Australia targets major spending boost for Asia-Pacific defense

Australia targets major spending boost for Asia-Pacific defense

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Australia simultaneously unveiled two pivotal documents on April 17 – its inaugural “National Defence Strategy 2024″ and the “Integrated Investment Program 2024″ – with a promise that defense spending will reach A$765 billion (around US$491 billion) over the ensuing 10 years.

In line with that trajectory, the government projected that 2033-2034′s annual defense budget would surpass A$100 billion, equating to 2.4% of gross domestic product.

The defense strategy is meant to provide the overarching rationale for Australia’s “integrated, focused force,” while the investment plan spells out ways to pay for specific objectives.

“The inaugural National Defence Strategy sets out a clear and priority-driven approach to protecting against threats to Australia and our interests,” Defense Minister Richard Marles said at the document launch in Canberra. China is very prominent amongst those threats.

An Australian defense expert warned that there “cannot be any more lag” in implementing the strategy’s pointers.

Bec Shrimpton, director of the Defence Strategy and National Security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank, told Defense News: “We actually need to be putting them into service now. We can’t wait another two or three years for that.”

Shrimpton found the strategy document “slightly underwhelming” in its re-articulation of concepts previously described in policy papers. “I’m not seeing a lot added,” she said.

Marles said Australia’s activity should focus “unambiguously” on the Asia-Pacific region, especially to protect trade routes. “We simply have to make the difficult decision to keep the vast bulk of our effort in our region.”

Compared with the broad-brush goals of the defense strategy, the accompanying investment plan provides more meat, according to Shrimpton. “It actually starts to fill in a genuine picture of what the future force is going to look like and what it’s going to do.”

For example, the government plans to steer 38% of funds to maritime capabilities, 22% to enterprise and enabling programs – including infrastructure and information technology – 16% to land, 14% to air, 7% to cyber and 3% to space.

Some A$76 billion will go to undersea warfare, including A$53-63 billion on nuclear-powered submarines and associated infrastructure, by 2034. Some of those investments are already appearing on the books, as Defense Industry Minister Pat Conroy announced on April 18 that the Navy would adopt Anduril’s Ghost Shark long-range autonomous underwater vessel.

Up to A$69 billion will be spent on surface warships over the next decade, eventually giving the Navy 26 surface warships. However, hull numbers will dip to a nadir of just nine in a few years’ time.

With an influx of A$44 billion over ten years, the Australian Army will continue transforming to a littoral and expeditionary force akin to the U.S. Marine Corps.

Approximately A$18 billion will go to integrated air- and missile-defense, but there is no investment pegged in long-range, ground-based air defense systems like Patriot or THAAD to defend against ballistic missiles. Counter-drone systems are listed, an area where the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is currently weak.

The Air Force will receive A$33 billion over the coming decade. It will keep investing in MQ-28A Ghost Bat drones, but its original plan to obtain 100 F-35As is capped at 72 fighters.

Thus, Conroy said, “We’ve decided to keep the Super Hornets in service for two reasons: one, they’re doing great work, and secondly, the Joint Strike Fighter is even more capable than we initially thought. We can delay the replacement of the Super Hornet, which frees up funding to invest in more long-range missiles, for example.”

In space, Australia will continue developing a satellite communications network and invest in the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability. The investment plan mentions “measures to enhance Defence’s space control capability to deny attempts to interfere with, or attack Australia’s use of the space domain.” This is critical in the face of China’s counter-space capabilities.

Marles vowed that defense spending, compared to earlier allocations, would increase by A$50.3 billion in the next decade.

However, Shrimpton pointed out that just 11% of this amount – A$5.7 billion – will be allocated in the coming four years. In other words, around 90% of the spending increase will not happen until the late 2020s.

“So we’re accepting an element of risk,” the analyst said, adding that the quick fielding of promising technology should play a more prominent role as a hedge against near-term underfunding.

Many commentators see the period from now till the end of this decade as carrying the highest risk of Chinese aggression, but where the ADF has significant weaknesses.

“What are we cutting, canceling, divesting and re-scoping? A lot of the story of this investment plan and this strategy is going to sit in what we’re not doing,” Shrimpton said.. “That picture is not fully clear yet.”

Gordon Arthur is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. After a 20-year stint working in Hong Kong, he now resides in New Zealand. He has attended military exercises and defense exhibitions in about 20 countries around the Asia-Pacific region.

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