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Australia Significantly Increases Defence Spending – Lessons For UK? By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.





With relations between China and the US, UK, India, Japan, Australia and no doubt, many other nations, fearful of China’s increasingly more hostile objectives and that are now at a very low ebb it comes as little surprise that Australia has decided to significantly increase defence spending over the next ten years.

News that the Australian government has decided to significantly raise defence spending over the next ten years is but one sign that the world is an increasingly less stable place. Russia too has been increasingly seen to be testing western defence and resolve with Royal Air Force Typhoon QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) aircraft being required to scramble far more in recent weeks as Russian aircraft pass close to UK waters more regularly. The Royal Navy has also been busy ‘escorting’ Russian surface ships passing close to our shores and no doubt, Russian submarines too. Thank goodness the first of our Boeing P-8 Maritime aircraft are now operational and that will enable us to spot Russian submarine intrusion more easily.

The message of what Australia is doing in raising defence spending should also be seen as a message that European NATO member states must not allow increasing defence spend to fall down the priority list because of the economic implications of COVID-19. Germany and France are increasing their spending on defence and so too must the UK despite a need for the latter to re-adjust defence priorities and how defence funding is spent.               

Earlier this month the Australian and Indian governments announced that a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) had been signed and that would allow the military of both countries to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies alongside facilitating a more general scaling up of overall defence cooperation. India has already signed similar agreements with the US, France and Singapore.    

On Wednesday the Australian government announced that it now intends to significantly increase military spending with the primary focus being based around the Indo-Pacific region amid rising tensions between the US and China. Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged a total A$270bn (£150bn; $186bn) to the defence budget over 10 years, a figure that represents a 40% increase.

Mr. Morrison said that Australia intends to acquire long-range missiles plus other capabilities in order to “deter” future conflicts and that the decision was made necessary because the region was the “focus of the dominant global contest of our age”.

Along with other nations already mentioned, relations between Australia and China have certainly worsened in recent years and Mr. Morrison named several areas of great concern as reasoning the decision to increase spending on defence including tensions on the border of China and India and conflicts over the China Sea and East China Sea.

The new defence capability budget and which would represent Australian spending on total defence reaching close to 2% of GDP, replaces a previous decade-long strategy, set only in 2016, in which the government had set aside A$195bn.

Much of the planned increased spending is to go on upgrading military equipment including air to air refuelling resilience, anti-submarine warfare ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and EW (Electronic Warfare). While Australia has no large-scale military aircraft manufacturing capability it has recently rolled out the first military aircraft to be designed and built in Australia in more than 50 years as part of a partnership between the Royal Australian Air Force and Boeing Australia.

To that end, the Australian Government has invested close to $40 million in the ‘Boeing Loyal Wingman – Advanced Development Program’ unmanned aircraft program and which is also Boeing’s largest investment in a new unmanned aircraft program outside the United States. 

However, the country has a long-established tradition of building surface ships and submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. The Osborne Naval Shipyard facility on the Port River, Lefevre Peninsular in Northern Adelaide was established in the mid 1980’s and is currently undergoing an AU$535 million redevelopment. It is here that Collins class submarines, Hobart class air warfare destroyers and Arafura class patrol boats have been constructed and where ASC Shipbuilding, now a subsidiary of BAE Systems Australia, will construct what is currently planned to be a total of nine Hunter class frigates for the Royal Australian Navy.      

With upgrade work on the Anzac Class frigate fleet also ongoing, including replacement of existing masts with one that is taller and wider in order to accommodate the new CEA L-Band radar system, and having awarded BAE Systems Australian subsidiary, ASC Shipbuilding, with the first batch of what will eventually be nine Hunter class frigates for the Royal Australian Navy – these ships are based on the BAE Systems Type 26 Global Combat Ship which are currently under construction for the Royal Navy – and importantly, Australian investment for longer term to be seen as a strategy that includes potential building of similar ships for export, Australia is to be seen as an increasingly important player in Naval shipbuilding.  

I understand that Australia also intends to purchase up to 200 long-range anti-ship missiles from the US Navy and which are I believe able to travel up to 370km (229 miles). The government is also intending to invest in developing a hypersonic weapons system – missiles which can travel thousands of kilometres.

Importantly, up to A$15b is also earmarked to be spent on cyber warfare tools which, as Mr Morrison noted, “says a lot about where the threats are coming from”. Back in early June Mr. Morrison gave a stark warning to Australian institutions and businesses that they were being targeted by cyber-attacks from a “sophisticated state actor” a remark that was widely interpreted as being China.

Mr. Morrison has once again reiterated that Australia would vigorously defend its democratic values and those of others in the region adding that increasing military capabilities would help “to prevent war”. Under the 2016 strategy, military priorities had been split equally across that region but also on operations with Western allies, such as US-led missions in the Middle East.

Australia and the US have had a long standing has had a military and strategic alliance since 1951 when both countries together with New Zealand signed what is known as the Anzus treaty. Being unwilling to accept US policy positions on nuclear powered and armed warships, New Zealand later abrogated the pact but to this day the existence of the Anzus treaty remains a bedrock of Australian foreign and defence co-operation policy.

The 1996 Joint Declaration (Sydney Statement) reaffirmed the US/Australian alliance commitments expanding opportunities for training which cover the full range of operational and tactical co-operation and interoperability.  Australia also receives preferred status in the purchase of military equipment from the US as opposed to having to negotiate approval on a case by case basis. To that end the Royal Australian Air Force is acquiring 72 Lockheed Martin F-35A aircraft and has a large fleet of Boeing F/A-18 aircraft of various types.

Australia also has access to shared intelligence with the US and in the ISTAR role the Royal Australian Air Force operates a fleet of 14 Boeing E-7 Wedgetail aircraft fitted with active electronically scanned array. In the UK, the Royal Air Force UK is also in the process of acquiring and fitting out five similar E-7 Wedgetail aircraft in order to replace its fleet of Sentry E3D early warning aircraft capability and RAF personnel are working very closely with the Royal Australian Air Force.

New Zealand has also accepted the need to increase funding on defence and particularly the NZ Defence Force which, Defence Minister Ron Mark recently said, was critical to our national resilience and that had been deferred for too long. With the overall strategy is a plan to upgrade military capability including replacement of the now elderly Lockheed Martin Hercules aircraft with the more modern C130J Super Hercules. Other funding will be used Other funding includes NZ$666 million for the Army, Navy and Air force for various frontline capability improvement, computer and communications technology and continued upgrades across New Zealand Defence Force bases.

The message from the Australian Prime Minister and others is very loud and clear – it is one that says the increased level of threat from China and others must be taken very seriously and that now is the time to act to ensure that the nation has adequate defence and security capability.

I live in hope more than anticipation that Boris Jonson and Dominic Cummings are listening!

CHW (London – 2nd July 2020)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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