Australia and Germany help ourselves to jobs and vehicles while Ukraine fights a war
Ukraine's military need supplies

Australian and German security cooperation that fails to support Ukraine is a mistaken priority.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge
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Ukraine’s military is running out of ammunition and other military supplies.  The problem is so grave that US President Joe Biden has ‘concluded he had little choice but to provide’ Ukraine with cluster munitions – a class of weapons many countries, including Australia, have banned from military use because of their dangers to non-combatants during and after war.

And our prime minister, Anthony Albanese, is visiting Europe to attend a NATO meeting in Vilnius which is devoted to what more NATO countries, the EU and other partners like Australia and Japan can do to give Ukraine what it needs to continue to push back Russian forces.

Mr Albanese is making decisions about defence capability and industry on this trip, including an agreement for German company Rheinmetall to build over 100 Boxer armoured vehicles in Queensland for the German military.  The prime minister said “This will be one of our largest ever exports, it will guarantee the 1000 jobs there in Queensland will go into the future and it’s worth in excess of $1bn to the Australian economy.

“This will boost our sovereignty, increase our defence capability and boost our economy.”

Unbelievably, though, the decision is not about helping Ukraine fight its war against Russia. Instead, it’s about equipping Germany’s military to be able to defend itself in a possible future war with Russia.  

Imagine President Zelensky’s private reaction to hearing Chancellor Scholz and prime minister Albanese talking up this deal because of the jobs it will bring and the security it will provide, particularly as he hears more about the obsolete personnel carriers and retired special forces vehicles Australia has found to provide to his troops.

Hearing about this industrial tie up with Germany on defence should be good news, but surrounding any defence decision relating to Europe right now is the overriding priority of helping Ukraine continue to resist the Russian invasion of its territory and attacks against its civilian population.  Any cooperation must be seen – and measured – in that light. 

The announcement that Australian Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft will do surveillance and control missions around Russian borders with NATO is a welcome practical step.  But it is all about relieving tired NATO and US aircraft and crews, not the Vilnius meeting’s focus – which is on supplying Ukraine with the urgent military supplies given dwindling stocks and struggling Western production.

It’s right that both Australia and Germany rearm and rebuild defence industries capable of sustaining forces during conflict, because together we face the common challenge of the Xi-Putin strategic partnership, two aggressive authoritarian states who both see military force as a key way of achieving their aims against others. 

But how can we do this and not focus the same energy and attention on helping the one nation and its people who are actually at war with the junior member of that partnership? If deterring Russia and China from wider and other wars is important, then giving Ukraine the military supplies they so urgently need is the most immediate and important deterrent action we can take.

If the supply situation in Ukraine is so dire that the US is willing to provide cluster munitions to make up for other shortfalls, then Chancellor Scholz and Mr Albanese need to follow up their announcement in Berlin with some very practical support to Ukraine’s military in the NATO meeting at Vilnius. 

Australia certainly has practical, powerful military systems we can supply to Ukraine right now that we can backfill by further orders to Australian companies so that our own defence is not left short.

On top of the 900 Bushmaster vehicles we already have, Australia has restarted the production line in Bendigo to make 180 more and is now scaling up production of Boxer armoured vehicles in Queensland, but we can find nothing better to give Ukraine than 28  1960s era personnel carriers that our own Army Chief condemned as not good enough for our soldiers.

We have world class counter drone weapon systems sitting in storage that can be mounted on Hawkei or other vehicles and that use readily available cannon and machine gun rounds to destroy Russian drones and missiles.

It’s not often that Australia looks so small-minded on the world stage. And it’s also not often that we have such a failure of strategic imagination that we can trumpet jobs for Australians for making weapons that will be sent to Europe but will have no bearing on the critical conflict taking place there. 

Collective security is not about defence spending creating jobs for Aussie workers and it’s not about re-equipping Germany’s military so that it can resist Russian forces after they have conquered Ukraine. 

Right now, the collective security that matters is action that helps Ukraine prevail. This is the best and highest priority investment in deterrence of both Russia and China. That deterrence challenge should be the focus for Australian defence spending and for our deepening partnerships with NATO, Indo Pacific partners and with Europe.

This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review.