Abbott's defence plan: less manpower, more firepower

TONY ABBOTT would spend more on defence hardware partly paid for by cuts to defence bureaucracy, but will not put a time frame on his promise to restore Howard government levels of defence spending.

Having fiercely criticised as ''irresponsible'' the government's $5.5 billion cuts to defence spending over four years, announced in its last budget, the Coalition leader will use a speech to the RSL today to declare that he will also be looking for savings in the defence bureaucracy.

But he will promise that any money saved will be reinvested in greater military capacity.

A return to the 2009 defence white paper's pledge - now broken - of real annual increases in defence spending of 3 per cent would be an ''aspiration'' for a Coalition government, rather than a time-defined promise.

''The priority for new spending would be to give forces on operational deployment the weapons systems, reconnaissance platforms, combat uniforms and fighting vehicles that they need for protection and effectiveness,'' Mr Abbott will say.

The spending on extra equipment would begin with ''immediately starting the processes'' to acquire ''a number'' of unmanned surveillance aircraft ''to be operational along our northern borders''. At the 2010 poll, Mr Abbott promised to buy three Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles for more than $300 million as a frontline weapon in border protection.

Today he will pledge that a new defence white paper, to be finalised within 18 months of a Coalition government's election, would ''consider basing more of our military forces in northern Australia especially resource-rich areas with little or no current military presence''.

With the government's budget cuts raising big questions about the military acquisition promised in the 2009 white paper, Mr Abbott will nominate the same 18-month time frame to decide on the timing of buying joint strike fighters and the new submarines, scheduled to be built in South Australia. He will give no commitments.

''The Coalition is looking for savings in every area of government, including defence bureaucracy,'' he will say, but ''no Coalition government would ever make savings in defence that would compromise our national security interests or reduce the operational capabilities of our defence force''.

He will say the focus on the white paper will ''not be so much on the numbers of ships, planes, military hardware and personnel but on what our armed forces should be able to do and how their operational capacity can better match the tasks they might be expected to perform.''

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