WA is under-resourced in military personnel and hardware capability.
Never stand in the way of a politician and a bucketful of tax dollars, the saying goes, and that is certainly a truism when that bucket holds $28.3 billion in annual defence expenditure for personnel, operations, and sustainment.
You only need to look at a map of where Australia’s military assets and personnel are based to conclude that defence spending has been driven by politics rather than national security.
Billions of defence dollars are funnelled into the coffers of Australia’s eastern states each year through the basing of military personnel and assets in their jurisdictions.
Of course, I could be wrong about this political pork barrelling.
It may simply be a case of not having enough money to adequately defend all of Australia.
A lack of funds may have led to a strategic decision to just build an arc of defendable military bases running east from Darwin, down the Pacific Ocean then around to Adelaide.
Great for a good night’s sleep if you live on the east coast, but not so good for 2.7 million Western Australians.
Of the nation’s 14,441 permanent Royal Australian Air Force personnel, only 273 are based in the west.
Australia’s combat, surveillance and early warning and control planes are all deployed in the east, except for one squadron of F/A-18 Hornets based at Tindal in the Northern Territory.
It would take days, if not weeks, to move a significant number of strike fighters, weapons, stores, and logistical support to WA.
The Australian Army has less than 5 per cent of its regular and reservist personnel based in WA.
Except for the 1st Brigade in Darwin, all regular army combat brigades are located on the east coast.
WA only has 1,992 part-time reservists and 904 regular troops, which includes around 800 Special Air Service personnel, who are often elsewhere.
The Royal Australian Navy has based all six Collins-class submarines and six Anzac frigates at HMAS Stirling in WA, which represents 70 per cent of the nation’s frontline warships.
However, only 18 per cent of the navy’s personnel are based in the west, with 75 per cent still residing on the east coast.
The western fleet has no close air support, air defence destroyers or minehunters, and not enough army personnel to secure and defend even high-level strategic facilities.
You cannot help concluding the western fleet is simply an elastic combat deployment, firmly anchored to the east coast, aimed at protecting the south-east flank of Australia, including Adelaide, where the army’s sole air defence regiment, anti-submarine aircraft and Osborne naval shipyard are located.
I doubt the fleet is here to protect us Western Australians.
Finally, 95 per cent of the 17,454 public service employees at the Department of Defence are in the east, with just 2 per cent located in WA.
With China’s dependence on Middle East oil, massive investments in Africa and the Belt and Road Initiative, the Indian Ocean region has growing commercial and strategic importance to the Asian nation’s future.
Beijing will want to protect its shipping, economic investments, and citizens from threats in peacetime and against unfriendly powers during times of tension.
To achieve this, it will need to build up a network of strategic naval and logistics bases in the South China Sea and across the Indian Ocean.
This will have significant military and political ramifications for all Indian Ocean nations.
The Australian government’s recent attention has been focused on the South China Sea, where Beijing’s expansive territorial claims are destabilising the region.
Unlike the US, when the RAN cruises through these disputed waters it has sensibly kept its warships 12 nautical miles away from islands claimed by Beijing.
We should anticipate that China will one day return that courtesy and cruise an aircraft carrier battle group down the coast of WA, carefully staying in international waters.
A Chinese carrier group peacefully cruising our west coast would emphasise the Indian Ocean’s geostrategic importance and a growing military confidence in Beijing.
After all, demonstrations of naval power have been used to influence friends and rivals for hundreds of years.
Surrounded by military assets and personnel, the heroes sitting in Canberra are sure to tell WA there is nothing to worry about.
Defence expenditure is a multi-billion-dollar temptation, so it is not surprising politicians work hard to tilt defence planning and decisions for the financial benefit of their jurisdictions.
By any measure, this self-serving approach to the nation’s security has left the Indian Ocean side of our continent wide open.
- David Kobelke spent 15 years managing CCIWA’s Australian industry participation unit