The 2014 Australia–PNG Ministerial Forum: announcables and unannouncables

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, other Australian government ministers and business leaders at the ministerial forum in Port Moresby.

A week after a serious military–police clash in Port Moresby went largely unreported in Australia, prompting some commentators to warn that PNG mightn’t always muddle-through potential crises, it’s reassuring that four of our high-profile ministers attended Monday’s annual bilateral talks. Government, at least, still takes the relationship seriously. But even the Forum struggled for column inches, coinciding as it did with the Sydney hostage drama and federal budget update. So it’s worth a quick look at its key outcomes as a snapshot of bright-spots and challenges in the partnership.

The headline announcement that 50 asylum-seekers on Manus have been categorised as genuine refugees could have come wrapped in Christmas paper. Port Moresby goes along with the line that it’s simply playing its part helping to counter a regional challenge, but sees its contribution to our tough border-protection stance as a big favour. Reading the fine print, the first 50 successful applicants for refugee status from the 1,044 detainees on Manus will have to move to a temporary facility until PNG finalises a resettlement policy allowing them to integrate into PNG. Still, progress is welcome, as PNG resents the reputational impact of hosting the centre, extra strain on its weak administrative capacity, and friction from our constant prodding to please hurry up.

Some critics of offshore processing may suggest the Forum’s muted language on corruption in general, and silence about the evaporation of Taskforce Sweep funding after it turned on its master, stem from our own difficult position on Manus. But for reasons I’ve set out elsewhere, I’d say it arises more from a calculation that megaphone diplomacy would be counter-productive. And even Sean Dorney—hardly a slouch on the Pacific or human rights—observes that, whatever you think about Manus, it has increased cooperation between the two countries.

Moreover, a desire to promote good governance lies at the heart of another of the Forum’s big deliverables: agreement to establish a School of Business and Public Policy to help rebuild an effective and ethical public sector. Although its aim to ‘transform PNG’s public service’ is ambitious given the scale of problems faced and resources available, this initiative fits Canberra’s strategic intent to focus on transformative projects: it makes sense to try to help Port Moresby get more out of its own spending as our aid sinks below 10% of PNG’s budget. The initiative also accords with encouraging data from a recent study suggesting that improved performance of PNG Government agencies to deliver development outcomes, though hardly inevitable, is far from impossible.

Australia’s offer to help PNG get ready for APEC 2018 can also be seen in a transformational light. Summit preparations will depend on putting the security, logistical and other practical arrangements in place so Port Moresby can meet its hosting responsibilities (no mean feat). But if we can also help PNG showcase a real take-off, lift its sights, and be taken seriously in the big league of Asia, chances are we’ll be able to rely on it playing a constructive leadership role in the South Pacific (as it has on West Papua, Fiji, and Solomon Islands) almost as a matter of course.

In the security sphere, the Forum announced a repositioning of our 73 AFP cops’ support for PNG police, to focus more on organisational capacity-building and training (broadly along the lines David Connery and I recommended in October) given their lack of legal protections and powers. Defence Ministers Johnston and Pok also held military talks. We’d hope they’re right behind Commander PNGDF’s ‘Companies of Excellence’ concept, given the role of new troops in the recent clash between PNGDF and police.

Following the Forum, Julie Bishop travelled to Bougainville, where next year’s Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) election, further debate about mining, and a referendum by 2020 loom. Major reinvestment in infrastructure is happening, WWII bomb-disposal efforts show the ABG can negotiate sensitive activities, efforts to extend radio-reach beyond 20% of Bougainvilleans are finally underway, and even the PNGDF and former-Bougainville Revolutionary Army have started reconciling. Yet communications between Port Moresby and the ABG, though apparently improved, remain unpredictable.

Bishop also visited Goroka, partly to follow-up a new plan to promote gender-equality in PNG—another crucial generational endeavour.

Earlier, Bishop had co-chaired a meeting of the Australia–PNG Business Council. Here, although there’s a buoyant outlook, with PNG set to achieve world-beating LNG-driven GDP growth, the economy remains fragile, the budget problematic, and the sovereign wealth fund a work-in-progress.

Of course, some of the same forces affect our own economy, with iron-ore and oil prices (which govern LNG revenue) nearly halved this year, prompting Monday’s savage cuts to our overseas aid. Port Moresby knows Bishop will try to insulate PNG, and that freezing aid spending in May was popular here. Nor should PNG necessarily be left untouched as other recipients reel. But there are smarter alternatives for helping balance the books than cutting aid to ‘fund critical national security to keep Australians safe’ where our humanitarian and strategic interests are so closely connected.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Australian High Commission in Papua New Guinea Facebook page

Latin America matters to Australia

Christ the Redeemer, Brazil.

Underestimating Latin America’s trade opportunities and transnational organised threats may compromise Australia’s economic and security agenda. It’s time for Australian businesses, government and public to take a closer look at this dynamic region.

Latin America has progressed towards better living standards and international relevance. However, progress has been impeded by civil wars, social disparity and international criminal activities. The struggle hasn’t been easy, and it’s far from over.

Still, there’re bright spots that’re drawing attention. A few years ago many called Colombia a failing state; many now see it as a driving economy in the region and an attractive emerging market.).

Having endured an internationalised war on drugs and more than fifty years of conflict and terrorism, according to some world leaders, Colombia is now a role model of resilience for the region (PDF).

Cases like this are more common in Latin America. Peru has dealt with terrorist threats mainly represented by the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and sustained economic growth of around 6.58% during the last nine years.

Chile’s not staying behind either. Starting from close to scratch in 1990, when dictatorship came to end, the country’s turned itself into the most competitive economy in Latin America and the 33rd most competitive in the world.

Resilience, diversified strategic partnerships, and broad and well-managed economies have brought Latin America to this point. So it’s not a coincidence that International Monetary Fund chief, Christine Lagarde, visited the region this month to host an IMF conference and to continue, as Lagarde puts it, ‘unlocking Latin America’s huge potential’.

According to DFAT, Australia exported just $359 million worth of goods to Chile during the last financial year, compared to $1 billion dollars received in imports. Mexico, Peru and Argentina follow the same trend. Surprisingly, Colombia lags all of these with two-way trade being a mere $100 million in 2013. With its moderate trade with the region, Australia either knows something the rest of the world doesn’t or it’s missing an opportunity.

There are some positives: Australia’s become an observer of the Pacific Alliance, an initiative to promote trade, tourism and the movement of capital between Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru. Still, the trade balance remains heavily in favour of the Latin Americans.

Blooming markets aren’t the only consideration in this region. Security issues represent another significant subject for Australia. While Latin America has overcome some great historical challenges, terrorism and transnational organised crime remain an continuing concern.

As legal markets and actors embrace change and seek opportunities, criminal and terrorist organisations have transformed their efforts to find revenue and meet their global aspirations. Leading the way are terrorists groups, many of whom are reshaping their organisations.

Fighting for economic and social reforms or political beliefs is history. So too is the economic support of foreign states. Taking their place is a globalised crime corporation approach. That is seen best in the case of FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which began as a rebel peasants group. It now turned into an al-Qaeda ally and is the third richest terrorist group in history,.

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports on the globalisation of crime and illicit financial flows (here and here ), drug trafficking unsurprisingly remains the most profitable illegal business. But it’s especially profitable down under: Australians pay US$228,080 for a kilo of cocaine, among the highest price in the world (see also 2014 World Drug Report).

As their portfolios expand and revenues increase, new and more sophisticated forms of money laundering have emerged, making it more difficult for law enforcement institutions to identify, track, investigate and prosecute them. According to the UNODC, an estimated less than 1% of all illicit financial flows are effectively seized or confiscated by authorities. Therefore, it’s no longer only about drugs in Latin America: it’s likely their laundered money has found its way through or in Australia.

The internal restructuring of criminal groups also elevates Australia’s risk level. Traditional hierarchical organised cartel-like structures are being replaced by hybrid, cell-like and interconnected networks. Uneducated and violence-driven drug lords, have been replaced by a new breed of well-spoken, highly-skilled and internationally-operating illegal entrepreneurs.

Similarly, as terrorist and criminal organisations collaborate, terrorist networks emerge as training, weapons, intelligence, support and planning suppliers, perfectly fitting the definition of organised crime. The rise of these movements—generally sympathisers of groups such as FARC—deserve closer attention.

While the US alliance remains the cornerstone of Australia’s approach to the Asia–Pacific, it’s surprising that the Pacific’s eastern rim seems unregarded or underestimated. Careful thinking about how this eastern shore functions as a source of risk and opportunity should be an important policy consideration as Australia’s interests broaden and responsibilities increase.

Cesar Alvarez currently works for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Bogota. These views are his own. Image courtesy of Flickr user Christian Haugen.

The Sydney siege and the first 100 days of the ISIL campaign

For the first 100 days of the air campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, most Australians were barely aware their country had entered a new Middle East war. Then a deadly siege in Sydney made that faraway conflict close and personal.

In the evening after police stormed the Sydney cafe and three people died, an audience of 80 gathered at ASPI for the launch of a report on the initial 100 days of what will be a long campaign. The maps in the report and the interactive map of coalition airstrikes offer what good graphics often achieve—to tell you things more directly than many words.

Constant reporting makes the point that for propaganda purposes and, increasingly, as a statement of pride ISIL is throwing troops into the battle around Kobane, on Syria’s border with Turkey. The experts dismiss Kobane’s strategic value. But ISIL keeps feeding in the cannon fodder. So the coalition keeps bombing them. The graphic expression of what that means is on page 33 of the report—the biggest red blob on the map, representing 282 airstrikes around Kobane. The Kobane figure is markedly bigger than the series of blobs for strikes in Iraq. The overall total of strikes in Iraq is certainly greater than in Syria, but the concentration of air attacks on Kobane is a vivid strand of the campaign.

Just as striking is the map on page 17 showing the state of the contest for territory in November. The black dots representing ISIL-controlled territory show attack zones funnelling into Baghdad. And getting close to Baghdad; ISIL can squeeze and pressure, if not take.

The video of the ASPI launch starts with presentations by Daniel Nichola and Patricia Dias on the maps and data, followed by a panel I chaired with Peter Jennings, Tobias Feakin and Mark Thomson. The panel started with the siege and Peter’s argument that even if the gunman was crazy, he was still a terrorist and this was a terrorist act.

Then discussion moved to propaganda and the policy implications. Toby’s paper reports one striking pro-ISIL image, a photo of three bullets, each with a different top: ‘A bullet. A pen. A thumb drive…There is a different form of jihad’. On the evidence of that image, propaganda is as central as recruits and cash in reaching for the caliphate.

This war has Australians fighting on both sides. Australian jihadists are dying in Syria and Iraq as fast as they arrive, to be replaced by more Australian volunteers: 20 dead, about 70 serving fighters, and the passports of nearly 100 Australians cancelled because they were suspected of wanting to go to join the war.

The panel entered fascinating debating territory—and the audience voted—on two questions I posed, based on pieces by the Australian strategist, David Kilcullen and the ANU’s Professor Amin Saikal. The Kilcullen proposition is that 2014 saw the collapse of Western counterterrorism strategy as we have known it since 2001:

After 13 years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, we’re worse off today than before 9/11, with a stronger, more motivated, more dangerous enemy than ever.

The audience divided equally in the vote on whether we’re worse off today, with plenty of abstentions.

The Saikal thought is that the rise of ISIL amounts to a ‘geopolitical tsunami’. And that tsunami is one element in even bigger shifts:

From Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria and as far as Palestine and Libya, the region is experiencing long-term structural instability and insecurity. It is in the throes of major geopolitical and power shifts, the likes of which not seen since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the British–French colonial realms nearly a century ago. The old correlation of forces in support of maintaining the status quo, especially following the Iranian Revolution more than 35 years ago, has been altering. A set of new alignments and realignments along multiple overlapping and contesting regional fault lines, including sectarian divisions and geopolitical rivalries at different levels, has come to redefine the region and possibly change its traditional political and territorial contours.

Using this, the question posed was whether Australia should volunteer for a military role in a war between Sunni and Shia, in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Two thirds of the audience voted for Australia to continue to seek a role in the Middle East conflict.

Please sample the video as you savour the paper.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video (c) ASPI 2014.

Forget the carrier option: an engineer’s response

An aviation boatswain’s mate maneuvers BF-04, front, the U.S. Marine Corps variant of the F-35B Lighting II

Nic Stuart’s piece, ‘Forget the carrier option’, makes a large and important judgment: that politics and defence funding won’t allow the option of deploying F-35Bs on Australia’s LHDs. But in making that case Nic repeats erroneous assumptions that are hindering a true exchange of views. It’s vital that defence reviews are supported with facts—and some of them bear repetition.

First up, the technical facts. F-35B operations from LHDs are feasible. The F-35B is specifically designed not to drive major ship modifications. The LHD wouldn’t need ‘conversion’ to take F-35Bs, although it would require minor modifications, similar to those being applied to the USN ‘Wasp’ class. The flight deck is capable of taking an F-35B. The F-35B won’t require massive changes to the ships’ air-traffic control facilities, assuming that they are already up to operating rotary-wing aircraft day or night in bad weather. It won’t need huge changes to ship structure or facilities.

Those modifications would’nt ‘cost a great deal’, as Nic stated. And to repeat, giving the LHD an ability to operate F-35B doesn’t mean turning it into a ‘mini aircraft carrier’. Read more

Next, remarkable assumptions are being made about what embarked F-35Bs would do. Nic’s piece says that their role would be to provide ‘intimate air-cover’—a new and intriguing term. With a range of over 300 nautical miles, the most ‘intimate’ aspect of an F-35B air defence would probably be the effect of an AIM-120 warhead on an incoming threat. But that misses the key point: putting F-35Bs on an LHD would allow more effective use of all the aircraft’s capabilities, including precision-strike and ISTAR support, by putting the aircraft closer to the fight. As another article puts it, ‘proximity equals capability’. But be in no doubt, air cover will be a requirement for a task group operating anywhere near an enemy air threat. It won’t, as the article somewhat dismissively puts it, be a ‘nice to have’.

Nic assumes that the RAN would have to buy a third LHD (or a different ship optimised for F-35B) to make the exercise ‘worthwhile’. With this leap of logic, he argues that an F-35B option is unaffordable. But this is not a given. The two LHDs are highly capable and flexible assets—their Air Groups will be adjusted to meet the demands of future situations. Yes, embarking F-35Bs will displace some of the planned Air Group. But Tailored Air Groups (TAGs) are a common-place and well-understood way of using small decks to best effect. And be in no doubt, the ADF will have to adjust the LHD Air Groups in the future.

It’s almost certain that whatever operational assumptions the LHDs were bought against will change, and change fast. And the way the LHDs will be equipped and operated will need to change. Will amphibious operations be ADF only? Would both LHDs be available? Would they be part of an international task group with USMC participation? Would they be required to go where there might be an enemy air threat? We don’t know. But the ADF has to make the best use of the two ships they’ve got. Sticking to the line that ‘we can’t do it because that would mean changing our defence planning assumptions’ is guaranteed to make it worse.

Nic’s article also baldly states that F-35Bs on an LHD would be ‘pathetically inefficient’. That’s a bold claim, and should be examined against the actual experience of the RN and the USMC’s STOVL units over the last 30 years or so. (Actually, it’s eerily familiar to the arguments against the Sea Harrier/’Invincible’ class combination in the late 1970s. Those went away after what happened in the South Atlantic in 1982.) But it’s quite true that the issue of ‘efficiency’ should be considered, particularly for long-range air operations.

Nic asserts that ‘our pilots can cope’ with long flight times. Yes, of course they can, but that’s not the issue. Burning ‘more than 10 hours’ of flight time to deliver around 25 minutes of ‘air power’ might not be especially ‘efficient’. Critics of the F-35B/LHD option should do the maths on how many land-based aircraft (and tanker slots) are needed to provide continuous, reactive, air support at long range. Do some fuel-usage calculations. Now put 5 or 6 F-35Bs with the task group, on three-minute alert posture, 50 miles from the target and do the maths again. Now decide which option is ‘inefficient’. It’s a simple effect of geography. Proponents of the F-35B/LHD option aren’t saying it’s a replacement for land-based air power. It’s for when land-based aircraft, for reasons of pure physics, can’t do the job.

Finally, the article says: ‘There was…a good argument to be made for incorporating the STOVL version as a part of our original purchase of aircraft’. Agreed. It then says that ‘That chance has gone’. Not agreed. There’s nothing stopping the ADF making a final buy of 28 aircraft the F-35B variant. Or even switching some of the existing planned buy from the A variant to Bs. It’s a matter of political will.

The divergent views around this debate show just how important it is that the F-35B issue is thoroughly (and independently) investigated so that decisions are supported by facts. The UK’s failure to ‘get the facts right’ in their 2010 SDSR led to an F-35/carrier related mess of epic proportions. Australia now has the chance to do the job properly.

Steve George was an air engineer officer in the Royal Navy for 28 years, and served in HMS Invincible during the 1982 Falklands operation. During his career, he was closely involved with the Sea Harrier, and also with joint RN/RAF Harrier operations. Retiring from the RN as a Commander, he joined the JSF programme to work on F-35B ship suitability. He is now an engineering consultant. Image courtesy of Flickr user Official US Navy Page.

Cyber wrap

PipelineWell done (or commiserations) to those diligent souls that have yet to decamp for the summer break. To help soften the blow, here’s the last cyber wrap for the year from the ICPC.

Last week Bloomberg released an interesting report speculating on the reason behind the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline explosion in 2008. The explosion, in Erzincan, eastern Turkey, had largely been attributed to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Bloomberg asserts that the explosion was evidence of one of the first instances of kinetic cyber attack. Apparently, Western intelligence agencies who investigated the attack found that ‘hackers had shut down alarms, cut off communications and super-pressurized the crude oil in the line’. The article links the sabotage to the Russians, who, don’t forget, were the alleged victims of a cyber-linked pipeline bomb in 1982.

The Chinese Communist Party is slowly trying to become ‘hip to the youth’ with its propaganda campaigns. The Economist is reporting that to maintain currency with a tech-savvy and younger audience the Party is supporting and encouraging traditional print media outlets to build an online presence. Interestingly, this type of reporting has ‘repackaged’ traditional forms of propaganda into grabs and headlines that are most likely to attract the eyeballs of a younger crowd. The article even claims that the latest online offering from Shanghai Observer, dubbed ‘The Paper’ is similar in style to the US-based Huffington Post (minus the independent reporting). We wait with anticipation for the propaganda machine to discover lolcats and memes. Read more

Two separate computer security firms released reports last week into diplomat-targeting malware. The malware, dubbed Inception or Cloud Atlas depending on your preference, is a professional (most likely state-backed) attempt to steal data from devices running Windows, Android, BlackBerry, and iOS. Kaspersky Lab reports:

It’s almost certainly an update of the Red October malware platform that previously infected hundreds of diplomatic, governmental, and scientific research organizations around the world. One of the most sophisticated so-called advanced persistent threats (APTs) ever discovered, Red October seemed to vanish once Kaspersky Lab researchers brought it to light.

Well now it’s back and it’s going after the data of officials in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe and South America, among others.

The ITU has released its Global Cybersecurity Index (GCI), a study designed to rank the cyber capabilities of nation-states across five sets of criteria: Legal Measures, Technical Measures, Organisational Measures, Capacity Building and Cooperation. The study utilised a combination of surveys, which were completed by some of the countries, and open-source research as the basis of the assessment. Most of the usual suspects fill out the top ten, except perhaps for Oman, which unexpectedly pops up at number four, ahead of traditional players such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan.

‘Major General Stephen Day wants you!… To report cyber crime’. The Australian Cyber Security Centre has launched a new, streamlined reporting system on its website and is calling on businesses and government agencies to make use of the service. The major general explained:

Every report helps the ACSC to develop a better understanding of the threat environment and will assist other organisations who are also at risk…Cyber security incident reports are also used in aggregate for developing new defensive techniques and training measures to help prevent future incidents.

That’s it from us here at ICPC for 2014. Thanks to all for your support, have a great break and we’ll see you in the New Year!

Jessica Woodall is an analyst in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Travis.

The future littoral combat ship

The Fort Worth departs Marinette Marine Corp. shipyard.

In one of his last major decisions in office, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has decided to continue production of the two Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) designs. The US Navy had been directed to examine alternatives to provide the final 20 hulls of the full 52-ship concept. Secretary Hagel had serious concerns over what was being provided with the LCS and sought a more capable and ‘tougher’ small surface combatant. And he had reason for those concerns. While the two high-speed ship designs represent, within limits, some of the latest thinking on hull forms, the LCS has—to this point—possessed only token military capability. The poorly-armed and sensor-deprived LCS sacrifices a great deal for its high speed, including range and, arguably, damage resistance. Both designs displace as much as many conventional-hull frigates (Freedom displaces 3354 tons and Independence 2841 tons) and they aren’t really ‘small’ ships in the eyes of any navy other than the USN. The modular ideals for sensor and weapon packages have yet to be realised in any significant way, being largely focused so far on embarked fast boats, UAVs and boarding parties.

Still, at a time when the USN has serious concerns over total hull numbers in the fleet and so much has already been invested in the LCS project, it’s no surprise that continuation of the LCS program has been chosen over any of the 18 alternative designs which the USN considered. Whether that would have been the case had the navy been starting with a blank sheet of paper must remain a moot point. Read more

The modified units are likely to carry—in addition to the 57mm gun already in the design and the weapons such as the short-range RAM anti-air and HELLFIRE anti-ship missiles that are part of the existing plans for weapon packages—an over-the-horizon anti-ship missile, an upgraded three-dimensional radar and electronic-warfare equipment, together with a towed-array sonar and torpedo countermeasures. Internal armour will be installed, and there’ll be renewed efforts at signature reduction. The USN is claiming that the ships will cost US$60 to 75 million more than the original, Flight 0, versions of the LCS but it should be emphasised that this almost certainly relates to the hull, propulsion and hotel systems and not to the mission packages. While the USN is quick to emphasise that the original LCS have come in at under US$500 million per unit, that figure doesn’t include the expensive weapons and sensors that represent a significant proportion of the real cost of any modern combatant.

The USN will also consider what in the new package can be retrofitted to the Flight 0 fleet. Although many of those units are likely to have a primary mine-countermeasure role, they represent too large a proportion of the future fleet to be left in their current state. The LCS will no doubt represent an important element in the USN’s forward presence for many decades. As with other troubled ships and systems in the past, there’s little doubt that it’ll be made to work and probably work well. Whether it was what the Americans really needed at the start, however, is another thing.

James Goldrick is a fellow of the RAN’s Sea Power Centre and an adjunct professor at UNSW Canberra, Australian Defence Force Academy. Image courtesy Flickr user US Navy.

Graph of the week—western air power and the strikes in Iraq

With the launch of ASPI’s Strike from the Air paper yesterday, I thought it was worth looking at some data from both the current campaign and the now well-documented 1991 Gulf War air campaign. There are a couple of interesting conclusions that can be drawn.

First, the raw numbers of the coalition air campaign against targets in Iraq in the 43 days of Operation Desert Storm. Redrawn from the 1993 Gulf War Air Power Survey (PDF) by Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Figure 1 shows the number of airstrikes by day over a 43 day period from the commencement of hostilities.

1991 Gulf War coalition air strikes Read more

Over 42,000 strikes were flown by coalition fixed wing aircraft—in addition to the many hundreds of cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines. Targets included ‘strategic centres’, facilities and platforms that could contest coalition sea and air control (especially the Iraqi Air Force and its aircraft in hardened shelters) and the Iraqi Army. In addition, coalition aircraft flew between 300 and 500 air-to-air sorties each day. For its part, the Iraqi Air Force managed almost 120 sorties on day one, and was effectively out of action by day 14, although sporadic activity continued for another couple of weeks.

The strategic targets included command, control and communication nodes, the Iraqi leadership, WMD facilities and key civilian infrastructure such as electric power, bridges and railways (averaging about 200 strikes per day). But the Iraqi Army received the lion’s share of the coalition effort, with no fewer than 23,430 strikes against ‘Iraqi surface forces’.

The effect on Iraq’s ground forces was, as might be expected, devastating. Keaney and Cohen quote one Iraqi veteran of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s who observed that his brigade suffered ‘more damage in 30 minutes than it had in eight years in the previous war’. As a result of early heavy losses and the enduring threat of air attack, the Iraqi Army lost any capacity for initiative, including the ability to withdraw from the Kuwait theatre. It resorted to constructing more berms and digging deeper for defence from air strikes. In short, coalition air power neutralised the Iraqi Army as an effective fighting force.

Now let’s look at the data from the ongoing air campaign against ISIL. In the first 43 days of this campaign commencing 8 August, the total number of strikes was just 167, compared to the 42,000 in 1991. The total number of strikes flown against ISIL over the past four months is now just a little over 1,200—the number flown on 15 February 1991.

At an estimated strength of between 20,000 and 30,000 and possessing few armoured vehicles, ISIL is a small and poorly-armed force in comparison to the Iraqi Army of 1991 (around 500,000 troops with thousands of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery pieces—all of which were candidates for strike operations) But the scale of the discrepancy is also probably indicative of the amount of air support that’ll be mobilised in support of Western troops on the ground as compared to other circumstances.

Like the Iraqi Army before it, ISIL’s already learning not to concentrate its forces and to minimise its exposure to air attack as much as possible. Its strategy is to keep close to civilian populations, relying on coalition rules of engagement to constrain further strikes. So what we have now is something of a stand-off. The coalition can’t isolate ISIL and destroy it, but the extremist group can’t operate as a coherent force of any size, making dramatic advances and the swift taking of major centres like Mosul unlikely in the future. Still, it can slowly infiltrate other areas and, like the Iraqi insurgency that followed the succession of large scale operations in the 2003 war, it can operate as a guerrilla force, making the governance of Iraq difficult.

The above comparison with previous coalition air campaigns suggests that the current low rate of effort is unlikely to stretch coalition forces. Essentially, the United States and its partners can keep up a campaign against ISIL for as long as it continues to operate as a military force. In that sense, ISIL can’t win, at least via a conventional military victory. The flip side is that it also can’t really lose its existing gains while coalition operations are constrained to air strikes only, and then only in circumstances where collateral casualties are unlikely. Air power reduced the 1991 Iraqi Army to an ineffective fighting force, but ultimately boots on the ground dislodged it. In the absence of a ground intervention, the most likely scenario in the near future is a continued slow degradation of ISIL as an ‘army’, but with no real change in the overall situation.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Graph courtesy of Andrew Davies.

The Bay of Bengal and the growing Buddhist–Muslim divide

Buddha headThis is the last post of The Strategist’s series on the Bay of Bengal. As noted in previous posts, the Bay suffers from many trans-regional security issues—including separatist conflicts, piracy and people smuggling—which will increasingly require states in the region to cooperate in order to maintain regional security and stability. One issue that has received scant attention in Australia is the growing fault-line between Islam and Buddhism.

The Bay area represents one of the world’s most important concentrations of Buddhists. There are more than 120 million in the region, mostly of the Theravāda sect, concentrated in the Buddhist-majority states of Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. There are also more than 500 million Muslims, mostly in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia. In recent years there’ve been growing conflicts involving Buddhist majority and Muslim minority communities.

For decades, Thailand has seen Muslim-Malay separatist violence in its southern provinces abutting Malaysia result in the death of more than 6,000 people. Although the conflict has ebbed and flowed over the years, attacks by militants increased significantly in 2014, apparently as part of a campaign by separatists to ethnically cleanse the southern provinces of Buddhists. That provoked an often heavy-handed response by the Thai Army working in coordination with Buddhist monks and local vigilantes. The new military regime in Bangkok will likely take an even stronger response. Read more

Buddhist-Muslim communal violence is also on the rise in Sri Lanka. Since the defeat of the Tamil insurgency in 2009, Muslims who represent some 10% of the population, have become a target of Buddhist Sinhalese ultra-nationalist groups. They claim the Muslim community is becoming Wahhabised and radicalised through Saudi influence. Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), one of Sri Lanka’s most influential Buddhist groups, has called for laws to restrict the growth of Islam. Sectarian tensions have increased significantly, including attacks by mobs, often led by monks, against mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and even the Bangladesh Embassy.

But Myanmar will likely witness the greatest Buddhist-Muslim violence in the region in coming years. Some 500,000 Rohingyas—essentially Muslims of Indian/Bangladeshi stock—are effectively stateless and stranded in Myanmar’s Rhakhine state. The community has lived there for centuries although some are recent immigrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar refuses to recognize the majority of the community as citizens or grant them the rights to work, own land or vote. The partial loosening of authoritarian government in Myanmar in recent years has only increased oppression, with Buddhist fundamentalist groups such as the ‘969’ movement led by Buddhist monk U Wirathu, leading attacks on the Rohingya community, including calling for laws against intermarriage with Buddhists. The darling of Western democrats, Aung San Suu Kyi, has maintained a conspicuous silence about the Rohingya’s plight.

The conflict is increasingly drawing in Bangladesh. Although it has hosted some 270,000 Rohingya refugees for decades, Dhaka has made clear that it’s not willing to accept further refugees and is increasingly pushing for their repatriation to Myanmar. Attempts by the regime in Naypyidaw to push the Rohingyas out of Myanmar and suppress militant Rohingya groups have led to heightened tensions on the border. In June 2014, there was an armed clash between Myanmar and Bangladesh border forces inside Bangladesh. Although Myanmar claimed the encounter was accidental, Bangladeshi sources saw it as part of a combined land, air and sea operation by Myanmar’s forces.

Some see a community of oppressed and stateless Muslims as a prime breeding-ground for Islamist extremism. Indeed, Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s LET have reportedly tried without much success to create footholds in the community. While Bangladeshi and Indian counterterrorism experts maintain a close watching brief over the Rohingyas, many also acknowledge that poverty, illiteracy and the lack of any middle class actually make them a more difficult target for extremists. As one analyst recently commented to the author, the Rohingyas are too busy trying to survive to spend time thinking about ideology. Nevertheless, Bangladeshi militants and Pakistan’s ISI are currently providing limited military training to Rohingya groups in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. A 2013 bombing at a Buddhist temple in India has also been linked to Rohingyas.

There’s growing evidence of cooperation among fundamentalist groups against Muslims. In September 2014, Buddhist fundamentalist groups (including Burma’s 969 and Sri Lanka’s BBS) met in Sri Lanka, reportedly to form an alliance against the region’s Muslims. The leader of BBS also claimed (which was later denied) that he’d held talks with the RSS, a prominent Hindu fundamentalist group, to form what he called a Hindu–Buddhist Peace Zone. This may represent an ‘enemy-of-my-enemy’ calculation for RSS, but is more than a little odd given the recent depredations against the Hindu Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

Those conflicts could affect Australia in several ways. They might represent a new front—much closer to Australia—in the religious violence and instability we’ve been witnessing in West Asia and Africa. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, some 125,000 Rohingyas have already been displaced in Rhakhine state, creating a constant flow of refugees. Many journey by sea to Thailand and Malaysia but significant numbers have also reached Australia, where they’re often classified as Bangladeshi nationals. That route is now well established, so that a significant upturn in political violence could lead to an exodus to Australia of much greater numbers. It’s in Australia’s interests to be do what it can to facilitate a political solution to this conflict before we see its arrival on our shores.

David Brewster is a Fellow with the Australia India Institute and a Visiting Fellow with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is the author of India’s Ocean: the Story of India’s bid for regional leadership. His research on the Bay of Bengal was funded by a grant from the Australia India Council. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ruud Hilgeman.

Sod the submarines, can we please talk about the rifles?

An Australian Army soldier from A Company, the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment fires an F88 Austeyer at an enemy position during a live fire exercise at the 3rd Brigade Combined Arms Training Activity.I applaud Defence Minister David Johnston’s willingness to stand up to vested interests to ensure that the Australian people get the best submarines available. I hasten to add that I don’t have a clue whether the Royal Australian Navy is best off with Sōryū-class subs or something else. To be perfectly honest, given that the Royal Australian Submarine Service hasn’t fired a shot in anger in 100 years, and seems highly unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future, I don’t really care.

The same, however, can’t be said for the standard individual weapon of the ADF. In that same 100 years Australian diggers have fired millions of shots in anger with their Lee Enfields, SLR’s, M16’s and F88 AusSteyrs in life or death engagements with Australia’s enemies. While we can have lofty abstract debates over the strategic value of RAN submarines, there can be no debating that the lives of Australia’s military personnel rely on the effectiveness of the rifles they have been issued with. As such, Australia owes it to her armed servants to ensure that they are equipped with the best service rifle available. But that’s currently not the reality.

In the 1970’s the Steyr AUG assault rifle (of which the F88 is a variant) seemed to herald the future. The bullpup design (which places the action and magazine of the weapon behind the trigger and pistol grip, alongside the firer’s face, thereby replacing the traditional buttstock) promised assault-rifle performance in an impressively compact package. That it certainly delivered, but at significant cost. One major disadvantage of the bullpup design over more conventional assault rifles is that most bullpups are not truly ambidextrous. Yes, it’s possible to switch the ejection port of the F88 to either the left or the right, depending on whether the shooter is left- or right-handed. But that just switches around which shoulder the rifle cannot properly be fired from. Because the action is to the rear, firing a bullpup from the ‘wrong’ shoulder results in the shooter receiving a face-full of scalding hot brass. 50% of the world’s cover is off-side for 100% of shooters, and modern military doctrine emphasizes the ability to fire effectively from either shoulder. The F88 does not allow for that, which means that Australian soldiers must expose themselves to enemy fire in order to fire around ‘wrong side’ cover, placing their lives at unnecessary risk. Read more

Bullpups also cannot be adjusted to fit different-sized human beings. In firearms parlance that’s the issue of ‘length of pull’ (LOP), i.e. the distance from the trigger to the end of the buttstock. The LOP that’s optimal for each human being depends on height and corresponding arm length. If the LOP is too long it becomes difficult to reach and employ the trigger effectively, and to achieve an effective sight picture. If the LOP is too short the shooter’s forced to ‘scrunch up’ on the rifle, again resulting in difficulty in attaining an effective sight picture. (By analogy think of the position of the driver’s seat in a car. If it’s too far from the controls…you get the picture). The F88 has perfect LOP if you’re an average-sized man, and you can manage okay if you’re a bit on either side of that. But if you’re particularly tall you’ll have great difficulty employing the F88 effectively. Perhaps more importantly, if you’re a short man, or a not especially short woman, you’ll also struggle. This is, as much as anything, an equity issue. If the ADF is serious about integrating women into its ranks—particularly into combat units—it’s absurd (and morally problematic) to persist in issuing a primary weapon that puts them at a significant disadvantage in a firefight.

There are other problems with the F88, but I hope this is enough to illustrate that the current plan of continuing on to another version of the F88 (the Enhanced F88) that does little or nothing to address those issues is a pretty bad idea. So what’s the alternative? There’s only one answer—the M4 Carbine employed by our U.S. allies. It’s lighter, cheaper, and more robust than the F88. It’s modular, battle-tested, constantly refined, truly ambidextrous, and fully adjustable. The M4 beats the F88 hands down. Of course you shouldn’t take my word for it—instead, try asking the operators of the ADF’s elite special operations units whether they plan on turning in their M4’s when the ‘enhanced’ F88 begins production. But don’t expect a polite answer.

So, will Minister Johnson stand up to those with vested interests in this case?

Deane-Peter Baker is a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Strike from the air: a measured strategy

The first 100 days of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, based on data sourced from US Central Command news releases.

Below is an extract from ASPI’s publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL released today.

Most assessments of the US-led military operation in Iraq have criticised the limited use of air power and ‘boots on the ground’ against ISIL fighters. This strategy is seen as ineffective to ‘destroy’ ISIL and to restore political stability in Iraq. Instead, critics have called for the ‘decisive’ use of air power and increased ground forces. However, such criticism fails to recognise the bigger strategic picture behind the US approach to the conflict. It also doesn’t acknowledge that the military campaign is long-term, iterative and incentive-based, and is aimed to manage the threat by ISIL rather than defeat it. While the strategy certainly faces significant risks and challenges in the future, President Obama’s measured approach shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

After the experience of spending significant blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq for limited returns, the American public increasingly supports a grand strategy of restraint when it comes to ‘wars of choice’. By and large, there’s bipartisan scepticism about a massive military re-engagement and nation-building in Iraq. This is also emblematic of the fact that, while ISIL constitutes a security problem, it’s not an existential threat to the US and most coalition partners (including Australia). That is, even if ISIL can’t be defeated permanently, it might be sufficient to ‘manage’ the threat. Read more

Moreover, a key lesson learned from more than a decade of fighting ‘small wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan is that long-term success depends ultimately on political conditions in the host country. Even a large military footprint and billions of dollars in civilian assistance didn’t generate lasting solutions. Iraq’s track record is very poor, indeed. One key factor of ISIL’s success has been the failure of the previous Iraqi regime to develop effective state structures. Indeed, in many ways it systematically undermined them. Chances are low that repeating a costly and lengthy US-led intervention would be successful this time, given the complicated political and socioeconomic dynamics in Iraq, as well as the ambiguous role played by powerful neighbours such as Iran.

In combination, these factors have led the Obama administration to pursue a different Iraq strategy in 2014 compared to the 2003 war. On a grand strategic level, the US is sending a signal to the Middle East that this time it won’t fight ‘other people’s wars’. Instead, Washington will conduct a long-term, light-footprint campaign (PDF), focused on supporting those groups in Iraq that are willing to fight for their country and work towards a political solution.

The military strategy has also been designed from the start to be iterative. Both Obama and the US military leadership have been careful in stating that air power alone is insufficient. Rather, in the first ‘advise and assist’, airstrikes have been a primary means and have arguably had some success in halting ISIL’s momentum and preventing the fall of Baghdad. In particular, they’ve stopped the advance of ISIL fighters in many areas and forced them to adapt their tactics through dispersal and concealment. It’s fair to conclude that the air campaign—in combination with some ground operations conducted by mostly indigenous forces—has put ISIL on the defensive.

Admittedly, the strategy carries significant risks. The second phase (‘building partner capacity’) will be much more protracted and risky, and the outcome is more uncertain. It requires the coalition to provide more training and mission assistance to local forces on the ground (thereby increasing the risks), to strengthen its human intelligence capacity and to conduct close air support. It also depends on the ability to rapidly build up a sizeable and combat-capable indigenous force able to operate with diverse groups, including Iranian special forces. It remains to be seen whether indigenous Iraqi forces will be able to start ‘rolling back’ ISIL forces across the country as planned by next year.

The third phase (sustained ‘security sector reform’ in Iraq) will be even more challenging, particularly since it’s not clear yet what the political end-state would look like. Will the political actors in Iraq be able to reconcile their differences and launch a joint approach against ISIL? What’s an acceptable role of Iran in the future of Iraq?

And the coalition has to make some very tough choices on Syria, since the conflicts are interconnected. Particularly, the future of Syrian President Assad is a conundrum, given that many Arab countries want to see him removed while powerful players, such as Iran and Russia, remain loyal to him. As a result, the Obama administration has reinforced its efforts to find a Syria strategy to deal with the ISIL problem.

The military campaign is still in search of a viable political endgame in both Iraq and Syria. In the long term, this problem might render the coalition’s efforts rather futile. Nevertheless, at this point it’s difficult to perceive a politically acceptable alternative strategy.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI and a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Image (c) Demap. Used with permission.

Strike from the air: the campaign in 2015

The first 100 days of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, based on data sourced from US Central Command news releases.Below is an extract from ASPI’s publication released today, Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL.

It’s apparent that the campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL is going to last for years. Apart from a steady squeezing of ISIL, which has slowed its advance and destroyed quantities of American military equipment, the coalition’s strategy has achieved little. ISIL’s position at the end of 2014 remains strong. Among its strengths is its continuing capacity to develop effective propaganda that helps to recruit foreign fighters. ISIL continues to have a substantial funding base and is well armed. Core areas of territory remain solidly under its control in Syria and Iraq. ISIL’s broader weaknesses include the unattractiveness of its ideology to any but a small minority of potential recruits. The organisation’s shift to more conventional military capability has overextended it and caused it to suffer significant casualties, which mightn’t be sustainable for long.

The US’s position is strengthened by its unparalleled capacity to use air power, which will degrade ISIL over time and prevent it from making easy gains of territory. However, that strength has to be offset against a set of broader problems and challenges for the US. First, it’s clear that President Obama will keep the US military role limited. Washington won’t deploy large-scale ground forces. Second, there’s no credible longer-term strategy to address the Syrian crisis. In effect, Obama has created a holding strategy that contains ISIL in Iraq and hits obvious targets in Syria, and is waiting for a new US President in 2016 to develop a more definitive strategy. Read more

In Iraq, some early signs in October and November suggest that some units in the Iraqi military are regaining confidence and the capacity to take the fight to ISIL. On paper, the Iraqi military is large enough to make short work of ISIL, but that ‘strength’ must be offset by the reality that ISIL remains firmly in control of much of the Sunni areas in Iraq. There’s yet to be a turning point in the campaign. Baghdad remains under regular terrorist attack and vulnerable to the same psychological pressure that caused much of the Iraqi military to throw down its weapons in mid-2014. It’s not yet clear that the Iraqi Government has turned a corner in maintaining a firm grip on power or in persuading Sunnis that their interests are fundamentally helped by Iraqi unity.

Syria is a humanitarian disaster, in the midst of which ISIL remains the most effective anti-Assad force (with Jabhat al-Nusra and its Islamic Alliance a close second). The US strategy for ‘expanding ongoing assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition to develop their capacity to provide local security for communities’ is the least developed and least credible part of the anti-ISIL campaign. In the absence of a more thorough-going and credible international response to the Syrian disaster, there’s no supportable case that victory against ISIL is assured.

The international coalition against ISIL is holding together in the sense that a number of countries are prepared, at least for now, to support a constrained campaign of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Support for training the Iraqi military is much more limited, and so far the plan to train a Syrian ‘moderate’ force could best be described as an idea looking for friends. There’s no obvious international mechanism allowing the coalition to plan a longer-term strategy to counter ISIL. The coalition was flung together in great haste in September, and the challenge will be for it to survive into 2015.

Australia’s role in the international coalition is limited to airstrikes on targets in Iraq and an evolving commitment to training elements of the Iraqi Army. On 25 November, the ADF Chief of Joint Operations, Vice Admiral David Johnston, briefed the media about a series of RAAF strikes against ‘a large, well-established and hidden network of caves and bunkers that were concealed in a hill side’ near Kirkuk. Around a hundred ISIL militants were reportedly killed in that operation, which involved a ground attack by Kurdish fighters. Admiral Johnston said that Defence was ‘scoping options’ to increase ADF training numbers, should the government want to make a further commitment to the operation. Overall, his realistic assessment was that progress against ISIL had been ‘modest’ and that the situation in Baghdad was ‘fairly fragile’. Both Australian roles—airstrikes and training—are indefinitely sustainable, given the ADF’s capacity to rotate forces. The broader challenge for Canberra will be to explain how this fits into a credible international strategy with a realisable political objective.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI and a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISILImage (c) Demap. Used with permission.

Strike from the air: ISIL’s reach

Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. The aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria. President Barack Obama authorized humanitarian aid deliveries to Iraq as well as targeted airstrikes to protect U.S. personnel from extremists known as ISIL. U.S. Central Command directed the operations. (DoD photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, U.S. Air Force/Released)Below is an extract from ASPI’s newly released publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL.

There’s no doubt that the rapid rise of ISIL in Syria and especially Iraq caught the international community by surprise. The group had been monitored by governments in the region and the West and was considered to be a risk, but deemed not to be of strategic concern. However, the speed of its military success, which no Islamist extremist group had previously matched, meant that the international community was playing catch-up in its understanding of the evolving threat the group presented and what the appropriate responses might be.

Around 15,000 people from at least 80 nations have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups. Of those, it’s estimated that around 80% have joined ISIL, in which foreign fighters—including at least 2,000 Westerners—make up half the fighting ranks. Most of the foreign fighters come from Arab nations, such as Tunisia (3,000), Saudi Arabia (2,500), Jordan (2,089) and Morocco (1,500), but smaller contingents come from nations as far away as France (412), Belgium (296), Indonesia (60) and Australia (150). Those are the official numbers of those who are known about, but the real figures may well be much higher. Read more

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has drawn in foreign fighters at a faster rate than any past Middle Eastern conflict, including the Afghan War of the 1980s or recent US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a report released by the UN in October, the speed at which people from outside Syria and Iraq are swarming into the territory is unprecedented: ‘numbers since 2010 are now many times the size of cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters between 1990 and 2010—and are growing.’ Following ISIL’s declaration in June that it had established its Islamic Caliphate, recruitment of foreign fighters was said to have surged.

Rather than having a strategy of directly targeting Western nations, as al-Qaeda does, ISIL has wanted to build a caliphate as the basis for strengthening its organisation, ideology and finances. Despite that apparently inward focus, there’s no doubt that beyond its ‘state building’ phase ISIL presents a threat to Western nations, as al-Baghdadi’s globalist ambitions have never been hidden. With the onset of coalition airstrikes, ISIL has begun to sharpen its focus on Western nations, and attacks in Canada and Belgium and foiled plots in Australia, France and the UK (among other countries) demonstrate the growing internationalism of the group. Its chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has increasingly called for attacks on the West, including to defeat both Washington and Rome.

However, ISIL hasn’t sought to carry out large-scale attacks in Western nations, such as those launched by al-Qaeda’s networked terrorist cells in the past. The former US Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, stated that ISIL has no cells in the US, and that it ‘is not al Qaeda pre-9/11’. However, degrading its capability now, rather than waiting for it to grow and have the capacity to develop such networks, is a prudent approach.

ISIL has pushed for its supporters to carry out attacks using low-level weaponry in their own nations, filming those attacks to promote ISIL and draw more supporters to its cause. Networked cell-structured groups are more likely to be detected by counter-terrorism forces due to their need to communicate, potentially hold physical meetings, and move among a large number of people who might report suspicious behaviour. But an individual working alone is more difficult to detect and can be more unpredictable in their actions, creating considerable difficulties for government counterterrorism agencies, especially when those agencies aren’t well developed.

It’s likely that ISIL will continue to push for international attacks by its followers, especially as it comes under increasing pressure from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but the direct threat that the group poses to those nations closer to its centre of gravity is far greater. Nations such as Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Morocco and Indonesia, significant numbers of whose citizens have been drawn to ISIL’s ranks as fighters, must all be supported to cope with the spread of the ideology and the repercussions of fighters returning home.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI and director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. He is a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Image courtesy of US Department of Defense.