Air Warfare Destroyer (image : AWD Alliance)
(IMP) -- STEPHEN Smith has told his department to bring forward the promised new defence white paper so it can be released before next month's budget - along with plans to buy more Super Hornet fighter-bombers and a fourth powerful Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD).
Senior sources have told The Weekend Australian that the white paper, which was due by the end of June, will refocus strategy away from China as a threat and commit the government to a large new spending program.
The three air warfare destroyers under construction are costing a total of $8.5 billion and an additional vessel would be likely to cost at least $3bn, possibly more.
It is estimated that 24 more Super Hornets would cost between $2.5bn and $3bn and it is likely that money would need to be spent soon.
Sources said the Defence Minister would also narrow down to two the range of options for the design of the navy's promised 12 submarines, which the government says must be built in Adelaide. It is not known what cuts will be made elsewhere to cover the substantial cost of the new purchases.
The sources said ordering a new air warfare destroyer would bridge the so-called "valley of death" faced by Australia's ship-building industry when the work dries up after the current three destroyers are built and before the new submarine project can start. The move would also provide a political boost as it would ensure continued jobs in Adelaide and Melbourne's Williamstown.
The Australian revealed this week that Williamstown, one of Australia's most important naval shipyards, could be mothballed or sold, placing more than 1000 jobs at risk unless the federal government gave it more work.
The new white paper is expected to back away from the theme of Kevin Rudd's 2009 version: that Australia needed to be prepared to fight a war against China. According to the 2009 document, the prospect of conflict with a superpower that was also a major trading partner and a crucial pillar of the Australian economy would require building a very potent Australian Defence Force with 12 big new submarines; giant landing ships able to carry 1000 troops, tanks and the works; air warfare destroyers to protect the lot; a host of smaller warships; and about 100 revolutionary Joint Strike Fighters. This was expected to cost more than $200bn over many years.
RAAF F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (photo : CanvasWings)
In last year's budget, Julia Gillard and Mr Smith cut $5.5bn from Defence over four years, reducing spending to 1.56 per cent of GDP. That brought a huge backlash that allowed the opposition to paint Labor as soft on national security.
Mr Smith's announcements, due within a fortnight, are intended to repair that damage while bringing clarity to struggling defence-industry companies and removing the impression that the minister is stalling on major decisions.
In strategic terms, this year's white paper is expected to focus on issues much closer to home than the 2009 version. But it will deal with the need to protect the nation and its allies against the increasing threat posed by rogue states.
It will adopt a much more conciliatory tone on China and will include a stronger focus on the use of diplomacy to defuse situations before they escalate and to encourage Beijing to use its influence to help calm issues down.
In the wake of the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula, it has also been suggested that the government may soon order a major upgrade to the missile systems being fitted to the air warfare destroyers to enable them to shoot down ballistic missiles.
The SM2 systems now being fitted are highly effective against aircraft but are not designed to shoot down ballistic missiles that North Korea is now developing. The more advanced SM3 missile system has knocked down ballistic missiles in tests involving US and Japanese warships but that would cost many millions more to buy and fit.
The developments in North Korea have focused attention on the need for countries such as Australia to be able to contribute to a shield to knock down missiles from a rogue state. The idea would be to place air warfare destroyers near North Korea so that they can use their highly sophisticated Aegis anti-missile systems to intercept a North Korean ballistic missile while it is still gathering speed.
The RAAF has long intended that the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter, now officially named the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II, would replace its F-111 long-range bombers and F/A-18 Hornet fighters. The Rudd government indicated in its 2009 defence white paper that it would purchase up to 100 JSFs. Australia has ordered 14 of the revolutionary JSFs, with the first to be handed over in the US next year. The first squadron was intended to be operational by 2018.
The RAAF already has 24 Super Hornets, ordered by the Howard government in 2007 after the ageing F-111 fleet was retired earlier than intended because of safety concerns. Australia has spent $1.5bn fitting out 12 of those Super Hornets with sophisticated Growler electronic warfare equipment, which is able to paralyse an enemy's communications and missile systems.
It is expected that some of the new Super Hornets will come fitted out as Growlers. The RAAF also has 71 older "classic" Hornets. If the government does buy another 24 Super Hornets, that is likely to reduce the number of JSFs that are ultimately needed by the RAAF.