There were few surprises in last night’s defence Budget. Despite a much improved economic and fiscal outlook, the 3% growth in defence spending promised in the 2009 Defence White Paper remains on hold. And consistent with the government’s careful approach to spending in this year’s Budget, there were only two defence measures worthy of note.

The first provides $1.1 billion in routine supplementation to cover the cost of overseas deployments. The second provides another $1.1 billion for “enhancement of force protection measures in Afghanistan”, of which Defence has to absorb $912 million from within their existing resources. This is hardly unreasonable; with many other parts of government tightening their belt to hasten a return to surplus, it’s fair enough that Defence does so too. And if priorities have to be rearranged in Defence to provide better protection for troops, that’s as it should be.

The new measures are a result of a Force Protection Review ordered by the newly-appointed minister John Falkner in July 2009 following a trip to Afghanistan. They include: a counter-rocket sense and warn capability, improved route clearance capabilities, enhanced protection and firepower for vehicles, new night-fighting equipment, improved body armour, new weapons for Special Forces, new biometrics capabilities, additional working dogs and a suite of improved intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities.

But all this raises an important question: why did it take the minister to initiate a review of force protection? Why has it taken until now — nine years after Australian troops first deployed to Afghanistan — for these measures to be identified? What stopped the Department of Defence, and its cascading hierarchy of multiple headquarters, from identifying the need for these measures earlier? How did last year’s Defence White Paper manage to foresee the need for 12 submarines equipped with cruise missiles in 2030, yet fail to make sure troops already in action had everything they needed?

Given the diverse range of measures being undertaken, it’s hard to see how this could be a response to the emergence of a specific threat or the availability of a new technology. Such factors emerge over time, and would result in a trickle of new measures stretching over years, rather than a massive one-off investment. Instead, it looks like Defence has finally been forced to turn its attention to an area that most would judge should have been its number one priority all along.

The situation is reminiscent of when then-defence minister Brendan Nelson ordered the dispatch of mortars to Afghanistan in 2007 — not because he’d been asked to do so by Russell Hill, but because he’d spoken to tactical commanders on the ground in Afghanistan who advised him of “an in-service capability that would significantly enhance force-protection”. Then, as now, the question must be why the need was not identified and acted on earlier.

*Mark Thomson is a defence analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey