Why do we waste so much on the military?

Australian war spending is about $35 billion a year and rising. The military is undergoing a significant rearmament program as imperialist tensions around the world sharpen.

A $90 billion naval shipbuilding program is the latest jewel in the crown for defence minister Marise Payne. The Royal Australian Navy fleet is getting 12 patrol vessels, $50 billion worth of submarines and nine anti-submarine frigates.

With such a dramatic boost to the military’s strength, you’d think a foreign invasion was imminent. It is called the “defence force”, after all. But there is nothing defensive about the Australian military; it has always been an offensive power, used to dominate the region and bolster the power of ruling class allies in global conflicts.

Sordid history

Imperialist considerations drove the move to federation in 1901, a united Commonwealth providing a united defence force. Australia quickly became an aggressive power, asserting its military dominance to access resources and preclude competition from other countries.

While invasions have been justified as defensive strikes or humanitarian interventions, territories were plundered of natural resources and populations were slaughtered, starved or condemned to destitution.

Papua New Guinea, annexed by Britain in the 1880s, became an Australian colony in 1902.

Nauru – a tiny island in Micronesia – is today one of two sites where the Australian government’s regime of indefinite offshore detention brutalises refugees. But Australian domination of the impoverished nation dates to World War One. Nauru was invaded in 1914, and in 1923 the League of Nations gave control of the Island to Australia. 

Phosphate, Nauru’s most valuable resource, was mined – but little of the value was ever given to locals. Once the deposits were depleted, Nauru was left with no source of economic prosperity, until Australian “aid” packages were given in return for hosting the detention centres. 

Countries in the South Pacific have been under nearly continuous intervention from the Australian state. In the last 20 years, Australian troops and federal police have intervened in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga.

Australia’s military incursions have not been confined to this corner of the globe. Troops have been deployed in every major war launched by British or US imperialism for the last century, mostly in far-flung countries that present absolutely no threat to Australia. 

Geopolitical alliances are crucial for countries wanting to expand their influence, and Australian leaders have aligned themselves with the global top dogs. When the British Empire was still hegemonic, Australian troops could be counted on to join the fight against any rivals.

The Anzac legend says that Australia became a nation only after more than 8,000 young men died at Gallipoli. How the senseless slaughter during an invasion of another country was needed to create “mateship” and a larrikin spirit has never been explained. 

The newly formed state was desperate to prove its loyalty to a powerful friend. Labor prime minister Andrew Fisher pledged “to help and defend Britain to the last man and the last shilling”. 

Twenty years later, as the world became embroiled in World War Two, the deadliest episode of all human history, Australia once again lined up loyally beside British soldiers. In France, North Africa and the Middle East, Australia spared no expense deploying young men as cannon fodder for Winston Churchill and George VI.

Despite victory for the Allies, the British Empire could not be saved. Following the war, the United States became the most powerful military-industrial state in history, eventually securing 800 foreign military bases, including the top-secret Pine Gap defence facility 18km south-west of Alice Springs.

From Vietnam in the 1960s to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, successive Australian governments have enthusiastically backed and participated in US-led foreign invasions.

There are 2,300 Australian defence personnel deployed internationally. Not one of those is stopping a violent attack on the Australian population. They are making an attack more likely.

They are helping the United States and Saudi Arabia to enforce a siege of Yemen, a siege the UN predicts could murder another 10 million civilians by the end of this year. They are in Afghanistan, which has been under Western occupation for almost 20 years. 

And they are in the local region, stationed in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, while hundreds patrol the oceans around the border to intercept boats carrying refugees and imprison or tow back those on board.

Tensions mount

Australia’s role as a junior partner in the US alliance and the sharpening of geopolitical tensions explain the expansion of defence spending. The US is now confronting a serious rival, China, whose stratospheric economic development over the past 20 years is unrivalled in the history of capitalism.

The development of Chinese industry is now being matched by the expansion of its military apparatus and foreign influence. The US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative is viewed by the US as a threat to its global dominance. While China’s arms spending and foreign military bases lag well behind those of the US – China has only one foreign base compared to the US’s nearly 800 – the trajectory is still cause for concern in the eyes of the US ruling class.

Australia is in an important strategic position for US aggression in the Asia-Pacific. And while Australia has close economic ties with China, the political and military establishment is hostile to the development of a local imperialist rival asserting greater influence in the region. 

In response to this perceived competition, and in line with the global dynamic of rearmament, Turnbull is pouring tens of billions of dollars into expanding the Australian war machine, with the full backing of the ALP.

Some aspects of Australian military development are unique. For example, for Australian forces to be co-deployed with the US, their hardware must be compatible and integrate with that of their senior “partner”. The US generals would find little use for an Australian light horse brigade. So Australia specialises in Special Forces deployments and limited naval support, and purchases from the US its next generation F-35 joint strike fighters so the air force can seamlessly join US air raids. 

But more broadly, there is nothing unique about the growth in military spending. The pressures of imperialist competition drive every state to build a standing army that can be deployed to create chaos and destruction. 

The richer the country, the more advanced and destructive its military capabilities will be. We now live in a world in which modern warfare can raze whole cities, infect populations with deadly and deforming chemicals for generations and launch drone strikes with a near perfect accuracy from a warehouse on the other side of the world.

The biggest military powers are not defending themselves; their armies exist to invade foreign lands to secure trade routes and resources. Sometimes they attack simply to prove their unchallengeable power. 

The brightest minds in engineering, physics, biotechnology and computing sciences are not used to develop the productive capacity of society in the common interest. Funding in these fields is increasingly directed toward military research. 

It is a sick system that prioritises the construction of machines of destruction over those that could benefit humanity. This is what you get in a society that prioritises profits.