Former army chief blasts Albanese government over military spending, defence readiness

Story by defence correspondent Andrew Greene  • ABC News

Picture: Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, then chief of army, takes a tour near the landing site of Banda Aceh in 2005. (Department of Defence: Leading Seaman Bill Louys)

A former army chief has blasted the Albanese government’s approach to defence, warning Australia’s military is now less capable and ready for potential threats than when Labor first came to office.

Retired lieutenant general Peter Leahy says the response to the Defence Strategic Review has crippled the army, while a naval surface fleet review is delaying other crucial decisions.

“I’m really concerned that for this much more complex geostrategic position, we’re actually seeing the Australian Defence Force become less capable and less able to meet the options that might be required in the future,” he told the ABC.

General Leahy, who served as army chief until 2008, said the local defence industry was collapsing as cuts are made to defence budgets in the short term, in favour of long-term funding for nuclear submarines under AUKUS.

“The mandated cuts — and these are cuts to the allocated budget — are ripping the heart out of defence,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s much of a future for defence industry here in Australia, so we’ve got to pick up our game. I don’t think we can be taken seriously in the halls of Washington.”

When releasing its response to the Defence Strategic Review in April, the Albanese government announced a sweeping overhaul of the army by slashing the number of armoured vehicles and instead focusing on littoral manoeuvre and long-range strike capability.

General Leahy, who is now a University of Canberra professor, says he’s worried for the army’s future because it will be less capable and ready to provide governments with a range of military options.

“The army will be smaller, it will be less capable, it will be less protected, and by that I mean we need tanks and we need armoured vehicles because the days of tin and canvas on the battlefield are gone,” he said.

“And we know from history and recent experience — tanks save lives.”

In an opinion piece released on Tuesday, he also argues that as “an island nation astride two huge oceans and contested seas to our north, we absolutely need very capable naval and air capabilities”.

“Their focus should be operating as a small part of a combined force, supporting friends and allies away from our shores,” he writes.

“By doing this they provide depth to our defence in and around the natural defensive barrier provided by the archipelago and island chain to our north and east.”

Shipbuilding doubts overshadow maritime conference

Uncertainty over billions of dollars’ worth of Australian shipbuilding projects is threatening to overshadow an international navy conference which opens in Sydney on Tuesday.

This year, naval representatives from more than 40 nations are taking part in the Indo-Pacific Sea Power Conference, along with more than 800 defence companies.

Australia’s chief of navy has confirmed Chinese and Russian military delegations have again been excluded from the event, as they were last year.

“We don’t have a defence relationship with either China or Russia,” Vice Admiral Mark Hammond told the ABC.

Earlier this year, the Albanese government received the findings of a review of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet, which examined the viability of current projects such as the $45 billion program to build Hunter class frigates.

A formal government response to the study, which was led by retired US vice admiral William H Hilarides, will not be released until early 2024, but Vice Admiral Hammond insists plenty of Australian naval work is underway despite the drawn-out process.

“I have my hands full with current operations and optimising the fleet — we have a lot of activity underway already in that regard — and like you I wait with interest to see what the government determines in respect of the surface combatant review,” he said.

General Leahy said he questioned why a retired American admiral needed to review Australia’s navy, but warned all future construction of warships and submarines here will be “hellishly expensive”.


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