Defence’s biggest-ticket warfighting capabilities – ships, planes, and submarines – are procured, operated, and retired on cycles far longer than those of parliaments, Ministers, and governments. The Collins-Class submarines were ordered when Kim Beazley was Defence Minister in the Hawke Government, entered service during the Howard government, have been unreliable ever since, and their replacements may not be ready until 2030 – after the Collins class is scheduled to be decommissioned. The “classic” F/A-18 Hornets were ordered in 1981, arrived in service between 1984 and 1990, and will operate until some time between 2015 and 2020. Because of the long, long lead times, a decision on the replacements for these two combat vehicles will have to be made soon.
These issues are not new. the impending obsolesence of Australia’s fighter fleet has been a topic of political discussion since the early retirement of the F-111 strike fighter and the in-a-hurry purchase of the F-18 Super Hornet to cover a perceived “gap”. While the procurement process was rushed and the long-term potency of the Super Hornets against high-end threats debated, the net result was a product that has actually been delivered and is ready for use if needs be. The RAAF’s preferred long-term replacement for its entire fleet, the F-35 Lightning, is perhaps the most pathologically bad piece of military project management of all time. Australia is not completely locked in to the F-35, and has delayed the purchase of its first. That’s partly in search of the magic surplus, it’s also because of the huge cost, schedule, and capability problems the project has. The US military, particularly the Air Force and Marines, are locked in to what has been described as the “unkillable project”. Three branches of the US military are watching the schedule for their increasingly dissimilar versions of the aircraft slip further and further into the future, at ever-increasing cost and decreasing capability.
Meanwhile, the 2009 defence white paper stated that Australia should immediately get cracking on a replacement for the Collins-class submarines. The subs would be along the lines of the Collins – a large, long-range, diesel-powered submarine. No such beast is available on the global market; they would be built and maintained in Australia. Furthermore, Australia would buy a dozen of them, twice the size of the Collins fleet. And, for the first time, Australia’s navy, including the submarines, would be equipped with land-attack cruise missiles.
As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted back in 2012, that hasn’t happened. The Gillard government remains, nominally, committed to the 2009 submarine proposal; with the lack of action since, it’s simply not possible to design, build, and put into operation the new class of submarine by the time the Collins Class is scheduled to be retired. Even ignoring the timeline issues, the costs are enormous, and the risks of another dud high.
Furthermore, while it’s worth noting that future governments will have some flexibility in the numbers of each platform they purchase, and how they are operated (and there are very big tradeoffs in capability and costs that can be made there), decisions on platforms – including the decision “none of the above, thanks” – are very difficult to undo once they are made.
The lack of enthusiasm for Defence’s ever-increasing budgetary demands under Gillard represents a distinct change from her two predecessors. But the postponement of the big platform decisions will have to end in the next term of government, and the consequences will be with us for decades to come.