Richard Marles unveils Defence Force spending overhaul

Defence projects collectively worth billions are set to face the chopping block with funding instead freed up for investments in armed drones and missiles, an overhaul of defence spending has revealed.

In an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Defence Minister Richard Marles released the federal government’s National Defence Strategy, adjusting Australia’s 10-year military investment pipeline in a bid to stop spending from snowballing.

Total spending is expected to reach $330bn by the 2033-34 financial year, or 2.4 per cent of GDP, approximately $50bn higher than current levels, with the increase primarily assisting in the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS program.

The decade-long spending plan, known as the 2024 Integrated Investment Program, comes a year after Labor’s Defence Strategic Review uncovered significant underfunding of key projects and found the Australian Defence Force was not “fit for purpose for our current strategic purposes”.

In particular, the review found that a focus on “littoral manoeuvre operations by sea, land and air from Australia” was required for Australia’s armed forces, as the country’s army was primarily prepared for a land based warfare.

Under the spending shake-up, previous investments in military hardware will be axed or altered, with funds diverted towards projects that will bolster longer range strike and targeting capability, as well as lethal drones, in the face of heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

“There is now one job at hand: transforming our future capability such that Australia can resist coercion and maintain our way of life in a much less certain region and world,” Mr Marles said.

“The ADF needs to be entirely focused on this.”

While the investment overhaul includes additional funding, it also requires reprioritisation of $22.5b over the four year forward estimates period and $72.8b over the next decade.

Defence projects are notorious for running over budget and often suffer from lengthy delays.

A report from the Commonwealth auditor-general released earlier this year found delays for major defence acquisitions had cumulatively blown out by more than 37 years, with Defence’s 20 biggest projects facing an average delay of 25 months.

Projects running over budget, including the nine 10,000 tonne Hunter Class Frigates, now projected to cost $45bn, up from the original $31bn estimate, and 72 F-35 fighter jets at a cost of $16.5bn, up from initial price tag of $14.2bn.

Speaking ahead of the address, Coalition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie sought to frame the Defence spending overhaul as a test of the Defence Minister’s leadership, arguing that the plan needed to be more than “vague language, vague promises and vague time frames”.

“There must be real money, real commitment and real leadership,” Mr Hastie said.

“Richard Marles must be honest with the Australian people about the threats and challenges we face.

“This must be matched with a meaningful increase in Defence spending and a clear strategy – real money, and a real direction. These are the metrics that count.”

More to come.