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…but the news is not all bad for the State

LAST week’s Defence White Paper promises to spend almost $150 billion in today’s dollars on defence over the next 10 years.

It promises a substantial upgrade to the Army’s capabilities plus airborne early warning and control aircraft, new air-to-air tankers and a promise of new programs for the navy and air force at the end of the decade to replace ageing ships and aircraft.

The Army will get new personal equipment such as ballistic vests and night vision equipment, most of which will be made in Australia.

It will also acquire new anti-aircraft missile systems, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, heavy mortars, bridging equipment and three squadrons of new helicopters, two of them armed reconnaissance aircraft.

The ANZAC frigate program which will be complete in its present form in 2006 will be supplemented by a weapons upgrade to give them the anti-ship missile capability they lack as well as a missile defence capability.

A contract to replace the elderly and hard-worked Fremantle-class patrol boats is expected to be let next year with delivery completed by 2004. WA shipbuilders are expected to compete vigorously for this.

The Jindalee Over-the-Horizon radar station at Laverton is expected to become fully operational in 2002.

Its coverage will extend far out into the Indian Ocean not only in detecting sea and air traffic but building up a picture of what is normal so that the abnormal becomes immediately obvious.

This will be especially important not only for the detection of smugglers or illegal immigrants but also for the protection of the constant traffic of bulk carriers and tankers servicing the iron ore ports and gas platforms in the north.

Key Army units will be the Swanbourne-based Special Air Service Regiment and the Kimberley-based Pilbarra Regiment, responsible for land-based surveillance in the north.

Overall, the 10-year program expects to outlay more than $13 billion in new equipment programs not previously endorsed. This does not include the billions of dollars that are spent on consumables such as food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition or the upgrades to existing equipment needed to meet the challenges of modernisation in regional armed forces.

One of the changes to past practice likely to become more common is the use of prime contractors to manage new equipment programs. This will attempt to shift the risk from - and reduce the cost to - a heavily bureaucratised Defence Department to private industry. The prime contractors will be project managers and assemblers with a vast network of sub-contractors throughout Australia.

Strong emphasis will be placed upon electronics and computer industries to provide solutions to meet the very different physical environment experienced not only in Australia but in the arc of friendly countries to our north and where increasingly the Defence Force is expected to operate.

Serious questions remain. The White Paper’s financial commitments represent a statement of intent only. Despite the impressive sounding figures, the $16 billion expected to be spent in 10 years time is $2.5 billion less than the 1987 White Paper promised to spend this year.

No future government, Labor or Coalition, is bound to spend the money promised in this document. Likewise, the program promises little more than to catch up with the neglect of the past two decades or more.

Defence has for years been the poor relation of Federal government programs with a continually declining share of government money. Personnel numbers, regular and reserve, have fallen by more than 30 per cent in the past 10 years and are not expected to grow much in the next decade.

The East Timor experience was something of a wake-up call to the government. This was reinforced by the recent Community Consultation but these stimuli are all too easily forgotten by governments. Time will tell whether this program is any more substantial than its neglected predecessors.

*Michael O’Connor is executive director of the Australia Defence Association

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