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The cost of Defence: ASPI Defence budget brief 2024-2025

By Bec Shrimpton and et al

Australia needs to spend more on defence—and it needs to do so immediately. The strategic imperative has been firmly established in the government’s own major defence documents.

The Albanese government and the Coalition opposition agree that we are in the gravest geopolitical period in generations and this is only going to intensify.

But as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s latest Cost of Defence report finds, the rhetorical urgency is not being matched by action in the form of defence investment. The May budget is the latest demonstration of this mismatch, lacking spending for swift increases in capabilities that the Australian Defence Force would need if our region were to deteriorate quickly.

In particular, this year’s budget priorities are not directed towards strengthening the Australian Defence Force’s ability to fight in the next decade.

This is not doom-mongering; the government has acknowledged that the warning time before any conflict, which had long been set at 10 years, has shrunk to effectively zero time.

We have war in Ukraine and the Middle East, aggression and increasingly dangerous and unprofessional behaviour from China causing instability and confrontation in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait, erosions of the rule of law and revisionist agendas from authoritarians. Instability is heightened by foreign interference, economic coercion and artificial intelligence-enabled dangers such as cyber attacks and disinformation.

If war were to break out at any time in the next 10 years, our military would essentially fight with the force it has today. Based on current resourcing, nothing significant will change over the decade.

Most of the major new capabilities in the government’s defence investment blueprint are two decades away from being fully fielded. That blueprint does contain some shorter-term enhancements, but these will not be fielded until the 2030s.

The welcome $5.7 billion in new defence spending over the four-year forward estimates period is devoted to just three priorities: the AUKUS submarines, the next fleet of surface warships and investment in long-range strike, targeting and autonomous systems. But two thirds of this funding doesn’t arrive until 2027-28. The relatively impressive longer term plan leaves us vulnerable in the immediate period ahead. More money immediately is not a silver bullet, and ambition must be balanced with how much Defence can actually spend each year. But the nation’s security requires a two-pronged strategy of enhancing our existing force to meet threats within the decade while investing in long term capabilities.

Other countries are furiously pursuing new capabilities that can be put into action quickly—such as creating masses of small drones and prototyping and developing new technologies.

We talk about technology and asymmetric advantage—playing to your strengths and finding effective means to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses–yet we lack a credible pathway to bring them into operation to bolster the force we have today.

Over the longer term, the picture starts gradually to improve. The $50 billion in additional spending over the next decade is an important commitment, even if far away. The plan for a complete recapitalisation of the surface combatant fleet will eventually give us the biggest and most capable navy Australia has had since World War Two.

But, so far, we are failing to grasp the opportunity to link our traditional large platforms such as submarines and warships to more modern developments in warfare—drones and various small uncrewed and smart capabilities. AI, robotics, electronic warfare and space capabilities remain aspirational, without any pathway for inclusion and integration into a truly focused force capable of meaningful deterrence and warfighting. That is why it is so important to realise AUKUS Pillar II, which is dealing with these capabilities.

It’s easy to criticise; harder to do. All governments are grappling with tight budgets amid competing demands and the unremitting expectations of voters and taxpayers. As a nation, we need to accept the need for higher defence spending. Hoping that conflict won’t come is not a viable strategy. If we are prepared for war, we have a better chance of deterring and hence averting it.

Europe is living that lesson now, having put all hope in the judgment that global trade and economic entanglement would bring security. Now it is clear that military investment is imperative to deter war or best prepare nations for it.

The government has a vital responsibility to speak plainly to the nation about the geopolitical risks and the possibility of conflict.

We need to grasp the challenge that is in front of us today, not in three or five years’ time. Otherwise, we risk delivering on Macarthur’s famous two word warning: “The history of failure in war can almost always be summed up in two words: “Too late.” Too late in comprehending the deadly enemy. Too late in realizing the mortal danger. Too late in preparedness. Too late in uniting all possible forces for resistance.”

Why take the risk of only acting after a crisis and saying better late than never? The world in turmoil demands we act in real time to both deter crises and be best prepared for them.