This morning at the Lowy Institute we heard Kevin Rudd's vision of Australia's strategic situation, national security, and Australia's interconnected economy. I'll leave analysis of what he had to say on the Syrian situation to my colleagues, but suffice to say Rudd has a better grasp of international security dynamics than almost anyone else in the parliament. Let me assess the one policy announcement in his speech: establishing the Future Navy Taskforce.

The Prime Minister committed to establishing a Taskforce consisting of the Secretary of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy as an ex-officio member. Within 24 months, this task force would give advice on implementing force posture recommendations that 'offer operational advantages, advanced capabilities and sustainment benefits' to Navy. This would include 'moving some or all of Fleet Base East to Perth or Brisbane, and upgrading naval facilities in Darwin, Cairns, and Townsville'.

Mr Rudd outlined his priorities for force posture, priorities which will shape the deliberations of this task force. It is a force posture that supports ADF operations in Australia's northern approaches, humanitarian assistance and stabilisation operations in our neighbourhood, and enhanced force posture measures pursued with the US military. In short, Rudd wants a defence force better postured to look north and west.

Certainly I'd agree that our strategic interests are increasingly to the north and west. But I disagree that we need to uproot the entire Navy to secure them, and Rudd's plan to fundamentally transform our naval posture would imperil other efforts underway to rebuild Navy. More importantly, we are already struggling to fund our defence budget to the level both Rudd and his Defence Minister Stephen Smith would like, and we're also struggling to fund even modest infrastructure upgrades called for to enhance US force posture arrangements.

The ADF Force Posture Review did suggest that a second naval base on the east coast of Australia would be a useful addition, but the 2013 Defence White Paper concluded that of more immediate concern was the lack of infrastructure to permit the loading of naval munitions and fueling of Navy's fleet. The White Paper concluded that a second naval base was not an immediate option to be pursued.

Rudd's fundamental argument for why we would relocate Navy is to enable ships, particularly Australia's new amphibious assault vessels, to be closer to the Army units they would embark and presumably closer to the trouble spots we would deploy them to. That makes sense. Positioning the amphibs in Queensland would allow them to respond to a crisis 24 hours faster than if there were based in Sydney. But the sheer scale of upheaval required to move Navy's bases, as well as the cost, would outweigh this benefit.

Sydney's Garden Island has the only dry dock in Australia capable of servicing all of Australia's new ships, sustains a defence industry of over 8000 technicians and experts, and adds $608 million to the NSW economy every year. The ADF Force Posture Review conservatively estimated the cost to defence of establishing new base facilities on the east coast at $6-9 billion. The true cost would be much higher. Large tracts of defence industry would need to be relocated to Brisbane, a city already in the midst of a boom. Defence would need to build new housing, garrison support facilities would need to be recast, IT infrastructure connected, and a range of other services rejigged. Strategic naval communications facilities at Garden Island Sydney would need to be replicated.

It's unlikely that this would cost less than $10 billion and take less than a decade. The Hawke Review concluded that a move to an existing port facility would take until at least 2025.

In the meantime, Navy is trying to rebuild its engineering capability, sustain an anaemic fleet of submarines, commission two entirely new classes of ships, make decisions on a future submarine, and fundamentally reconsider its maritime strategy. And it's doing that with a defence budget funded 25% below the level the Defence Minister would prefer.

The Prime Minister was asked to commit to a 2% GDP spend on defence, and replied that his policy was to sustain defence spending at 2%. That overstates his Government's current defence spending by approximately $8 billion.

I asked the Prime Minister if he though Navy could manage all of its problems and move house at the same time. He replied that it was the responsibility of government to think big, make the big calls, and think about the problems twenty years down the road. That's inspirational stuff, but government also needs to address the defence problems of here and now. We are underfunding the current defence plan by $33 billion and neither side of politics has an answer for that. Amid such weak defence policy, shifting the Navy north is a very big call indeed.

Photo by Flickr user US Department of Defense Current Photos.