The Phantom Menace - Labor's Defence Review a blast from the past
by Jake Lynch

By the mid-1970s, the old Soviet Union was in a state of advanced decay, its systems degraded to the point where keeping up with the West had faded to a distant dream. So, good news then, taking the pressure off military budgets and freeing up resources for social spending? Well, not for everyone. In Washington, CIA appraisals of the receding threat from Moscow were brushed aside by a team convened on the orders of President Gerald Ford - keen to prove, perhaps, that he really could walk and chew gum at the same time - to pore over the same field reports and raw data, and second-guess the assessments drawn up by the Agency's top analysts.

Team B, as it was known, reached some startling conclusions. No evidence could be found to support the long-held fear that the Soviets had developed an acoustic system for detecting US nuclear submarines. so they must have developed an undetectable, non-acoustic one instead. Soviet air defences were in tip-top condition, the team decided; based on the unimpeachable evidence of boasts in an official Russian training manual.

The parallels echo down the decades. Back then, the US was facing a crisis of military legitimacy, triggered by the Watergate scandal that brought Ford to office to replace the disgraced Richard Nixon and by defeat in Vietnam. (Pub quiz question - who was the only US President since World War II not to send his troops into battle? Jimmy Carter, who succeeded Ford in 1976). Thirty years later, an unpopular 'war on terrorism' has seen allies peeling off from both Iraq and Afghanistan, and makes a full-frontal assault on Iran a politically unsaleable proposition beyond a few deep red states in the American South and mid-West.

In both periods the world was, in some important respects, becoming safer, with the era of détente and the sclerosis of the Communist system bringing an end to the Cold War into view and being matched, in recent times, by a dramatic fall in the number of hot wars. The Human Security Project at Simon Fraser University, Canada puts the decrease at 40% between 1994 and 2005. And - now as then - this important fact is being ignored. Team B started a Washington ginger group to spread their message, called The Committee on the Present Danger. One of its most prominent supporters in politics was then Governor Ronald Reagan, who later came to the White House with a huge re-armament program. Today, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's annual survey of global military spending reveals that, as the number of armed conflicts - and the number of deaths - have gone steadily down, the total cost of arms has remorselessly risen, up over the same period by 37%, over and above inflation.

Here in Australia, Labor reached office committed, come what may, to increasing the military budget by three percent a year in real terms, the centrepiece of the proposed Defence White Paper. Ministers have also launched a public consultation exercise, giving the appearance, at least, of being willing to listen. But who really has the ear of decision-makers in Canberra? The decision to pre-empt any consideration from first principles, of Australia's real needs, bears the imprimatur of insiders such as Professor Ross Babbage, a former senior 'defence' official and arms dealer, and now a member of the advisory committee on the White Paper, whose paranoid ramblings include the recent gem that Australia needs a force at its disposal capable of 'ripping the arm off' an invading 'major Asian power'.

This is a non-sequitur. Our Asian neighbours are distinguished by their long record of building up militaries entirely unsuited for any excursion over their own borders; indeed their very notoriety comes from the rather conspicuous fact that they face no real external threat, so their only function is internal repression. Think Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Burma. As far as Australia is concerned they are (h)armless. Prof Babbage imagines an invasion from China, or even India. This is where the 'Team B' mentality might be dangerous, since paranoia tends to be catching. When the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, told the National Press Club (as he did on July 30) about the 'increasingly uncertain strategic environment' Australia faces, you know he's been Babbaged.

Then there's the government's choice of chairperson for the panel conducting the public consultations, Stephen Loosley, who comes to the job fresh from his appointment as - guess what - yet another arms dealer, in his case on the board of Thales. Company bigwig Paul McClintock promised shareholders that the new recruit would help Thales Australia to 'continue to grow and deliver on its strategies'. Which, given that its chief growth strategy is to inveigle the Commonwealth into buying ever more expensive toys it doesn't need, might be thought to amount to a conflict of interests. Not in the whacky world of Australian politics, apparently.

What would Ministers hear, if they could cut through the miasma? Opinion polling carried out last year for the new US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney turned up some interesting findings. Three-quarters of Australians believe that participation in the so-called 'global war on terrorism' has made them less safe, not more. They were split right down the middle on continuing Australia's troop presence in Afghanistan - an argument seldom aired in the media or official political debate, not because it is not going on, but because it suits the two main party leaderships in Canberra to ignore it. And fully 48% were in favour of Australia following an 'independent foreign policy' to replace the 'when Washington says jump, ask how high?' mentality of the Howard years.

Up to now, this has been a matter of blithe unconcern to 'defence' chiefs, who continue to purchase equipment and organise joint training exercises based on the doctrine of 'interoperability' with the United States. Even the multibillion dollar order for the obsolescent 'Super Hornet' fighter, pushed through under Brendan Nelson, was first off, then put swiftly back on again, apparently to avoid offending the Boeing corporation, a company which is, to all intents and purposes, a creature of the US government.

We should ask the question, what is the scenario, for which we are preparing? Which country are we practising to invade? Last year's 'Operation Talisman Sabre', the joint exercise involving 7,500 Diggers and as many as 20,000 visiting American troops, marked the debut of a new training installation in remote northern Queensland. It's a collection of painted containers and suchlike, arranged so as to resemble an urban environment. The Defence website called it a 'culturally non-specific' mock town, but soldiers taking part apparently dubbed the big building in the middle, 'The Mosque'.

Policy under Labor is in danger of veering away from both public opinion, about the continuing military alliance with Washington, and the evidence about a world that is actually getting safer, not more dangerous. There are continuing conflicts, including some in our region, but they are best met with a stronger commitment to human rights and dialogue. Notable examples include West Papua, where Indonesian police recently shot and killed a demonstrator at a non-violent rally marking UN World Indigenous Peoples Day, and the Philippines, where a declaration of 'all-out war' on the Communist rebels, the New People's Army, has given a green light to elements in the armed forces to carry out hundreds of unsolved drive-by shootings.

If political will and application are needed to engage with these issues - perhaps through encouraging the recent ASEAN dialogue on human rights - what of the military themselves, the brave and dedicated men and women of the Australian Defence Force? They need to be reassured that we, the wider Australian community, prize and respect their skill in peacekeeping. Savings from decisions not to buy redundant kit for fighting phantom enemies could be ploughed in to a redoubling of our efforts in this direction, starting perhaps with Darfur, a conflict whose human cost has shocked us scarcely more than the ineffectual efforts at the UN to muster a decent-sized detachment of blue-helmeted troops to offer basic protection to its long-suffering people. Such missions bring special challenges, requiring expertise to mesh and harmonise military efforts with those in humanitarian work and peacebuilding, and Labor has already taken the commendable step of committing itself to a new Asia-Pacific Centre for Civil-Military Cooperation. The brainchild of Colonel Mike Kelly, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, in whose Eden-Monaro electorate the centre will be sited, it is intended to 'streamline coordination between security, economic, emergency management, institution-building and non-government organisations to help avoid continuing instability and revolving-door military deployments'.

Some creative thinking is going on, then, and it needs to be encouraged and expanded. Question is, how? What are we going to do about it? We could, once again, look to the past for inspiration. The Reagan Administration had an abrupt change of course in the early 1980s, well before the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, in response to the powerful Nuclear Freeze Movement in the US. In a few short months, it fielded the biggest ever demonstration in New York's Central Park, and won 36 out of 39 referendums in eight states. Media and politicians alike were unable to ignore it, and Reagan was forced to disavow his Administration's own policy and declare a nuclear war 'unwinnable'. A ban on space weapons, proposals for a 'zero option' on nukes in Europe, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, all followed, including a cut in the Pentagon's budget.

Today, we can pressure local politicians to add a referendum question to the ballot in every council and state election - do you want federal defence spending to add 3% a year in real terms, or keep pace with inflation, or reduce by 3% a year? The principle that we should, at least, take a long hard look at what we actually need, before endorsing further spending, is familiar to countless Australians from running their own households in these days of inflationary pressures. It's time for some evidence-based policy-making.

Source: Australian Options