An F35 Joint Strike Fighter in flight in the clouds

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One of Australia’s leading defence analysts has warned the nation must dramatically increase military spending — including doubling orders for submarines and fighter aircraft — because the United States is no longer a reliable ally.

Key points:

  • Defence expert Professor Hugh White says Australia needs to increase spending to make up for declining confidence in US support
  • He has proposed scrapping a $50 billion order for 12 future submarines
  • Professor White has also urged Australia to scrap the $35 billion Future Frigate program

Former Defence Department official and intelligence analyst Professor Hugh White said he believes China’s inevitable rise as this region’s dominant power means Australia must urgently rethink its military posture.

“I think [a] really fundamental shift in Australia’s strategic situation is taking place,” Professor White told the ABC.

“For the first time really since European settlement of this continent we can no longer assume that we’ll have a great and powerful friend [Britain first, then America] as the dominant power in Asia, as the strongest military power in Asia.”

In his newly-released book How to Defend Australia, Professor White suggests overall defence spending will need to leap from 2 per cent of GDP to 3.5 per cent.

“That means we’re looking at spending an extra $30 billion a year — it’s a huge increase but what else should we expect when we move from an environment in which we’ve been very confident in American support?

“It would be a modest but significant increase in the tax take, for example to expand our tax base in order to accommodate that, or of course to cut other spending.

“But it would be a very big decision to make and what I’m hoping my book will help to do will be to stimulate the debate that we have to have in Australia about what kind of approach we take to our own defence in what’s going to be a much more demanding strategic era.”

Among Professor White’s radical proposals is the scrapping of the $50 billion program to build 12 French-designed future submarines, and to replace them with at least 24 more affordable boats, based on Australia’s current Collins Class fleet.

The submarine is pictured underwater, and from behind, with the propulsion units shown.

“The problem we have with the submarine project we have underway at the moment is that it’s going to deliver — if it delivers — very expensive submarines of which we can only afford a relatively small number, very late and [there are] real uncertainties about their performance.”

Professor White conceded there are no simple “off the shelf” options for submarines, but a new design based on Australia’s ageing fleet would be the quickest option.

“By far and away the best fit is an evolution of the current design. We have the Collins design [which], for all its problems, has proved to be a very good submarine, [and] it’s a submarine in the world we know best and it’s big and has the long range we require.”

To help pay for a massive build-up of submarine capability, Professor White argued Australia should scrap the $35 billion Future Frigate program, because the British-designed “big, expensive warships” are not “cost effective”.

“Successive governments in Australia have put a huge emphasis on building up our surface fleet — that would be a sensible thing to do if our primary operational aim was sea control, to project power by sea against other countries.

“But I’m arguing that in the tougher environment of the future we’re going to need to focus on the opposite thing, on preventing other people projecting power by sea towards us.”

The ANU Professor also warned the Australian Defence Force will need to buy more than double the current 72 planned Joint Strike Fighter aircraft if it wants to properly defend the country from air and sea attack.

“The Joint Strike Fighter plays a critical role in that, so I think overall we’re going to need a bigger frontline fighter fleet, whether it’s just Joint Strike Fighter or a mixed fleet.”

Topics: defence-and-national-securitydefence-industryunrest-conflict-and-waraustraliachina