- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia Australia has embarked on an ambitious program to enhance its overseas deployment capabilities and expand its strategic role in the Asia-Pacific region, including a major increase in defense spending.

The government this month released a defense “white paper,” or comprehensive policy statement, outlining an increase in military spending from the current annual level of $6.5 billion to $8.7 billion by the decade’s end.

The cumulative increase of $12.6 billion in the military budget over 10 years is a landmark change in Australian strategic planning. The country’s military spending has been declining in real terms since the end of the Cold War and now stands at only 1.8 percent of national gross domestic product, the lowest level since the end of World War II.

The white paper argues that a stronger military is necessary for Australia to cope with the increased potential for instability among its neighbors.

It notes that “the countries of our immediate neighborhood Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, and the island states of the southwest Pacific face large economic and structural challenges.”

Australia sent troops last year to East Timor as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force intended to quell rioting by Jakarta-backed militias after the territory voted in a referendum to separate from Indonesia. The mission was Australia’s most significant military commitment in recent years.

As the white paper put it: “Our armed forces have been busier over the last decade, and especially over the past two years, than at any time since our involvement in Vietnam.”

Since then, there has been further turmoil among Australia’s neighbors.

Indonesia, still recovering from the loss of East Timor, has been stunned once again by an independence movement this time in the province of Irian Jaya. In May, a coup in Fiji deposed the democratically elected government and plunged that island nation into a protracted crisis.

The new defense spending aims to strengthen Australia’s ability to respond effectively to overseas flash points such as East Timor.

“Australia … cannot be secure in an insecure region, and as a middle-size power there is much we can and should do to help to keep our region secure, and support global stability,” the white paper says.

To expand its strike capability, the air force will receive four new Boeing airborne early warning and control aircraft, with an option on another three. In the long term, the government envisages buying up to 100 new aircraft to replace the present combat fleet of F-111 bombers and F/A-18 fighters.

The navy will get at least three new destroyers to replace old frigates, in addition to new amphibious ships, patrol boats, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and supply ships. The army will receive equipment upgrades and will be expanded to 54,000 troops by the decade’s end an increase of 3,500 over present numbers.

Underpinning the new defense system will be a major investment in intelligence-gathering equipment such as spy planes and radar systems.

The tone of the white paper is more strident than previous pronouncements from the government and signals a desire for greater self-reliance in the determination of Australia’s military needs.

“We believe that if Australia were attacked, the United States would provide substantial help, including armed force. We would seek and welcome such help. But we will not depend on it.”

Australia’s military expansion acquires greater significance when viewed in the context of a general decrease in military spending among many of its neighbors, which are still recovering from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. Defense budgets in countries such as South Korea and Japan have decreased in real terms in recent years.

Australia’s new spending plans could also provide an opportunity for major international defense suppliers.

Sikorsky, the helicopter manufacturer, is expected to receive a contract for the supply for 12 Black Hawk helicopters to the Navy. Lockheed Martin and Bofors are among the suppliers expected to compete for a new portable “bunker-buster” missile that the army will receive.

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