AGE OF THE DRAGON

Peter Dutton turns out to be another dud defence minister

Peter Dutton has recommitted to programs for army vehicles that will burn a mountain of money we could use for far more urgent acquisitions. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Peter Dutton has recommitted to programs for army vehicles that will burn a mountain of money we could use for far more urgent acquisitions. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

They got him.

When Peter Dutton became Defence Minister in March, there were high hopes that he would really take control of his almost unmanageable department and the three equally stubborn armed services.

A particular hope was that he'd drag the army away from its budget-gobbling obsession with preparing for a return to the Middle East.

But they got him. It's obvious that he's not controlling the department and various elements in the services that want this or that program that's irrelevant to defence against China. Rather, they're controlling him, just as they controlled his three ineffective predecessors.

Dutton has recommitted to programs for army vehicles that will burn a mountain of money we could use for far more urgent acquisitions. And he's letting the army and air force persist with buying aircraft that would be useful in Syria or Iraq but useless if war broke out over Taiwan.

This should be a national scandal.

Our defence budget is rising hand over fist, yet the Coalition government is managing to spend it in a way that yields very little useful capability this decade. That's a decade in which it says it cannot rule out the risk of a major attack on this country, the source of which would obviously be China.

What do we need for defending ourselves against China? Forces that can control our ocean approaches, such as strike, maritime-patrol and tanker aircraft, plus fighters, submarines, surface warships and the sensor systems needed to tell our people what the other side is doing.

We also need to make our bases and logistics more resilient.

The same preparations are what we'd need to help the US in a war over Taiwan, which is in fact the more likely scenario.

And what has Dutton just confirmed we will buy for an eye-watering $18-27 billion? Infantry fighting vehicles, which are basically tough boxes on tracks for carrying soldiers into battle and supporting them with firepower. There is no role for that equipment in any likely confrontation with China this decade.

And what else has he just ordered? Self-propelled artillery that will cost $1 billion. Again, this is stuff for the Middle East or Afghanistan (if anywhere).

If the army does make another major deployment to that part of the world, it might like to have new IFVs (though I don't believe for a minute that we would need to spend so much money on them). It might try to justify deploying huge self-propelled guns, too.

But here's the thing: nothing about campaigns in such places as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan is obligatory. These are always wars of choice, with reasons for participation far weaker than we'd face in a Taiwanese scenario.

And if we did go back to Afghanistan, for example, we wouldn't be obliged to take any particular military capability. If part of the job required infantry protected in IFVs, for example, we could leave that to allies.

Asked at the National Press Club on November 26 whether the IFV money might be better spent on facing China, Dutton defended the program at length and said: "I don't see that robbing Peter to pay Paul works".

But that is precisely what a defence minister is supposed to do, reshuffling funds as strategic circumstances change. If the rise in the Chinese threat isn't a change in strategic circumstances, then I don't know what is.

Dutton is evidently thinking of fairness between the services. The Peter who would be robbed is the army, and the Paul would be the air force or navy. So the idea is that the army is somehow entitled to the money.

It's not. None of the armed services is entitled to money for any particular program. Australians are entitled to maximum security that can be wrung out of the limited defence budget, and if that means that one service's allocation goes down while another's goes up, then so be it.

Somehow this absurd program for up to 450 IFVs has escaped public attention. Its budget is something like half what we would have spent on our former diesel-submarine program (which was about $50 billion in 2018 dollars) yet the IFVs have not received even 0.1% as much media coverage.

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At least diesel submarines would have helped protect us from China. So would the 72 F-35 Lightning fighters we are getting for probably less than the cost of the IFVs.

Arguing about the merits of buying F-35s never seems to cease. Yet the army is getting away silently with ransacking national security. (Credit is due to Ben Packham of the Australian, who challenged Dutton on the IFVs at the press club).

When Dutton took on the defence portfolio, there were signals from his office that he would really take charge, as he had with other departments. But we see he's letting all the low-priority, wars-of-choice programs go ahead unhindered.

He has not stopped an army program to replace attack helicopters that don't really need replacing, nor an air force program for propeller-driven drones. These are sluggish aircraft that can survive only against enemies who cannot shoot at them - the Taliban, for example.

Even the decision last week to buy up to 40 reliable US utility helicopters to replace the army's disastrous European Taipans is doubtful.

The decision is supposed to save money, because Taipans cost so much to run. But we could cut army helicopter spending further if we began by buying just 20 US choppers and directed the savings to immediately strengthening the air force and navy.

We should.

  • Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
This story Dutton turns out to be another dud defence minister first appeared on The Canberra Times.