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Friday, 20 March 1987
Page: 1231

Mr BALDWIN(11.44) —This information paper titled `The Defence of Australia' which was released by the Government represents the Government's effort to give a degree of coherency and rationality to Australia's defence strategy, which has been sorely lacking until now. It also involves a recognition that, in putting together a defence force, there has to be acknowledgment that we have a finite Budget constraint and that one cannot simply go on acquiring a wish list of the service chiefs, including highly sophisticated weapon systems that would be usable only in relatively unlikely scenarios. We have to address the actual strategic circumstances that we face to look at the probable threats that may emerge realistically in the short term and also to have an appropriate expansion base to deal with more fundamental threats that may emerge in the long term.

The recognition of Budget constraint is something which is singularly lacking from Opposition pronouncements on defence policy. Over the years we have seen emanating from the Opposition proposals for things such as nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. No clear account is given of how these assets might be utilised as part of Australia's defence strategy, but that does not seem to have particularly concerned the people involved. Even today, as we heard in the speech of the Leader of the National Party of Australia, the right honour- able member for New England (Mr Sinclair), this syndrome of wanting to acquire all sorts of expensive toys, irrespective of their cost and irrespective of the effect on the balance of payments, has obviously not diminished. We heard the honourable member talking about the fact that we need to get airborne early warning and control aircraft in order to supplement the over the horizon radar systems which are being developed.

It is obvious that the acquisition of such aircraft would enhance Australia's ability to carry out surveillance and to detect and target ships and aircraft in our sea-air approaches from the north. That has to be weighed against the enormous cost involved in such an acquisition. An airborne warning and control plane would involve an outlay of the order of $500m. Given our Budget constraints and given that that expenditure would overwhelmingly be going overseas, such a decision would have to be looked at with extreme care. The Government has committed itself to look very carefully at the need for and the possibility of acquiring AEW and C aircraft. The Leader of the National Party complains that a firm commitment is not given in that regard. He is obviously not worried about the Budget constraint at all, despite the Opposition's constant calls for deep cuts in government expenditure. That apparently does not apply to defence items.

As a result of a lack of any coherent defence strategy we have continued to see over the years a number of glaring and major deficiencies in our Defence Force's capability to deal with credible, realistic contingencies that may arise in the short term. The one that is referred to in both the Dibb Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities and the White Paper is the question of mine countermeasures. At present we lack any significant mine countermeasures capability. That is a deficiency which has been recognised for some time. The Auditor-General reported unfavourably on that state of affairs. Somehow it has never been remedied over a protracted period. The key reason for that is the emphasis being given to acquisition of major surface warships. Obviously in that we have had speculation about aircraft carriers and also the actual acquisition of other major surface warships. We have seen a neglect or a lack of priority being given to the question of mine countermeasures. We now have the absurd situation in which a potential adversary which wanted to carry out a campaign of economic disruption against Australia could easily close off a number of our major mineral exporting ports. Port Hedland is one that comes to mind. It is quite probable that the sinking of a major bulk ore carrier at a key point in that port could well close off that port for a considerable period, which would have great significance in terms of Australia's mineral exports. Also a large part of these enormously expensive assets that have been acquired over the years, such as naval surface ship assets, could be immobilised by a well directed mining campaign. That is obviously crazy. We have had an attempt to address long term contingencies but a failure to look properly at things which could happen in the very short term and which are consistent with the capacities of regional powers now.

Another aspect of the lack of coherency in defence thinking is the lack of attention, for example, to mobility. If Australia is to defend adequately its vast land area, so far as its land forces are concerned mobility, range and endurance are key factors. How do we fit the Leopard tanks, these very heavy, non-air portable items, into such a strategy? It does not really seem to have been thought through. Both the Dibb report and the White Paper seem to favour a degree of de-emphasis on that, treating the armoured forces as part of an expansion base and partly incorporating them into the reserve forces. It seems that over the years no proper thought has been given to how those very expensive items might be effectively deployed. There is no doubt that both the Dibb report and this White Paper represent a major step forward in terms of Government thinking on how to spend money intelligently and wisely in the defence field, and as such obviously that is to be welcomed.

I turn to the discussion of the strategy of denial that is set out by Dibb and the succour that the Leader of the National Party seems to have derived from what he sees as a rejection of that overall general approach in the White Paper. I think there are a number of misconceptions on the part of the Opposition. It is perhaps worth going to exactly what Dibb said about a strategy of denial and what that would imply in terms of Australian force structure and capabilities. I quote from the Dibb report on page 50:

A strategy of denial would be essentially a defensive policy. The distant projection of military power would have low priority. Rather, such a strategy would seek to deny any putative enemy successful military operations in the sea and air gap surrounding Australia, and to prevent any successful landing of significant forces on Australian soil. To the extent that lesser enemy forces might land, it would aim to protect our vital population settlements and infrastructure and deny the enemy any prolonged operations on our territory.

On the following page the report goes on to state what that implies for the sort of defence force that we would need to acquire. Under the heading `A layered defence' it mentions the various layers that would be required. Firstly, there would be a need for high quality and comprehensive intelligence about military developments in our region, as well as surveillance capabilities. That hopefully would preclude the possibility of surprise attack. Secondly, it mentions the need for Australia's air and naval forces to have the capacity to destroy enemy forces, at credible levels of threat, in the sea and air gap. This is said to be a priority requirement. It goes on to envisage the possibility that for higher levels of conflict it may be necessary to have forces capable of striking at an adversary's bases and interdicting his lines of supply. It then states:

Third, closer to our shores, defensive capabilities are required to prevent enemy military operations in our focal areas or shipping lanes . . . These might include surface ships, mine countermeasures capabilities, air defence assets, and mobile land forces capable of being deployed rapidly and pre-emptively. Fourth, if a landing on Australian soil should occur we would need ground forces capable of denying the enemy our vital population centres and military infrastructure.

In the following paragraph it states:

A concept of denial involves recognising that long-range power projection must be considered in a rather more circumscribed way than has been traditionally the Australian view.

I submit that that basic overall concept is essentially reflected in the Government's White Paper. We do not see a specific reference to a strategy of denial. We do see a reference to layered defence and defence in depth. However, as the quotations I have just given from the Dibb report indicate, the concept of layered defence is integral to that report. While we might have some change in terminology, the substance of what is put forward in the Dibb report in terms of Australia's Defence Force structuring capabilities remains essentially intact in the White Paper.

The White Paper envisages that the need to operate jointly with the forces of another country and outside our area of direct military interest ought not to be a determining factor in setting the shape of our Defence Force structure. That is the essential point. Whether we use the term `strategy of denial' or whether we talk about layered defence or defence in depth, the key issue is: What considerations will determine our Defence Force structure? Both the Dibb report and the White Paper envisage the possibility of Australian forces operating jointly. Both imply that that should not be the determining factor but that the key factor should be our ability to operate and interdict in the sea-air gap, to carry out proper surveillance intelligence further afield and to carry out military operations by highly mobile land forces in order to defend the Australian mainland should a hostile force be lodged. Quite frankly, I welcome that development. I am not one of those who are terribly enamoured of our participation in an alliance relationship with the United States of America. I recognise that that is a minority opinion within the Government at present but it is certainly my personal view. I welcome any development which tends to place greater emphasis on what I regard as our legitimate defence interests-protecting the Australian mainland, protecting the sea-air approaches and being properly informed about developments in the region that may have some strategic significance.

Another criticism that has been made about the Dibb report-I suppose that some would also make it about this report-concerns the question of warning time. We see a reference to the possibility of threats emerging unexpectedly and the implication that Dibb has been naive in not acknowledging the seriousness of Soviet penetration in the region and so forth. I think the stuff about Soviet penetration in the region is grossly overblown. We talk about Cam Ranh Bay and the capabilities of the aircraft there-obsolete Badger bombers which would be easily and very rapidly destroyed should any military conflict emanate. Certainly there is no possibility of such aircraft being able to get through to mount a major threat to the Australian mainland. As I have said, in the event of serious military conflict they would be very quickly destroyed. The Soviet Union has other shorter range aircraft and some surface ships based at Cam Ranh Bay. However, despite the hysterical comments that emanate from members of the Opposition, I do not believe for a minute that, in a military sense, these assets represent a major threat to us or other countries in the region. I think it is a heap of hysterical nonsense.

Getting back to the question of warning time, both the Dibb report and the White Paper take a pretty conservative approach to that. They do not rely on a continuation of favourable political conditions in neighbouring countries. They actually look at capabilities which are in existence and which may come into existence in future. They place appropriate priority on the need to deal with the currently existing capabilities of other powers in our region and, irrespective of what we might expect about political developments in those countries, to be able to handle any credible short term military contingency that may arise.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.