With out-of-date equipment, new superpowers and the biggest movement of refugees since 1945, Marise Payne faces immediate problems in Defence.
The Australian military has been in the field for a long time now.
The quiet decline of the post-Vietnam years is now nearly two generations removed from the RAAF’s interdiction in Iraq and Syria. There are highly politicised naval contributions to border control, more conventional maritime operations in the Middle East and intense and continual special forces deployments across the globe.
But descriptions of new minister Marise Payne taking control of Defence “while the country is at war” are breathy and overblown. Australia is not at war and has not mobilised its enormous national resources to make war on any foreign state, although tens of thousands of its war fighters and their machines have been routinely engaged in combat operations since the 9/11 attacks. A couple of years before that, thousands more were deployed to East Timor.
Supporting them will indeed constitute a significant part of the responsibility Marise Payne now takes up, but it is by no means the greatest challenge awaiting her.
Defence was once something of a weird political backwater, a big-spending ministry where not much happened. It was a perfect sinecure for old warhorses of the governing party. Change first came with Kim Beazley’s reimagining of the portfolio in the 1980s and accelerated as the West – especially the anglophone powers – was drawn into the millennia-long Sunni-Shia conflict inconveniently located atop some of our favourite oil reserves.
How and even whether to challenge Beijing’s interpretation of maritime lebensraum in the South China Sea is keeping ministers and admirals awake throughout the region.
But as diabolical an issue as that might be, it will not test the new minister as severely as two quite old-fashioned, old world problems: great power rivalry, and a technology trap.
Long protected by distance, Australia now sits in the centre of a redrawn strategic map. The 21st century will be contested in the Pacific and Indian Oceans – and Australia is the only serious middle power with long coastlines fronting both. Allied to the US, the declining hyperpower of the last century, economically handcuffed to China, one of the rising superpowers of the next twenty-five years, our land is girt by a sea of trouble.
China’s economy is increasingly massive, but structurally fragile. Its contest with the US is but one of many it has initiated, and possibly not as important as the emerging rivalry with India.
A seemingly simple decision – whether to increase training with the Indian military, either directly or as part of a wider, informal group involving Japan and the US – can send Beijing into bureaucratic hysteria. How and even whether to challenge Beijing’s interpretation of maritime lebensraum in the South China Sea is keeping ministers and admirals awake throughout the region.
Into this grand strategic dog’s breakfast, you can expect to add lashings of climate change chaos, collapsing states and the greatest movement of refugees since the end of the Second World War.
They seem to think of refitting an entire underwater fleet as being akin to relaying the footpath in the outer suburbs...
This is the wider political ‘battlespace’ in which Payne will have to manage the block obsolescence of Kim Beazley’s legacy – the fast approaching replacement of whole arms of Australia’s war machine. Submarines, fighters, surface combatants for the RAN; they’re all reaching the end of their operational lives and replacing them is both massively expensive and risky.
The F-35 Stealth Fighter program is deeply troubled, but the submarine project has attracted the most attention because both sides of politics have sold it as a job creation scheme. Abbott’s contribution, promising submarines for everyone from the Japanese Prime Minister to the boilermakers of Adelaide, was particularly egregious, but the ALP is little better. They seem to think of refitting an entire underwater fleet as being akin to relaying the footpath in the outer suburbs – a convenient source of publicly funded jobs and votes.
It is not just rare to hear strategic and military policy discussion of the project – it is unheard of, outside of think tanks like The Lowy Institute or ASPI.
If Malcolm Turnbull really does expect to conduct the national discourse in a more intelligent, empirical manner, Payne will have the one of the more difficult stories to tell, for stakeholders as various as those South Australian boilermakers, the US national security lobby, and Beijing’s admirals and generals.
Nobody since Beazley has even tried.
John Birmingham is an award-winning author. He once worked as a research officer with the Defence Department's Office of Special Clearance and Records.