Abbott promises more defence funds

The federal opposition has promised a major hike in defence funding but ditched a longstanding commitment to buy the long-range unmanned surveillance drones it once championed.

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Launching the coalition’s defence policy, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said Labor had presided over a series of budget cuts which jeopardised the nation’s defence capabilities.

Under a coalition government, there would be no further cuts.

“Within a decade defence spending will be restored to two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP),” he told reporters during a visit to the Holsworthy army base outside Sydney.”

Labor also wants to restore defence spending to that level, when the budget permits, from about 1.6 per cent now.

However, Mr Abbott backtracked from a coalition commitment to acquire three large surveillance drones, such as the US Global Hawk or Triton, at a cost of more than $1 billion.

During the 2010 election campaign, the coalition described the drones as essential to regaining control of Australia’s borders.

Now Mr Abbott says there may be a better way of doing this.

“That’s why we have stated our support in principle for going down this path, but we are not making a specific commitment at this time,” he said.

Mr Abbott did promise to return to a former Howard government policy – a gap year program which gives school leavers a no-obligation taste of military service. The policy was ditched by Labor after the 2007 election to save money.

The opposition’s new defence policy also says the coalition remains committed to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, although Mr Abbott has indicated the commitment may not be absolute.

“We want to see it happen but the commitment is subject to final advice in government – should we win – from the CDF (Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley) and the other experts,” he said.

Mr Abbott also committed a coalition government to a series of reviews and decisions.

It will commission a new Defence White Paper and appoint a high-profile team to conduct another review of the Defence Department.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the coalition policy offered no new commitments and cast doubt over Australia’s submarine and surveillance programs which would cost jobs.

“It should be a major concern for the defence community,” Mr Smith said in a statement.

Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James welcomed the coalition’s promise not to cut defence spending.

“We note the promise that any future savings from the defence portfolio will come from the hierarchy of the defence bureaucracy and not the defence force,” he said.

“There’s nothing in here that should comes as a surprise to people or scare the horses.”