Dangers in defence cuts

THE federal government’s latest barrage of defence announcements, it appears, is aimed squarely at next week’s budget.

The government asserts, of course, that a combination of global economic factors and changed strategic circumstances justify producing the next defence white paper a year ahead of schedule.

But it is no secret that Labor is desperate to balance its budget, and saving almost $2billion by dumping a plan to buy self-propelled howitzers and postponing a decision on new fighter planes will make that goal a lot easier.

It is fair enough for defence to carry its share of budget cuts, but with the Asia-Pacific region entering a period of potential strategic uncertainty, Australia needs to retain adequate military clout.

Unfortunately, some major capability gaps may be looming and it isn’t clear what the government will do about them.

Perhaps the biggest headache is the replacement for the nation’s Hornet fighter squadrons. Australia opted to sign up for the Joint Strike Fighter being developed by the United States, but problems with that aircraft’s design and production have created a hiatus.

Other regional powers are acquiring planes that may be superior in some respects to the ageing Hornets. While Australia has moved to buy some upgraded Super Hornet aircraft, fears persist that, until the new Joint Strike Fighters arrive, the RAAF may not enjoy all of the relative technological advantages it has traditionally held.

The other problem area is submarines.

Australia arguably made a serious error when – for what many regarded as political, vote-buying reasons – it opted for the untried Swedish Collins design instead of an off-the-shelf German boat offered by a Newcastle-based consortium.

Billions of dollars have been poured into the Collins subs, but these have continually disappointed.

Ominously, the government may be preparing to follow the same path with the next generation of subs, with suggestions that a new version of the Collins boat will again be built in South Australia.

If things go wrong – again – Australia will be stuck with its struggling Collins fleet even longer, while it waits for another hypothetical product to enter service.

THE University of Newcastle’s new Vice-Chancellor, Caroline McMillen, won’t be the only person studying next week’s federal budget for any sign of good news about funding for the institution’s planned expansion into the city.

Shifting some of the university’s faculties and schools into the city has been lauded as an excellent way of helping drive Newcastle’s urban transformation as well as creating attractive new options for students and staff.

Such a move won’t come cheaply, of course, and it will be dependent on capital funding from the federal government. The good news is that the project has progressed from an initial list of 160 competing applications to a shortlist of just 40.

The odds are long, but may be shortening.

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