Aussie military likely a victor, whoever wins polls

The Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield (left) docked at Garden Island navy base in Sydney.

AUSTRALIA - The Australian military may prove to be one of the biggest winners in the nation's elections tomorrow. Both candidates are vowing major boosts in defence funding.

Their promises come as analysts say the Australian Defence Force's (ADF) funding and capability have already been substantially scaled back in recent years and that the government needs to start setting more realistic spending goals.

The ruling Labor government has made particularly drastic defence cuts in four years. Funding last year dropped to its lowest levels since 1938 - about A$25.4 billion (S$29.8 billion), or just 1.6 per cent of the gross domestic product.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard said the reductions were necessary because of the long-term hit to the government's coffers from the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Now the two leaders of both parties plan to reverse the cuts.

Both have pledged to continue with plans to buy up to 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft as well as build up the submarine fleet.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, whose conservative Liberal-National coalition traditionally tends to spend more on the military, has also pledged to reverse the cuts and lift funding to at least 2 per cent of GDP within the next 10 years, which would eventually increase it to A$50 billion a year in 2022.

But he has signalled that he will take a cautious approach to the JSF purchases and may back away from his earlier plan to spend A$1.5 billion on drones. The drones, likely to be the US Global Hawk or Triton, would be used for border protection and detecting boatloads of asylum seekers.

"The first duty of government is to support the armed forces of our country," Mr Abbott told a press conference at an army barracks near Sydney on Monday. "Unfortunately, since 2007 there has been a series of budget cuts and spending reductions which over time will jeopardise the capacity of our armed forces."

The Prime Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, has also promised to boost spending to 2 per cent of GDP though he refused to set a timeline. He has separately announced plans to move the main naval assets in Sydney harbour to bases in the north - a move that would probably take decades and cost at least A$6 billion.

During his first term as leader, Mr Rudd released a bold 20-year defence White Paper that would include adding six new submarines and extra frigates and jets, as well as increasing spending by 3 per cent annually to 2018-2019. In the following years, however, Labor backed away from its promises, partly due to declining budget revenues. Mr Abbott has pledged to spell out his own vision in a new White Paper within 18 months of taking office.

An Australian military analyst, Mr James Brown, a former army officer now at the Lowy Institute, said the spending cuts had directly affected areas such as the military's tank units, its foreign outreach and people-to-people programmes, and training, particularly of reserves.

He said Mr Abbott, the favourite to win the election, would try to add to the military's "muscle" and follow in the footsteps of his political mentor, longstanding prime minister John Howard.

"There are no votes in defence for either party unless there is a big international crisis such as Sept 11," he told The Straits Times.

"It is risky for a future prime minister if they are caught out and unable to respond to a crisis. The coalition will try to muscle up the defence force and be prepared to exercise strong leadership in the region."

But he added that Mr Abbott may scale back spending on large items such as the submarine programme and look for cheaper options. "It will be much harder than it was for Howard," he said. "The money won't be there."

Some analysts were critical of the election defence pledges, saying governments should seek to promise ongoing spending increases or targeted budgets rather than base their spending on the "arbitrary" GDP figure.

Dr Mark Thomson, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said in a comment on the institute's website that the extra spending to 2 per cent of GDP would indeed help the military achieve its long-term goals.

"But that begs the question of whether current plans for the ADF are appropriate in terms of the scale and type of capabilities being acquired," he wrote. "For the moment, that question is in the too-hard basket for our politicians."

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