17 Apr 2024

Australia's Defence Minister Richard Marles unveils $50 billion defence spending increase over next decade

8:17 pm on 17 April 2024
Richard Marles

Australia's Defence Minister Richard Marles has released Labor's long-awaited National Defence Strategy (file picture). Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Australia's projected defence spending will increase by another US$50 billion over the next decade, with the government unveiling an immediate boost of more than $1b to accelerate long-range missiles and targeting systems, as well as lethal autonomous systems.

Defence Minister Richard Marles has released Labor's long-awaited National Defence Strategy, which aims to put Australia's total defence spending at 2.4 percent of GDP within 10 years.

Total government defence investment in the military is expected to reach $330b through to 2033-34, which includes initial costs for the massive AUKUS initiative to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

An overhaul of Defence's integrated investment programme will see up to $76b spent on "undersea warfare" and other large investments in space and cyber.

"The inaugural National Defence Strategy sets out a clear and priority-driven approach to protecting against threats to Australia and our interests," Marles has told the National Press Club.

"The National Defence Strategy outlines how we are transforming the ADF and equipping it to survive in a much less certain world."

"These transformational reforms are designed to ensure that peace, security, and prosperity are maintained in our region".

A narrower focus on trade lines at sea

Marles said the focus of Australia's defence activity should be "unambiguously" on the Asia-Pacific region.

"We simply have to make the difficult decision to keep the vast bulk of our effort in our region," he said.

"This is what the world would expect of us.

"To make any other call would be … for Australia not to be taken seriously."

He added the government's main focus in the region was not the protection of Australia's borders, but rather "projecting" defence power further into Asia.

"The geography of our national security … does not lie on the coastline of our continent. It lies much further afield.

"An invasion of Australia is an unlikely prospect in any scenario precisely because so much damage can be done by an adversary without ever having to step foot on Australian soil."

Protecting trade routes is a key stated objective of the plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS partnership.

Marles noted Australia was reliant on trade and imported 85 percent of its fuel from South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.

"We are literally dependent on this sea line of communication … The rules of the road at sea [are] everything for us," he said.

Marles defended Australia's diminishing support for Ukraine.

"We'll continue to play our part … [Ukraine] engages our national interest because we're completely invested in the rules-based order," he said.

"It is also the case that we'll maintain a focus on our region and on the strategic challenges that we face here … [There are] challenges we face right now on our doorstep and that has to be our primary focus."

Billions to be redirected

While Marles said the government had added $50b in defence spending over the next decade, he said an even larger figure, $72.8b over the decade, would be redirected from existing expenditure.

The overarching intention of that redirection is to make the ADF "more amphibious", including by spending on the AUKUS submarine programme ($53-$63b over the next decade) and on new long-range strike and targeting missiles, including Tomahawk missiles ($28-$35b over the next decade).

But other aspects of defence activity will be cut back. The government announced last year it would reduce the number of infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129.

Marles did not provide an exhaustive list of other cuts, but also noted $1.4b in planned defence infrastructure in Canberra would instead go to bases in Darwin, Townsville and Pyrmont, and $4.1b would be saved over the next decade by no longer acquiring two large navy refuelling support vessels.

He also suggested money could be saved by reducing "over-programming" - committing to defence projects that are not fully funded and which then lead to cost overruns - with details to be outlined in a new Integrated Investment Program.

"Reallocating spending cannot occur without difficult decisions," he said.

Coalition defence spokesperson Andrew Hastie characterised the reprioritisation as a "cut" and said the government should increase defence spending further instead of reprioritising existing spending.

"The ADF will be worse off. There won't be a balanced force or a focused force. There will instead be a weaker force... We are committing to more defence expenditure than the Albanese government," he said.

Recruits wanted

Marles said there was a shortfall of about 4400 defence personnel.

He said the government planned to "streamline recruiting processes" and improve retention, including by taking steps to "improve defence's culture" to be informed by the final report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

He also suggested the migration programme would be used to recruit "certain non-Australian citizens" with specialised skills to join the ADF.

- This story was first published by the ABC

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