Australia pacific defence force China US military
(Image: AAP/DARREN ENGLAND)

If you read the papers today, you’d be forgiven for thinking Scott Morrison was going to announce a massive increase in spending on exotic new weaponry (“cutting edge”, “hypersonic”, “strike capability”, etc, etc) to combat the seething menace of China.

“New missiles for defence in $270 billion arms build-up” claimed the AFR. “Scott Morrison shoulders arms to China in 10-year,$270 billion plan,” said The Australian. “Australia to spend $270 billion building larger military to prepare for ‘poorer, more dangerous’ world” the ABC told us. The usual suspects like Peter Jennings of ASPI were exhumed from their bunkers to endorse the spending.

Fairfax journalists, at least, pointed out toward the end of “Australia to buy ship-killing missiles and shift focus to Indo-Pacific” that “this is not an increase in Australia’s defence spending in real terms beyond the status quo”.

Until this morning, Australia had an “Integrated Investment Plan” unveiled in 2016 that committed to $195 billion in defence investment for the decade between then and 2025-26 — of about $19.5 billion a year.

Today, Morrison is announcing a $270 billion plan from now through to 2029-30, or $27 billion on average a year. So is that an increase of around $8.5 billion a year? Only in cash terms — around a third of that increase is inflation, and there is the fall in the Australian dollar since 2016 to factor in as well.

But if you have a look at that Integrated Investment Plan, you’ll see that many of the major projects identified in that document aren’t scheduled to ramp up until the middle of the 2020s. The $5 billion to be spent on the Navy’s “Maritime Anti-Ship Missiles and Deployable Land-based Capability” — yes, we were already buying anti-ship missiles, but let’s pretend they’re new — goes all the way to 2037. The $4 billion satellite imagery program doesn’t start til 2023 and runs to 2039.

The $4 billion Maritime Area Air Defence Weapons Program doesn’t even start until 2024. The $4 billion Future Frigate Weapons Program is supposed to start this year and last until 2044.

The IIP identifies four RAAF programs totalling nearly $10 billion that don’t commence until the mid-2020s, while the Air Combat Capability – Fourth Squadron program worth another $7 billion doesn’t kick off until 2025.

Then there’s the Army’s recently commenced armoured vehicle program — $15 billion — that runs through until 2032, and a $4 billion protected vehicle fleet that doesn’t start until 2023.

And all that’s without counting the $80 billion submarine and future frigate construction programs which will take another decade to reach peak spending.

Nearly all of this “additional spending” is simply what was already factored in to defence investment plans, with expenditure on most of our biggest projects not ramping up until the mid-2020s or later.

Indeed, as the AFR’s Andrew Tillett noted, some of the 2016 projects are actually being delayed.

Reannouncements of big spending initiatives are nothing new in politics — both sides like to use the policy microwave oven to reheat previous announcements.

At least in defence, you get to use the biggest, most overpriced and most “cutting edge” microwave oven.

Is Morrison’s “military buildup” a load of hot air, or is it money well spent? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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