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Thursday, 19 August 1993
Page: 355

Senator MacGIBBON (4.10 p.m.) —The report into stockholding and sustainability in the Australian Defence Force was tabled by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in December last year. It relates to the preparedness of the Australian Defence Force: stockholding relates to the equipment, the munitions and ammunition held by the Defence Force; and sustainability relates to the ability to supply the defence forces when they get into combat and are using expendable stores.

  It involves the ability both to train human replacements for casualties who are killed or wounded and to provide the munitions and the ammunition to keep the defence forces in operation. In the very first sentence of his response, the Minister for Defence (Senator Robert Ray) states:

Defence stockholdings are a vital component of our capacity to sustain ADF operations for the defence of Australia.

That is very true. The great tragedy, and the reason why the defence committee moved to look at this matter, is that the Australian defence forces essentially have no sustainability at all. I will develop that argument later on.

  I make a general comment before I start to discuss the minister's response to this. I draw the attention of the Senate to the comments of the chairman of the defence committee, Mr E. J. Lindsay, in the foreword to the report. He says:

Notwithstanding the fact that the Minister for Defence had referred the matter of stockholding policies to the Committee, the inquiry was constantly frustrated by the unwillingness of Defence to provide answers to the questions posed by the Committee.

Several issues were canvassed at the first public hearing on 25 May 1992. As the inquiry progressed the Committee pursued some specific issues in greater detail. The transcripts of evidence taken at the public hearings demonstrate that Defence merely reiterated at subsequent hearings the information provided at the first public hearing. The transcripts also illustrate the difficulty experienced by the Committee in eliciting answers from the witnesses. Without access to information, the Committee cannot form judgments on the adequacy of policies.

I have served on committees ever since I have been in this Senate. I was the longest serving member of the defence committee; I served on it for 10 years. I was the longest serving deputy chairman; I held that position for eight or nine years. I have never experienced the obstruction from the Department of Defence that we experienced at that committee inquiry.

  I can think of two other occasions when I have got inquiries up before the committee: one was on the resignation rates, when people were leaving the Defence Force at a very high rate; the other was on the management of the ADF. On both occasions, the Minister for Defence and the Department of Defence were resolutely opposed to the defence committee inquiring into those matters. But once the parliament accepted that they were the topics for inquiry, the Department of Defence cooperated with all its witnesses to the fullest extent possible. I have no criticism at all of the conduct of the department on those occasions. But for reasons that I simply do not believe, in this inquiry Defence never cooperated with us.

  On page 2 of the minister's response, he notes the committee experienced difficulties in this regard. He blamed the committee for wishing to pry into matters which were of great secrecy, such as the holding of missile stocks and all the rest of it. With the greatest of respect to the minister, he is dissembling there. The committee has a sense of responsibility. We had no intention of laying out in public what the stockholdings were on sensitive issues. But it happens to be a fact of life that there is very little secrecy in this area. Any of our potential enemies know what our stockholdings are, for the simple reason that in the countries from which we buy them—and the principal country here is the United States—the sale orders are fully listed on congressional records or other public documents. The matter of secrecy cannot be sustained at all.

  We offered Defence the opportunity to tell us in in camera briefings. Again, we got no further than we got in public hearings. It is simply nonsense to say that security was what prevented us from being informed. If that was so, the minister should never have given us the remit to inquire into stockholding in the first place.

  I suspect that some of the members of the committee had more accurate information on the level of missile stocks and other sensitive information than the senior uniformed officers from the Department of Defence, who were the two principal witnesses. We cannot very well inquire of a witness and use the committee as a platform to put information on the public record. It is properly a matter for the witnesses to put information on the public record.

  I now turn to the governments's response to the recommendations made by the committee. The central theme is the old theme that we always have from this government; that Australia has no discernible military threat facing it today and therefore there is no point in getting worried about the state of defence in this country. It is a theme that is mentioned in the second paragraph of the minister's response. He said:

At present there is no identifiable military threat to Australia.

Everything flows on from there. The next point the minister makes is that the determination of the stockholding required by the Australian Defence Force is a very complex matter. I agree with that completely. But the government is prepared to let the matter end at that point and say, `It is all too difficult. There's nothing we can do about it'. I would say that it is very difficult; it is very complex. But there is a lot we can do about it. What we do about it certainly involves some degree of risk; it certainly involves quite a degree of expenditure. But the matter has to be dealt with.

  We cannot go on with a Defence Force which simply does not have the munitions, particularly the precision guided munitions, that are needed to be involved in a combat situation. We simply cannot defend a country as vast as Australia with the very low numbers of personnel we have in the Defence Force without using high technology weapon systems, quite apart from the fact that our opponents will be equipped with them, particularly in the post-Cold War era when there is a plethora of high technology equipment available.

  Once upon a time, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets and the United States were very careful in selling high technology equipment to Third World countries. It is a well known fact that while NATO and Australia enjoyed a special status with the United States, there was equipment the United States would not supply to them; they kept it for their own use. The level of equipment that was available to Third World countries was considerably removed from what was available to that second tier that went to the NATO group countries and to Australia.

  The Cold War has ended and we now have the situation where the Soviets are prepared to sell their very latest technology at very low prices simply to get money. This means that unsophisticated Third World countries now have access to the highest level of technology. Some of the Russian technology is as good as or better than technology available to the Western world. In the air-to-air missile field of the infra-red missiles, the short range missile the Western world uses is the AIM9L or M, which is an infra-red guided weapon with a range of five to seven nautical miles. The equivalent Russian missile has a seeker with a 180 degree head on it. The American Sidewinder has a much smaller aperture for visions, so its target acquisition capability is very much less.

  The matter of complexity has got to be dealt with. We are dealing with missiles that commonly cost of the order of $1 million each. Many years ago, the Harpoon—which is a missile we use from submarine platforms, surface ships and air launch platforms like the FA18 or the F111—was costing over $1 million. I do not know what the contemporary price of a Harpoon is; it may well be $2 million to us, with the erosion that has taken place in the value of the Australian dollar.

  It is not the case, as the minister argues, that we have logistic agreements, government to government agreements, memorandums of understanding which provide that in an emergency we can draw on another country for these supplies. The politics of the world have changed considerably with the ending of the Cold War. It is quite conceivable that our principal country of supply, the United States, could find itself in a political, as opposed to a military, conflict of interests vis-a-vis a country that might be threatening Australia. In that circumstance, there is no guarantee that we could draw on American logistic supplies, because at the end of the day there is no way legally of enforcing these agreements.

  The other thing is that, increasingly, with high technology weapons systems, instead of having a continuous production line, as existed with simpler munitions in the past, production is now in a block system. It runs for 12 months, 18 months, maybe 36 months, but it is a finite period where the maximum number of munitions they have orders for are produced as rapidly as possible to minimise overheads and keep the unit costs down. Once that is finished, the line is closed and we cannot get any more.

  That leads to the conclusion that the present policy is not tenable in a serious way. The solutions for Australia were put forward in the committee's report: first of all, buying more initially and holding stocks within the country; secondly, looking at alternative countries of supply—whether we can get missiles and things like that from European or, in the post-Cold War era, even from Soviet sources. That is easily said but it is not so easily done. Missiles are integrated into a fire control system and the whole of the electronic weapons system of the platform, whether it is a ship, a submarine or an aircraft. With an infra-red weapon such as an air-to-air missile, one cannot simply put a French or Soviet missile on without changing the electronic fit of the aircraft and then proving it up through a qualification period. So the use of alternative supplies is very restricted.

  The third avenue that has to be explored is production of our own munitions to as extensive a degree as possible. That is certainly an expensive program, but there are some advantages in it. One advantage not generally appreciated is that, even though we buy from the Americans or the French or the British a missile system or a particular piece of kit which is supposed to do such and such, we never know what we get. We never know whether we get exactly the same missile as the Americans are using in the USAF or the USN. It may look the same; it may be stencilled the same; but particularly with respect to electronic countermeasures and the guidance system within it, we simply do not know, and we are forbidden under reverse engineering agreements from pulling it to bits and finding out whether it is the same. In fact, even if we did do that, we probably would not know because we do not have access to the missiles that are going to the American air force, the French air force, or whatever it might be.

  The consequence of all this is that we have to put more money into defence. It is as simple as that. This government has been progressively removing support for defence in this country. We have seen numbers cut year after year. We have seen the defence vote cut year after year. In the budget this week, we saw another $273 million cut out of the defence vote. Because of these cuts that have progressively taken place, the defence forces have kept on year after year trying to maintain their capabilities, trying not to get rid of any more personnel than they have to. As a consequence, they have not had the money to put into building up the stocks that will enable them to sustain the Australian defence forces if they are ever required to be used.

  The position is so bad that the Australian defence forces simply could not operate in a situation where there was armed conflict for this country and where we had an active opponent against us for more than a matter of days. It is as bad as that. We could not resupply them. It is a situation we simply cannot sustain. It goes on year after year and no-one brings it up. That was the importance of this report. It is the parliament inquiring into the expenditure of what is a relatively large sum annually for the defence forces. But all we are getting is half a system. Even if we got the full system, it would be only a very modest defence capability. It is hamstrung because it does not have the ability to sustain itself for the purpose for which it exists.

  Defence forces are expensive. There is no cheap or easy solution to having one, and that is particularly relevant to Australia, where we have a great land mass and a low density population. We cannot fund a defence force on the basis that if we have a good wool clip or a good wheat crop we will put money into it, but when we have a drought or the economy collapses because the Labor Party has blown it apart we will cut our defence force. We have to have continuity of funding, and funding at a high level. If we diminish that funding and lose a capability in an area—as we did when we had the high resignation rates with the air force pilots in 1988 and 1989—it takes us 15 or more years to recover. We need experience and expertise in the defence forces. We have to keep them funded year in, year out, at what we believe is a reasonable level.

  Over the years the government has set up a series of strategic basis papers in which it allegedly analyses and thereby predicts what threats face Australia. That is worth doing. But where the government goes wrong is that it uses these predictions—which do not have much more validity than horoscopes in the daily newspaper—to order the stocks against that contingency. The government says that the only threat to Australia is a low level contingency threat, where we will have small groups of lightly armed insurgents running around the north blowing up power houses; therefore, we do not need a stockholding policy; therefore, we do not need to hold expensive munitions—because the strategic guidance tells us that we do not need them.

  The fact that the government supports the strategic guidance to save money is lost on most people. That means that we have the situation the committee exposed. I quote from the committee's report at page 65, Conclusions, at 6.1. The opening statement reads:

There is no ADF stockholding policy.

There is no ADF stock-holding policy in place because we have this no-threat doctrine. The consequence of that, in the case of the army, is that the government believes that the stockholdings required for the army are literally no higher than the stockholdings required for peacetime training activities. Nothing could be more absurd than that assertion. If we are to have a defence force, we have to fit it out so that it can carry out the job it has to do if it is called on to serve this country. We can never afford a big or lavish defence force. To have a defence force that consists of men and women only and cannot be used in combat, that can be used only for United Nations peacekeeping, is in my judgment a waste of money and a betrayal of the interests of this country.

  Debate (on motion by Senator Reid) adjourned.