with every other platform, the increase in capability delivered by the new air combat fleet will come at significantly greater cost, particularly if the F-35A hourly flight cost continues to be twice the classic Hornet’s.
This year in Chapter 5 we provide an update on progress in the Naval Shipbuilding Plan (NSP), which is at the core of the investment program and the government’s Defence Industry Policy. In many regards, the NSP has made great progress. The Arafura-class offshore patrol vessel has started construction on schedule. In the past year, BAE’s Type 26 was selected as the design for the Hunter-class future frigate. Importantly, the revised commercial strategy under which ASC Shipbuilding become a subsidiary of BAE has been implemented, and a head contract for the frigate program has been signed in an astonishingly short time.
In contrast, the Future Submarine Program delivering the Attack-class submarines took nearly three years to sign its head contract, which is the strategic partnering agreement. But it’s done now, and Defence has repeatedly stated that the long negotiations over the agreement haven’t affected schedule.
Progress continues on underpinning programmatic elements of the shipbuilding enterprise. Development of the Osborne South surface shipyard should be completed in time to start prototyping of frigate blocks in 2020. Work has commenced on the submarine yard, though its mainly still in the design phase. The development of the necessary workforce was always one of the greatest risks and that hasn’t changed. Nevertheless, several measures to address this risk are underway, including the start of the Naval Shipbuilding College (which in reality has more of a coordination function than an instruction-delivery function) and the release of the Naval shipbuilding strategic workforce discussion paper to inform development of a shipbuilding workforce strategy. While the number of skilled workers required may sound large and some skills in short supply, it’s small compared to both Adelaide’s and Australia’s workforce. This means that the challenge is not insoluble, but also that the supply of shipbuilding workforce will always be exposed to changing demands for workers in the broader economy.
But as the schedule for the future frigates and submarines becomes clearer, we can see that we won’t get the first of the frigates into service until around 2030. All going well, the first submarine won’t be in service until 2034 or 2035, despite a conservative design philosophy based on using only currently mature technologies. Even if they deliver the planned capability, that’s a long time to wait.
Moreover, the annual cash flow for the NSP is ramping up quickly. It passes $2 billion this year even though the two biggest programs (frigates and submarines) don’t start construction for several more years. Last year, we predicted that the annual cash flow for the NSP would reach $3.5–4 billion; that’s looking increasingly certain. We also predicted that Defence will have spent over $20 billion before the first frigate and submarine become operational. That’s looking conservative.
Meanwhile, as we review in Chapter 1, Australia’s strategic circumstances are increasingly uncertain as China’s power grows along with its willingness to use that power outside of the rules-based global order. US military power is increasingly stretched, and that can’t be rectified through greater spending. So far, the government hasn’t signalled any substantial changes either to the military strategy of the White Paper or its force structure, but it’s likely we’ll need to become more self-reliant, at least in some areas of military capability. That probably can’t wait until the 2030s.
The ships being delivered by the NSP will enter an operating environment characterised by proliferating threats, such as cheap anti-ship cruise missiles and potentially hypersonic missiles as well as a more congested undersea domain. While modern warships are designed to defeat a range of threats, this has meant they have become exquisitely expensive, so much so that they can only be acquired in small numbers. The value-for-money calculus doesn’t favour billion-dollar manned platforms that are too valuable to risk losing.
The capability we need in the future could be enabled by another fundamental development reshaping the world: the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ (4IR). The key elements of the 4IR include autonomous systems, artificial intelligence (AI), more accessible space resources, and 3D printing. While these have the potential to ‘democratise’ technology by increasing the threat posed by non-state actors, they could help militaries to break out of the vicious cycle of increasingly complex but increasingly expensive manned platforms.
Chapter 6 suggests ways to hedge in the development of our future naval capability. The key is to devote more resources to autonomous systems. Even the US Navy, the world’s largest, seems to have realised that this is the only viable way to deliver greater mass and is making significant investments in unmanned platforms that will complement manned vessels. The ADF needs to do the same to compensate for its lack of mass, to get new capability sooner, and perhaps most importantly to remove humans from an increasingly lethal battlespace. Moreover, the technologies in fields such as AI can be integrated into legacy platforms to enhance their effectiveness. Australian industry and academia are well placed to contribute to this—perhaps even better placed to do so than export large finished platforms.
Of course, it will require investment, but it needs to be done. Currently, less than 1% of Defence’s budget goes into its innovation funds. That must be increased, and in a way that connects innovation to the large, well-funded programs in the IIP. But just as important is imagination and a willingness to pursue the disruptive potential of new technologies so they aren’t dismissed out of hand as poor substitutes for traditional platforms.
Chapter 7 briefly considers the way forward after the election. ASPI recently published Agenda for change 2019: strategic choices for the next government, which proposes policy recommendations for the new government in the areas of strategy, defence and security. Rather than duplicate them here, we refer readers to that document. However, there’s no doubt that the world has changed fundamentally since the 2016 White Paper. There’s no point investing billions in military capability if it doesn’t support Australia’s political or military strategy. It’s time for a new Defence White Paper so that the government can assure itself that the strategic triumvirate of ends, ways and means are properly aligned to preserve Australia’s security.
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05 Jun 2019