Andrew Carr is a Research Fellow, and Peter Dean is a Senior Research Fellow, at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.
There's much we can agree with in Ric Smith's discussion of funding Defence at 2% of GDP. He is right to say that there is no science behind the 2% figure and that it is no guarantee of security. As we have argued in some recent work on this subject, GDP 'hinders more than it assists the development of strategic policy and strategy. It is often misleading as a form of analysis, it will not make up for a strategic deficit and it will be almost impossible to achieve in practice'.
Unfortunately, while government outlay is a better measure in terms of accountability it still leaves the debate around funding and not strategy. Sir Arthur Tange said strategy without funding is not strategy. But equally, funding without strategy is still not strategy. What it can do is give a false sense of security through outsourcing strategic policy to a funding ratio and continuing the debate over money rather than strategy. As the recent Commission of Audit stated, 'the starting proposition for Defence funding should be to determine the defence capability required to successfully counter the various strategic risks Australia could face and then match this with appropriate funding to address the highest priority ones.' A rather blunt rejection of the Abbott Government's 2% pledge.
Arguably, since the 1980s getting enough funding and efficiently using it has been the primary concern for those interested in Australian defence policy. With the changes in our region and questions over Australia's role in the future, this debate is not enough. The only thing the otherwise ahistorical 1938 comparison gets right is recognising that today is also a momentous period in Australian defence policy. To ensure our security we need a big debate over the ends of national policy — what we want to be able to do, where and how, and what that will cost — rather than simply whether we are doing enough to sustain current efforts.
The pledge to spend 2% of GDP emerged from pre-election rhetoric from both sides. Let's hope that now in office, the Abbott Government can put such claims aside and listen to the experts like Ric Smith on the need to seriously think through how Australia can achieve its security. Only once we have a real idea about whether the Government's strategy has any merit can we begin to focus on holding them to account for properly funding it.