The Avalon Airshow is little more than a military bonanza used to fuel occasions like Defence Minister Richard Marles' recent speech, pushing for more engagement with the defence industry, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.
THE GLOBAL pandemic was not completely catastrophic in its effects. It led to the cancellation and postponement of wasteful projects and events. It spared public money. But as the pandemic slides into the shadow of policymaking, bad habits have returned. The profligates are here to stay.
One such habit is the (commonly called) Avalon Airshow, a celebration of aeronautical militarism in the Southern Hemisphere best done without.
In 2021, organisers announced with regret that the event would be cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions and uncertainty. Last October, however, organisers promised a return to form in 2023. Those with tickets 'can look forward to a whole new program with jaw-dropping aerial displays, a refreshed food and beverage offering and live entertainment'.
Formally known as the Australian International Airshow and Aerospace and Defence Exposition, Avalon2023 promises to 'showcase' much in the 'dynamic world of aviation, aerospace and space, new materials, fuels and ways of flying'.
The program features a specialist dimension and complimentary conferences 'open to any accredited trade visitor'. The specialist aspect will feature presentations from, among others, the Royal Australian Air Force, Australian International Aerospace Congress (AIAC) , Australian Association for Uncrewed Systems (AAUS), Australian Industry & Defence Network (AIDN) and the Australian Airports Association (AAA).
Leading up to this military bonanza (which opened on 28 February), the Australian Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles, has been tooting his justifications for more hardware, more military merchandise and more engagement with the defence industry.
His address to the Avalon 2023 Defence Industry Dinner revealed a boyish credulity typical in many who lead that portfolio. The boys-with-toys credo becomes all-seducing.
Air forces, Marles noted:
“... are the coolest part of any military.”
He called movie Top Gun — Maverick:
“... an important and insightful documentary."
With that treacly tribute out of the way, Marles could get down to the business of frightening Australians and delighting the military-industrial mandarins.
According to Marles, Australia faced:
"... the most challenging and complex set of strategic circumstances we’ve seen since the Second World War."
"[The] global rules-based order [had been placed] under immense pressure, largely due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine... The post-Cold War era – a period of democratic expansion and unprecedented integration of global trade and investment – is now over."
The scriptwriter had evidently gone to sleep in drafting such words. The post-Cold War era was streaked with brutal invasions and interventions (Iraq and Libya, to name but two instances), supposedly by the rules-abiding types in Washington, London and Canberra.
The Russian invasion did feature the imposition of will by a larger state on a smaller neighbour using “power and might”, but the U.S.-led invasion that kicked the hornet’s nest of sectarian violence in 2003 came from the same stable of thought.
Marles' speech then followed a familiar pattern. First, call out the Russians. Then highlight the "Oriental armed scourge" to the North.
“In the Indo-Pacific, China is driving the largest conventional military build-up we’ve seen anywhere in the world since the Second World War. And much of this build-up is opaque.”
Australia’s security, assured by its remote location and geography, could no longer be taken seriously, proposed Marles:
"Today we face a range of threats – including longer-range missiles and hypersonics and cyber-attacks – which render our geographic advantages far less relevant.”
The enemy could do damage from afar, causing harm“without ever having to enter our territorial waters or our air space”. It was, therefore, important to place Australian defence upon the footing of “being able to hold any potential adversaries at risk much further from our shores”.
This was a rather devious way of laying the ground for more cash and larger budgets, ignoring the clear point that Australia has no truly mortal enemies but wishes to make them — as Washington’s obedient deputy.
One particular product is meant to take centre stage. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is lagging in the department of murderous drone technology. One such device promises to be unveiled at Avalon.
As reported by the national broadcaster:
'The uncrewed air system has been developed by BAE Systems Australia and is designed to be stored in shipping containers.'
The device is allegedly capable of carrying a lethal payload in excess of 100 kilograms.
Chipman told a Melbourne audience filled with foreign air force chiefs and senior officials:
“We’ve seen a proliferation of low-cost drones and loitering munitions delivering both ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and fires to great effect. They don’t replace the roles of contemporary combat aircraft, but they might serve as a useful complement.”
With that in mind, the RAAF was “considering the potential of low-cost drones that bring mass to our air combat system and we’re considering what new measures are necessary to defend against them”. Such views appeared to thrillThe Australian, which expressed satisfaction that Australian military policy was finally 'moving in the right direction'.
Chipman has been particularly busy in the lead-up to the Avalon Airshow, walking the tightrope of defence propaganda: self-praise and capability must be balanced against fear of achievement on the part of an adversary.
In an interview with the Australian Financial Review last week, the air marshal revealed the RAAF had also joined the hysteria about targeting high-altitude surveillance balloons. He also defended the merits of the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, praising its pilots as having "retained an edge over drones or other uncrewed platforms despite advances in technology”.
China, however, was causing jitters in the area of hypersonic missiles, capable of delivering a warhead at five times the speed of sound with extreme manoeuvrability.
“I think China is in front when it comes to hypersonics... and that is something we are actively working to address.”
Thank goodness, then, for the Avalon Airshow — even if the organisers were not sagacious enough to invite Chinese and Russian manufacturers.
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