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Tuesday, 7 May 1968

Mr HOWSON (Fawkner) - Seven months have elapsed since the House last had a debate on defence. The subject was discussed during the Estimates debate last year. In that time two important decisions have been announced. Firstly, the British Government has decided to withdraw al'l its forces east of the Suez Canal, except those in Hong Kong, by the end of 1971. Secondly; President Johnson has announced moves to de-escalate the conflict in Vietnam. Both decisions, to my mind, will have a profound effect over a period of years on Australian Government policy for the defence of this country. I propose to deal with this later in my speech. My immediate purpose is to indicate how frequently changes of strategical situations occur in our part of the world.

Looking back over a longer period of years, say 3 or 4 years, I note that there have been many other important changes relating, for example, to West Irian, Indonesia and Malaysia. Bearing in mind these great changes in the strategical situation in those 4 years, we can see that it is almost impossible for Australia to forecast the strategical situation during the next 10 years.

Yet this is the situation which the Government must face when placing orders for defence equipment requiring a long lead time between the placing of the order and the date of delivery. For this reason I believe that there can be only one rule to govern Australia's defence policy: That is, we should order the equipment that is required to provide an adequate and balanced force for the defence of Australia and the security of our near environment. For this is our own responsibility. It is the only situation in which we can even conceive of fighting on our own. In all other situations we would be fighting with allies. In such circumstances we could expect that our allies would provide items of equipment that are not in our own inventory. In such situations we would use those items in our own defence inventory which would contribute most effectively to the common effort.

But the lessons of the last few months raise questions as to the circumstances in which we can confidently rely on major allies and this, surely, must be the strategical situation which the House should now be considering and debating. It is in this context that we should be considering the need for the Fill aircraft, which has been referred to so much during the course of this debate.

The Fill was ordered in 1963. It is to be delivered in 1968 and it is likely to be a component of our defence forces at least until 1980. Surely, if we are to provide an adequate and balanced force for the defence of Australia and the security of our near environment, a deterrent capability must be one of the essential components of this defence inventory. One lesson that we learnt from the confrontation of 1964 was that the V bombers operating from Singapore and Darwin were a major factor in limiting the size of the conflict. But from 1971 onwards there will be no V bombers in Singapore.

Of equal importance to the deterrent role is the requirement for a reconnaissance capability. Until now the reconnaissance material obtained by the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force has been available to us. But after 1971 an Australian reconnaissance capability becomes much more vital for our own security. To my mind, therefore, the need for the Fill aircraft is imperative in the light of the strategic situation that is now developing in our part of the world.

At this stage the capability of this aircraft is being demonstrated in operational conditions over North Vietnam. Some people in Australia, particularly in this House, and overseas have appeared to rejoice at the loss of three of these aircraft and their crews in operational conditions, but let us remember that no aircraft has ever gone into service and not had losses in the early days of its operations. The loss of these aircraft is a cause for regret; but it is leading to technical adjustments being made to the aircraft to prevent similar losses. The loss of these aircraft is surely not a cause for abandoning the most sophisticated design anywhere in the world of a tactical strike aircraft.

Let us remember that there are four factors in the performance of this aircraft which set it ahead of any of its competitors. Firstly, the Fill, due to the efficiency of its terrain following radar, is able to fly at low level, in all weather and at night, and so can penetrate to targets that could not be reached in similar conditions by any other aircraft. Secondly, by penetrating to those targets at low level arid at high speed, it is able to avoid being picked up by enemy radar. Thirdly, the Fill can carry a conventional bomb load considerably in excess of that carried by any other tactical aircraft over a similar range. Its new bomb aiming devices enable it to deliver its weapons more accurately than can any other aircraft. Fourthly, it has a range capability in excess of other tactical aircraft. In comparison with, for instance, the Phantom, which has been mentioned in the debate, the Fill could carry out a mission without the need for in-flight refuelling, whereas the Phantom, even if it could carry out the task, would at least require a fleet of tanker aircraft to achieve the same range. In any comparison between these two aircraft, their refuelling capability and the cost of it must be taken into account.

The Fill has now completed a long period of operational training. Already 10,000 flying hours have been achieved. We must not forget that during this time there have been fewer aircraft accidents than in the case of any other comparable aircraft.

What is more, the experience that has been gained in operations and in operational training is now being transmitted for the benefit of the Royal Australian Air Force when we take delivery of our aircraft from July onwards. We now have it on record from the Air Staff that the Fill has demonstrated its capacity to fulfil the requirements laid down in the original Air Staff specifications. On no previous occasion can I remember the Air Force taking delivery of an aircraft at a time when there was no better aircraft available, either in operational service or even on the drawing board. So for these reasons 1 believe that we may confidently say that this aircraft will be in the forefront of world performance for years to come.

The Fill order has been one of the largest individual investments that Australia has made in its defence history. It is right therefore that we should examine the costs in some detail, as was done by the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairhall) last Thursday. We not only now have a price for each aircraft but also can state with some confidence the price for the complete project. I should emphasise that the price we are paying for the elements of: this project is comparable with that being paid by the United States Air Force. The price we were given in 1963 and the price that was mentioned therefore in this House was the then current price estimated by the United States Air Force. So although the price for Australia has escalated it has escalated no more and no less than has the price being paid by the United States Air Force. The team of Australian experts m the United States has kept, and is keeping, rigid control oyer the ordering of equipment and the price of each item. We ordered this aircraft at a time when honourable members on both sides of the House felt the country to be potentially in danger, lt was a time when they were demanding that Australia have a strike aircraft comparable with anything that the Soviet Union might supply to its friends and customers. The Government's estimate - correct, as events have proved - was that we had sufficient time in hand to enable us to order the best strike aircraft being developed anywhere in the world. To get an aircraft of this performance and to ensure that we received h early in the production run and not 3 years later necessitated our paying a price for it. I believe that I have highlighted the strategic need for this aircraft. It has been demonstrated that the aircraft is capable of the performance laid down to meet Air Staff requirements. So I believe that in due course the nation will realise that it is getting the aircraft at a price that provides value for the money expended.

Last Thursday the honourable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr Crean) asked how we could evaluate this aircraft. Let me tell him that one evaluates this aircraft in the same way as one examines any bill which one gets and has to pay. The first thing one does is make certain that the bill is the correct one, that there is no waste and that we are paying the market price. I say categorically to the honourable member that we have had experts in the United States who have watched to see that there has not been waste and that we are getting the aircraft at the market price - the price which the United States is paying for its aircraft. Secondly, one should examine whether substitutes would do the job as well or at better value. As J have tried to say briefly, the only comparable aircraft is the F4 - the Phantom - but when one compares the Phantom and takes into account the cost of tanker aircraft that would be required to enable the Phantom to do the job that is being done by the Fill, one may be certain that we are getting better value for our money in the Fill project than we would if we purchased substitute aircraft, such as the Phantom. Thirdly, one should examine the effect of cancelling our order for the Fill. I say again that in the deteriorating situation that is likely to face us to our north and our west, as I shall demonstrate shortly, to cancel the order for the Fill at this time would be an unacceptable danger to Australia. So, in evaluating this aircraft I submit that we must pay the bill and save in other fields of government activity in order to ensure the safety of Australia.

Sitting suspended from 5.S8 to 8 p.m.

Mr HOWSON - Before the suspension of the sitting I was dealing with the advantages and the implications of the Government's policy in purchasing the Fill aircraft. Now I want to deal with some of the aspects that flow from this .decision. Some members of the Opposition, particularly the previous speaker, the honourable member for Brisbane (Mr Cross), criticised the cost of the Fill project, but I believe that they should examine it in the context of their own defence policy. The implications of their foreign policy would surely involve a retreat to Fortress Australia. If that is the Australian Labor Party's policy, it should endeavour to work out what that policy involves in defence equipment and how much it would cost. At times, for instance, members of the ALP have advocated that Australia adopt a policy similar to that of Sweden. Sweden's area is only 6% of that of Australia, and yet it spends a higher proportion of its gross national product on defence than Australia does. What is more important, the proportion of the total defence vote spent in Sweden on the Royal Swedish Air Force is very much higher than the proportion of Australia's defence vote spent on the Royal Australian Air Force. Without going into detail, we can be certain that a policy of Fortress Australia would involve the Australian taxpayer in a very much larger contribution to defence than has ever been asked of him in our peacetime history. Therefore, when members of the Australian Labor Party advocate some of the things that were advocated this evening by the honourable member for Brisbane, they should examine how much they would cost. ] return, however, to an examination of the new strategical situation that I believe will confront Australia as a result of recent decisions of the British and United States Governments. The defence umbrella which has been our shield for many years is in process of change. Let us look at the three important factors. British forces are likely to be leaving this area of the world by 1971. The US is de-escalating in Vietnam, and the long-term implications of this were set out very clearly by Denis Warner in an article in the Melbourne 'Herald' last night. The third important factor is that Russian naval strength in increasing in the Indian Ocean. These are profound long-term changes for Australia. I agree with the Government that it is too early to evolve detailed plans for Australian defence but it is clear that whatever happens Australia will have to stand on its own feet much more in the future than it has in the past, and this will require more money for defence.

The cost of the Fill programme is the first indication of the burdens we may have to carry in the future. We have been fortunate that we have had these past 5 years in which to strengthen our defence equipment. Our forward defence policy has en.abled us to re-equip our defence forces while we were protected by the defence umbrella of our allies. We can be thankful today that we have grown in strength over this period. At a time in the near future when we could become much more isolated, we will possess much stronger defence equipment than we had 5 years ago.

In the few minutes that remain I shall look at the defence requirements for the new strategical situation that could develop over the long-term in this part of the world. I suggest five defence requirements. First of all, 1 believe that we should order only the equipment that is required to provide a balanced and adequate force for the defence of the Australian mainland and its near environment, and for this purpose I believe that our defence budget will need to be at least 5% of our gross national product. Second, we shall need to strengthen our relations with manufacturing industry. We need a viable aircraft industry, for instance, and 1 believe it will be necessary to integrate and rationalise the aircraft industry, because in its present state I feel there exists excess capacity which leads to high cost of production. Third, we should examine ways in which research and development grants can be provided to industry to enable it to co-operate with the defence services to provide new defence requirements. Fourth, we should be prepared to increase the number of technical advisers that we can make available to those defence forces in South East Asia that request our aid. Fifth, and most important of all in the light of the strategical situation that I have outlined to the House, we should examine our lifeline across the Pacific Ocean. This could become vital to us in the future, as it was vital to us in 1942. To this end we should seek closer relations with New Zealand and compatability of defence equipment between the Services of our two countries. At the same time we should examine what facilities are likely to exist in the Pacific islands. We should ascertain from the British Government what plans it has for the islands that it now controls. Britain may decide in due course to withdraw from her Pacific Island dependencies, as she has from almost every other part of her former empire. If this does happen, then we should seek to participate in any discussions that might lead to a transfer of sovereignty. History surely demonstrates the need for defence facilities in that part of the world to ensure our own security.

Debate (on motion by Mr Scholes) adjourned.

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