The federal government should abandon its pledge to lift defence spending to two per cent of GDP and instead spend as needed, a new study says.
Australian National University strategic academics Andrew Carr and Peter Dean say this figure has emerged as a magic number for defence spending.
That now stands at $25.4 billion in 2013-14, the most funding ever. But that accounts for 1.59 per cent of GDP, the lowest proportion of GDP devoted to defence since the eve of World War II.
Both the government and Labor have promised to lift that to two per cent, the government within a decade.
That’s a lot of money to be found – much more than $5 billion – at a time of financial stringency and strong competition for funds from health, education, infrastructure and much more.
Dr Carr and Dr Dean said it is unclear whether two per cent would be two much or too little.
The two per cent of GDP was also unlikely to be achieved, they said.
It would require sustained increases of more than five per cent a year for a decade, without precedent except in wartime or acute international crisis.
“The Abbott government should abandon its pledge and return to a more orthodox approach to defence funding and which is based on marrying strategy and finance through a considered analysis of the needs and requirements of the defence establishment in the contemporary strategic environment,” they said.
For the coalition, the two per cent GDP promise was potent politics, coming after defence funding cuts under Labor and inviting comparison with the pre-WW2 period of defence unpreparedness.
But more spending doesn’t automatically mean better defence, as the US discovered in 2001. High defence spending can also be at the cost of economic strength, as the former USSR discovered.
Dr Carr and Dr Dean said the government should use the new Defence White Paper, to be released next year, to assess what defence Australia needs and how much should be spent.