Misguided Merchants Of Missiles

I’ll try and keep this short. 
The headline greeting us this morning was that Christopher Pyne would like Australia to become a ‘major arms exporter’.

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne says he wants Australia to become a major arms exporter on par with Britain, France and Germany and use exports to cement relationships with countries in volatile regions such as the Middle East.
The ambitious goal, outlined in an interview with Fairfax Media, would mean Australia not only builds but also designs major military hardware such as naval warships and possibly even submarines.
And he says such exports can be used to bolster military ties with key countries in the Middle East such as the United Arab Emirates, with whom Australia shares interests such as the fight against Islamic State and balancing Iran’s growing power in the region.
Mr Pyne said that in an increasingly uncertain world, Australia should have greater self-sufficiency in building its defence capability. But this would also require creating an industry of a size and sophistication that can export.

If you ever wanted to see somebody not understand what they were talking about, that’s Chris Pyne right there. Yes, it’s his portfolio, so it’s understandable that he would like to talk up defence industries of Australia, but the notion that Australia should be an arms exporter of the caliber of England and France is laughable.

We’re not good at hi-tech as much as we think. Much as we may laud our science achievements, Australia’s not exactly big on the kinds of material sciences it would take to build an arms industry worth exporting. It’s the sad truth that Australia doesn’t have the kind of industrial base to even begin to industrialise around material science in order to build the kinds of components that would be needed in arms.

If Christopher Pyne wanted to change this picture, there would have to be a massive investment in science education and industries in order to develop our own technology. This stands in the face of the track record of successive Australian governments that have been quite happy to let our best minds go work overseas. What he’s talking about, from the ground up, would need a total re-appraisal of our education system and in what kind of industries Australia would invest; and this is a bunch that struggled mightily with Gonski reforms. Their money most certainly not where Pyne’s mouth is at.

Frankly, Australia can’t even build its own assault rifles, and hasn’t done so since the late 1980s when the ADF started using the Austrian designed Steyr rifles. The submarines, we know about. If we could build our own, we would not have had to put out a tender to France, Germany, and Japan. The reason Australia chose the French design was ultimately because Australia didn’t want to offend China by picking the Japanese design, which goes to show we can’t express purity of our purpose even when picking from somebody else’s arsenal. The cost over-runs on most Australian naval vessels are staggering, and there are no indications that they are any better than foreign vessels in the equivalent classes. The Liberal Government has just shutdown the car manufacturing industry, so it’s not like there’s going to be land base combat vehicles. There isn’t an aerospace industry as such, so there won’t be missiles — and again aerospace would be the case in point of an industry we can’t have because we don’t have the basic material sciences sorted. The future is stealth, and there is nobody that can build stealth materials in Australia. The same goes for heat shields of the sort that go onto missiles. We don’t even print our own integrated circuits, and we can’t design our own integrated circuits. Our tech is shallow, as are the manufacturing base that can produce it.

Is this a good thing or a desirable situation? Probably not; but it only came about because successive Australian governments have never thought Australia ought to be an arms producer, let alone an exporter. Countries that are good at this stuff spend serious money on their Military Industrial Complexes — and frankly, our country has had better things to do than nurture a MIC.

Be that as it may, imagine that through a miracle Australia had solid material sciences and companies that could produce hi-tech components and other companies that could design wonderfully effective killing machines. Is the market of selling arms to tinpot dictators in Africa or shaky democracies trying to stave off civil wars, something really in which Australia and its people want to participate?

Again, I understand his need to talk up his portfolio, but what he is saying is patently silly and flies in the face of reality. Granted $200billion is going to be spent on the defence industries. Things will be developed and manufactured as a result of that spend. If the end product is then good, maybe it can be sold to somebody. What’s far more likely is that there would be negligible demand for Australian arms.

Take the submarine project. $50billion is earmarked for it. At the end, Australia will have a fleet of submarines based on a French design so it won’t own the design. It will be a submarine that will jury-rig a conventional diesel and electric motor onto a hull that was designed to be a nuclear submarine. When it is finished, we won’t know if it would be any good, and it will likely not be the best submarine going. If the track record of submarine manufacturing in Australia stays true, it will likely cost twice as much as an equivalent submarine because all the difficult super hi-tech components will have to be imported in small quantities, at an elevated premium. Who is going to buy this submarine over, say, the French original or even a newer French design? Will other nations be craven like Australia and pick this submarine over better, less expensive submarines? And that’s without getting into the morality of whether Australia wants to be like North Korea, a nation that earns its living selling arms and minerals.

Nor are we even going into the economic ramification of growing a military industry complex all of our own which will have a special seat at the table of rent-seekers already lobbying a jelly-spined government. We know South Australia is in dire straits with the closure of the car manufacturing plants and there’s not an industry that can replace that huge hole in South Australia (and Christopher Pyne is from South Australia)(way to go Tony Abbott you moron), but is turning South Australia into our very own Arizona — a state that stays afloat, largely on US military spending — any kind of solution at all?

And dare we mention the ethics of selling to nations that then devolves into a civil wars like Rwanda did in the 1990s. Do we really want to be that country that sold the future Hutus and Tutsis the means with which to fight their awful war (Rwanada was France and North Korea)? We don’t have enough cultural cool to lose on stuff like that. If we become the country selling arms to civil wars around the globe, no amount of waving stuffed toys of Koalas and Kangaroos is going to save us from looking like Masters of War.

Look, here’s the important bit for Christopher Pyne from Bob, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature:

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

That’s how arms exporters are seen. To want to get up and be known as one with the enthusiasm that Christopher Pyne is showing, is a kind of brain impairment. Not only can we not do it, we shouldn’t even aspire to it.

Anyway, I just had to get that off my chest. Sometimes you have to call out a dumb idea for what it is.