The big squeeze.
ASPI Defence budget brief 2023–2024
Executive Director’s foreword
This is a very different year for the defence budget. We are in a time of significant change and upheaval.
Uncertainty is rife, but some fundamentals can help in working through uncertainty, especially in the world of defence policy, planning, capability programming and budget. The order of those words is important.
Defence budgets are not arbitrary. Capability requirements must drive budgets. It doesn’t mean that the budget is unlimited but it demands that governments consider proposals for what is required and assess what can be afforded. If budgets drive capability, it risks the true capability needs not being put to government which results in failure to ask of government what they are elected to do – make decisions based on all available information.
The oft-cited metric of defence spend as a percentage of GDP is helpful as a point of comparison on the rate of effort of specific economies towards defence outcomes. It establishes a baseline from which we can measure – and therefore tell a story about – defence spending over time, and in the context of broader geopolitics. The low percentages across major European economies helps to illustrate why deterrence failed against the Putin regime and should be a lesson for all in relation to why defence spending is so important for managing tension and long-term peace.
But a percentage in isolation is not helpful in assessing whether the budget allocated to Defence will allow it to deliver the capabilities for which the government has asked.
The Albanese government released the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) and its Portfolio Budget Statements (Budget) within weeks of one another. The DSR establishes the future strategic direction for the Department of Defence and the ADF, including by identifying priorities that must be acted upon in the immediate term. The Budget represents a continuity approach with the strategic and budgetary guidance from the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2016 Defence White Paper.
There is, therefore, a disconnect between the two. This can be addressed and will be through a series of further reviews and specific activities to be progressed by Defence in the coming year. There are significant additional bodies of work yet to be finalised that will affect the future defence budget; all indications point to a steady and possibly substantial rise.
Australia must of course invest in defence capability commensurate with the challenges of the strategic environment. Crucially, however, the role of defence to help deter wars, while being ready for times of conflict, requires spending even in times of relative peace. A detailed discussion of how defence is budgeted to both deter and win wars, and the external and internal dynamics that drive budget (and other) programming and management, is more important today than at any time in the post-Cold War era. This document is a must read for those interested in current and future defence spending and for increased understanding of its importance to the government’s overall budget theme of providing increased certainty to Australians in an increasingly uncertain world.
Defence has long been seen as a necessary burden on the federal budget. However, it is assuming the status of an urgent priority in the wake of the AUKUS agreement and the far-reaching reform urged by this year’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR). Both are responding to a much more challenging geopolitical environment and the realisation that Australia doesn’t have the luxury of time to achieve readiness.
This year’s Defence budget reflects the urgency of the demands upon Defence to the extent that it includes the initial spending on the nuclear-powered submarines and the first response to the DSR, despite there being only very approximate estimates for how that spending is to be scheduled and for the savings that will pay for them.
However, the urgency of the demands upon Defence isn’t reflected in its short-term funding. The only increase in the Defence budget over the next three years is compensation for the increased cost of imported military equipment flowing from a fall in the value of the Australian dollar.
Excluding this, the core funding of Defence (not including the Australian Signals Directorate) has actually been reduced at a time when unprecedented demands are being placed upon it. Between 2023-4 and 2025-6, Defence funding, excluding compensation for adverse foreign exchange movements, drops from $154.0 billion to $152.5 billion.
Both the AUKUS submarines and the DSR conclusions highlight an approach in which capability will drive budget conversations – not vice versa. That is welcome. But there is clearly much more work to be done to clarify the capability implications of the DSR, and then reflect those accurately - and at the appropriate time – in the budget.
The difficulty in bringing the DSR reforms and the spending on submarines into the budget is understandable. The timing of the DSR meant it reached the staff compiling the Defence budget very late in the annual process, while the nuclear-powered submarine program is of historically unprecedented complexity for any government project. The broad outline of the submarine program was only announced in March 2023.
New programs responding to the DSR such as a long-range strike capability or the hardening of the northern Australian bases, are not the subject of budget measures, with Defence expected to provide the additional funds needed with savings obtained from other programs.
Funding in each year continues to move faster than the predicted annual rate of inflation, consistent with the recommendations of the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) and the 2020 Defence StrategicUpdate (DSU).
However, the Defence Department’s financial controllers have fewer real resources to work with over the next three years than they were expecting in March 2022, when the Budget still contained the French submarine program and the DSR hadn’t even been commissioned.
The surge of inflation over the past year has made the constraints of a reduced funding base even tighter. The Treasury now expects inflation to reach 6% this year, or double the level it predicted a year ago. Inflation is being powered, both in Australia and globally, in large part by an overheated economy that’s the result of record low interest rates and large government deficits and further exacerbated by the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on food and energy markets.
With unemployment at near record lows, Defence has been unable to meet its recruitment targets, which has been further exacerbated by increasing separation rates among uniformed personnel.
Defence had planned for the ADF to raise its numbers this year (2022-23) by 2,201 but instead faced a contraction in size by 1,389 uniformed personnel.
The rigid constraints on Defence funding over the next four years reflect the Treasury’s judgement that total government spending must be curbed if inflation is to be brought under control. Treasury’s economic forecasts assume that the combined efforts of government and the Reserve Bank of Australia will succeed in taming inflation over the next 18 months, bringing inflation back into the Reserve Bank’s target band by 2024-25.
The government will start providing increased funding for defence from 2027-28 onwards. An amount of $30.5 billion has been set aside for defence spending out to 2032-33. It’s expected that this will increase the defence share of GDP from around 2.05% to more than 2.3%. The additional funding will lift Defence’s share of government spending from about 8.2% now, including both operational and capital spending, to about 9.7% by 2032-33.
However, the principal task for Defence over the year ahead is to decide how to reconfigure its force structure and capability acquisition programs in line with the DSR and the difficult budget constraint.
That work is to be completed ahead of the planned 2024 National Defence Strategy, which is expected to be released before next year’s budget. The uncertainty surrounding the existing Integrated Investment Program (IIP) will affect defence industry as the scope and schedules of major programs are reviewed. Although Defence has raised the share of its procurement sourced domestically from about 45% to 55% over the past five years, it’s possible that the pressure to acquire new capabilities quickly will result in more ‘off-the-shelf’ imports.
Given the intense re-ordering of the Defence capital program expected over the year ahead, this year’s ASPI defence budget brief isn’t a detailed examination of the major acquisition programs. Rather, it’s a guide for the government, industry, academia and citizens interested in Australian defence strategy, capability and budget.
The strategic context for the 2023-24 defence budget is complex and extremely challenging. There’s currently a gap, and quite a significant one, between the rhetoric of the 2023 DSR and the 2023-24 defence budget (and forward estimates). How Defence and the rest of government will work together to bridge the gap will become clearer over the coming year. This publication focuses on what ASPI can usefully contribute to that process, and where the key issues lie in the defence budget.
Readers are warmly encouraged to download the full document here.
30 May 2023